Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Hidden Past of Indonesia's Gunung Lawu

The temple seems to float high above Java. The distant sweep of the plain lies beneath a veil of lavender haze, and to the west the smooth peak of Merapi rises into a fiery evening sky. This is Candi Cetho, a 15th century relic from the dying days of the Majapahit Kingdom perched on a pine-studded point on the northwest flanks of Gunung Lawu.

But I am not here to explore the mute stones of a lost era. I have heard stories that the village that clings to the slopes below Candi Cetho is itself a relic, an ancient Hindu community that has somehow survived in Muslim Java.

And it seems that the stories are true: At a homestay near the temple gates, the young woman in charge, Yuni, confirms that she herself is a Hindu, as are virtually all of the people in the hamlet.

Dusk is falling as I slip out of the temple through a side gate. The sweet scent of incense wafts from a little warung (food stall) in a grove of pine trees. Three men in black head scarves are hunched over a pile of strange objects — ceremonial daggers, chunky gemstones and tiger claws. They call me to join them. Two are visitors from Jakarta; the third lives here at the temple. His name is Mbah Porol, and he is an expert in mystic matters.

Porol confirms that the people of the village are Hindu, just like they have been since the time of Majapahit. According to legend, Porol says, the last absolute ruler of Majapahit, Brawijaya V, fled to Gunung Lawu when his kingdom fell to the early Muslim state of Demak. Here, among the mists and pines, Brawijaya built temples and places for meditation, and steeped the peak with an aura of intense mysticism that continues to this day.

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