Thursday, June 25, 2009

Demystifying Dieng

Dieng plateau in Central Java is about 1,800 m long, 800 wide and 2,100 m high. It is the caldera of an extinct volcano. It has probably been inhabited since neolithic times, and people at that time venerated natural deities they felt very close to. In the afternoon, the bright sunshine gives way to clouds and fog that bathe the whole caldera in a grey light, making it a perfect place for demons and spirits. And also a perfect place for religious rituals.

Hinduism arrived in Indonesia around the first century AD with Indian traders. It spread peacefully, cohabitated later with Buddhism, and declined in the 13th century with the arrival of Islam, remaining only in Bali and around Mount Bromo, on Java.

No archeological remains of temples before the 5th century have been found. The first information dates from inscriptions in Sanskrit using Pallava script from southern India. The first temples were probably made of wood, so none of them resisted. Dieng means ‘place of the gods’. As the dwelling of the god (or gods), the temples had to be built in such a way that religious ceremonial requirements could be met, religious statuary could be protected and a given symbolism could be demonstrated. The rites were of two kinds, consisting in showing respect to the statue and moving around the temple in a given manner.

Building a temple was also a political manifestation. The success of Hinduism, and later Buddhism, was due to their ability to provide existing minor municipalities (which came into existence most probably due to the need to organize irrigation) with a framework in which the prince found a further justification for his power. Having established his power in that way, the prince or king would later merge with the deity after his death, making the temples as much a place for the gods as a reminder of his rule.

How a temple would look like also depended very much on economic constraints, and on the importance of the people who ordered and sponsored the construction. The many temples that existed at Dieng, and of which only the foundations remain if at all, were very modest buildings put up by village authorities with small means.

The 8 remaining temples at Dieng date from the very end of the 7th century to the end of the 8th century. Candi Arjuna, Candi Semar, Candi Srikandi, and Candi Gatokaca (all of them in the picture above), were probably built between 730 AD and show big similarities with the temples of southern India. Candi Arjuna and Candi Semar were probably the first to be built and were devoted to the cult of Shiva. Candi Arjuna still contains a yoni (feminine symbol) and had a lingga (masculine principle) that was ritually bathed several times a day (see below).
Only the priest was allowed to enter the temple and use holy water. The followers moved around the temple and the holy water was carried outside by a gutter going through the north wall and ending in a makara head. Temples built after Candi Arjuna don’t have this gutter any more. Possibly contact with southern India began to dwindle, and a change in the ritual followed. Candi Semar probably contained a statue of the bull Nandi, Shiva’s mount. The entrance the Candi Semar is guarded by probably the oldest remaining Kalla (how to eat yourself) figure in Indonesia (see below).
Candi Srikandi is decoreated with reliefs: Vishnu on the north (see above), Shiva on the east and Brahma to the south.
From the later temples built between 730 and 780, Candi Bima (see below) has an architecture reminding of the temples in Orissa (east central India).
The tradition of small communities building large amounts of small dwellings for the god has survived the decline of Hinduism at Dieng. Numerous mosques and mushollas dot the plateau. Their noise level and the remarkable lack of synchronicity in the calls for prayer must have chased demons and spirits away. But also take much of the mystical atmosphere of the place…

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