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Magical Places: Hindu Water Sanctuaries of East Java

Archipelago Diaries | 15 May 2019

Water is often called the elixir of life. It also plays an essential role in religious practice, especially in Hinduism where  it is considered to have spiritual cleansing powers. Even today, sacred bathing spaces, such as Belahan and Jolotundo in East Java are used for purification ceremonies.

About a one-hour drive from Jolotundo are the remains of a less visited, rather quiet holy bathing place, Candi Belahan. This sanctuary is located on the eastern slope of Mount Penungunggan. Photo by Gerda Kassing/NOW!JAKARTA

Hardly anyone can escape the mystical atmosphere of the water sanctuaries and it is not just Hindus who flock here in great numbers. Since ancient times the quest for final release and contact with the “divine” required special locations where the divine presence could best be experienced. In Hinduism this could be mountains, caves, rivers or other sources of water. After a Godkings’s death his reunification with a certain deity was worshipped here and presumably it was also where his ashes were scattered.

Some scholars believe that these sacred bathing places primarily are sanctuaries of salvation where the deity was venerated. In this case they could not be seen as tomb-monuments. Despite intensive research since the mid 1800’s and the vast literature available, there are still many unresolved mysteries, which probably contribute even more to the magical atmosphere of the sites.

Candi Jolotundo is nestled at the western foot of the impressive 1653-meter Mount Penungunggan. It is easy to reach under two hours from Surabaya. Surrounded by the forest, lush rice fields and more volcanoes, it appears to be an ideal dwelling for the Hindu gods or their followers, but there isn’t much left of the original 81 small sanctuaries scattered in this area. During full moon nights the place gets packed and for the Balinese Nyepi-festival Hindus—and those of other faiths—visit.

The terraced structure of this Petirtaan (bathing place) of Jolotundo is cut into the mountain slope. It is a pleasure to stroll the shady site and its surroundings, to observe the people and to feel the charm of the magic: the water splashes quietly into the approximately 16x13 metre pond filled with colourful, fat koi fish; the stream from the mountain spring never stops pouring from 52 faucets and the two separate plunge pools flanking the central pond are inviting for a spiritual bath—divided by gender. The  fragrance of incense wafting through the damp air, from the shadow of the basalt masonry behind the water.

In general it is believed that the statue of Airlangga depicted as the Hindu God Vishnu was placed between the two beautiful female spout figures.

Not much is left of this carefully carved back wall and the centrepiece has gone missing. Some scholars think there might have been a statute of the Balinese King Udayana (989 – 1011 AD), who was married to the Javanese Princess Mahendradatta from the ruling East Javanese Kingdom of Sanjaya and mother of the later King Airlangga. The inscription on a wall of Candi Jolotundo dates its consecration to 977 AD; more details on a nine-chambered stone box, which might have been buried under the pedestal underneath a central deity.

About a one-hour drive from Jolotundo are the remains of a less visited, rather quiet holy bathing place, Candi Belahan. This sanctuary is located on the eastern slope of Mount Penungunggan. Hidden under trees it is on the side of a small mountain road, rising upwards into the dense jungle. It was here that one of the most magnificent stone sculptures of Classical Eastern Javanese art was discovered: King Airlangga depicted as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu on his Mount Garuda. It is believed that the eminent king was buried in Belahan after his death in 1049 AD.

In general it is believed that the statue of Airlangga depicted as the Hindu God Vishnu was placed between the two beautiful female spout figures. Just as in Jolotundo, the discovery of a stone box in 1937 provided more clues about the history and origin of the temple complex. Further an inscription on a stone slab found nearby, describes Belahan as a temple district of more than 800 metres length allowing other conclusions: The Belahan complex and particular the sacred bathing pools – there were once two of them - seem to be more connected to the earlier King Sindok (929 – 947 AD) than to King Airlangga (1016 – 1049). In a charter during the first year of his reign, King Sindok gave orders to dedicate taxes for the beautification of the sacred bathing spots at Belahan to guarantee the continued worship of the gods of Mount Pawitra – the old Javanese name of Mount Penungunggan.

A copy of the statue of Airlangga is part of the collection at the National Museum. The original is in Mojokerto, 30 km from the original site. 

In its present state there is only one pool left at Belahan. Its two fountains are unusual and splendid: they are in form of the deities Laksmi and Sri, the two wives of Vishnu; resembling the two queen consorts of Airlangga. The fresh water spring is constantly bubbling out of their breasts. Depending which theory one follows they probably once framed the portrait of Airlangga. He was born and partially raised in Bali and founded the Kingdom of Kahuripan, later passed on to his two sons as the Kingdoms of Kediri and Janggala.

A copy of the statue of Airlangga is part of the collection at the National Museum. The original is in Mojokerto, 30 km from the original site. At the time of its discovery in the mid-1800’s and its removal from Belahan, the figure was badly damaged, especially the face, which was later restored. He is described as educated and cultivated, a visionary king who promoted intense agriculture in East Java through the development of a sophisticated irrigation system. One can still trace these irrigation channels today, while scouting the beautiful landscape, shaped with rice fields, guarded by sacred mountains and blessed with an abundance of water.