Day 5: The Dieng Plateau – the Abode of the Gods


(HW pp. 14>17, 12-3-13, Tuesday, 1.0 hr.)

Yesterday, we begin our day with a gratefully short ride from Wonosobo to a city at the base of the Dieng Plateau (arrow), the traditional center of the Javanese Empire – past and present.

After reaching the gateway to this historical spot, Martin engages a Javanese guide named Sumedi. We drive through endless terraced rice paddies – up and up – cabbage planted on the narrow walkways between the rice. Every square inch of the fertile soil is exploited to feed an immense population then and now – estimates even then of millions - not hundreds of thousands.



We, all 12 of us, including our guide, travel up, up, up on a somewhat gradual slope to the plateau on top of the mountain – between 6000 and 7000 feet high (2100 meters). Due to the surrounding uplifts, it appears that an ancient volcano/caldera exploded – blowing the top off. The tectonic evidence is abundant, as we were to witness first hand.

We park the van and walk onto a grassy plain. After a short stroll, we arrive at a collection of relatively small shrines – perhaps 20 or 30 feet high – nothing so grand as what we are about to experience in the next few days – but still awe-inspiring for their compact beauty.

Why did the Javanese build temples here on top of a mountain, so far away from the major metropolitan centers?

Early in the first millenium of the Common Era, Indian and Chinese traders expanded their operations from Borneo to a port on Java's northern coast, perhaps Semerang. Due, at least in part, to the biannual alternation of the monsoons, they intermarried with the indigenous Javanese. The syncretic culture grew and began searching for a mountaintop to erect a temple – or a temple complex in this case. Presumably, the devotees are closer to the gods that way. Evidently, the multiple temple/shrines are meant to be miniature cosmic mountains that represent Mount Meru, the mythical Hindu mountain that connects the human world with the gods. Although the plans for the shrines are based upon Hindu religious texts, they are unique to Java, only having a loose connection with Indian temples.

It is easy to see why they chose this mystical location. After a long steep drive or climb in their case, one arrives at a relatively flat, enormous, lush, rolling plain - the magical top. Misty hilltops surround the area, rendering it even more special. It is easy to imagine the wonder of the group that discovered this mountain plateau and the collective enthusiasm of the kingdom's populace for constructing religious shrines here. To honor the location, this 1st millenium culture named it the Dieng Plateau, which means 'Abode of the Gods' in Javanese.

At this location (the arrow), we saw 4 Hindu temple shrines. There are 4 other shrines at other locations on the enormous plateau – a large depression about 9 miles (14 km) long and about 4 miles (6 km) wide. While there are only 8 monuments, it is believed that there could have been as many as 400 at one time. Scholars believe that they were built during the Sanjaya dynasty of the Mataram kingdom from the mid 7th century to the end of 8th century CE. They are the oldest stone structures in Java. Although the symbolic designs seem to be unique to Java, the architectural style has some connection to the Dravida and Pallava style temples of South India.

Each shrine is a monument to a different character from the Hindu religious novel, Mahabharata, – no gods. The main temple was a monument to Arjuna the archer. The others were shrines to 2 of his wives, and Yudhistra, the righteous warrior-king. This identification is indicated by shallow reliefs carved on the exterior walls.

Me: "Are the Javanese still aware of the Mahabharata and its characters?"

Sumedi: "Definitely."

Me: "How about the Ramayana?"

Sumedi: "Even more so."


Also in the temple complex is a casket shaped crematorium, presumably for the Sanjaya king and his descendents. The inclusion of the crematorium with the shrines associates the king and his dynasty with the gods.

The name of the dynasty, Sanjaya, is also taken from the Mahabharata. Sanjaya is the charioteer of the blind king. He relays the events of the great battle to the king. Protected by the author, Vyasa, he observes and relates what happens, but does not participate in the carnage. Although Sanjaya never fights and just watches, he expresses his distaste for the unnecessary destruction in poetic terms. Perhaps the king and his dynasty chose this name to indicate that that they had learned Sanjaya’s lesson from the Mahabharata. Rather than engage in the endemic and senseless wars of the warrior caste, they were going to serve the populace by maintaining the peace.

At driving distance from this temple complex is another shrine. It is a monument to Bhima, the son of the wind and Arjuna’s brother. Sumedi informs us that his sons could fly. Although hesitant, both Bhima and Arjuna reluctantly accepted their Dharma and entered a destructive battle between cousins. 

In similar fashion, the current Author accepted his Dharma. He heard and then responded to Martin’s call. He left his pleasant and comfortable home in Santa Barbara for an excruciatingly long plane flight (30 hours complete travel time) to Jakarta, Indonesia. Here he met an unfamiliar family from a foreign, even Muslim, culture. He then traveled in a minivan in heavy traffic for 10 to 12 hour stints across the center of Java. Before the Call, the Author was immersed in his beloved science. Now he responds to the divine push and accumulates information to refine his book – The Empires of Southeast Asia. Further, he journals to tell this story of his marvelous trip to Java and Bali. One of the main themes of the Mahabharata is to heed the Dharma Call. The Mahabharata exerted a significant influence upon the culture that built these shrines upon the Dieng Plateau. Evidently they too were following their Dharma.

The Kala/Makara Motif: Vitality swallowed by Time

The entryway into the center of each shrine has the same motif. Two creatures from Hindu mythology surround the door. Kala is on top and Makara on the bottom. Kala represents time, while Makara could be said to represent fecundity. At the portals to the shrine, Kala's mouth is open and the Makara's serpent-like body completes his jaws. In other words, the devotee must enter through the Kala's enormous mouth to enter the shrine. The kala/makara symbolism made me laugh. Time consumes devotees as they seek vitality – the ultimate statement of the transitory nature of the human condition. As we etch the landscape with our creations, we are simultaneously marching towards death. How amusing to be reminded of this stark reality as we enter each shrine.

[As an aside, note how the line of the roof raises at the corners. This is reminiscent of Chinese temples. Could the Chinese have exerted an influence on the shrine's design?]

Employed as both a decorative and symbolic element, the kala-makara motif is unique to the ancient temples of Java. Although the earliest evidence is from the Dieng Plateau, the kala-makara motif is also found on both Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex, and Borobudur, a Buddhist monument. In both cases, Kala's enormous mouth forms the top of the gateway, while the Makara serpent extends down a long staircase. Further, at Borodudur, there are a series of platforms with multiple gateways with Kala on top of each. As such, multiple Kalas can be seen from below. Intricate stone carving of twin makaras form the stair's railings. Could the temple/shrines of the Dieng Plateau have supplied the inspiration for this symbolic motif?

In general the front half of the Makara is represented as a land animal in the front, while the back half is a sea creature. The Makara transports Ganga, the goddess of the Ganges, and is also associated with Kamadeva, the god of love. Makara is also a sign of Hinduism's astrological Zodiac associated with Capricorn, the time when the Sun is reborn.

As an indication of the complex religious/architectural interactions in this part of the world, the Makara is also found in temples located in India, Nepal, China, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. In the Khmer architecture at Angkor and in Laos, the Makara is often portrayed with a symbolic animal, such as a naga serpent or lion, emerging from its gaping mouth. Sometimes the animal side of the Makara is portrayed as an elephant with jewels issuing from its trunk. Each of these portrayals support the notion that the Makara symbolizes fecundity, at least in part.

Shiva: God of Destruction, Yoga & Lingam/Yoni Union

Besides the kala-makara motif, each of the shrines shares another common element. They are all dedicated to Shiva, according to Sumedi, our guide. Each contains an interior altar containing a lingam and a yoni. Traditionally, a priest or devotee pours milk or water over the lingam, an erect penis and symbol of Shiva. The liquid flows into a yoni, a stylized vagina, at the base of the altar. The vagina is the symbol of Shiva's consort, Durga. (We see no lingams at these shrines, as they have been removed.)

Me: "Does a lingam ever exist alone."

Sumedi: "Never. Lingam and yoni always together."

Me: "One inside the other."

Sumedi: "Always."

We all know that a lingam is an erect penis and that a yoni is a vagina, but never refer to them in English. The lingam and the erection have the same denotation (precise definition). Yet an erection has an obscence connotation in English, while a lingam has a spiritual connotation in Sanskrit, the written language of both India and Southeast Asia. This simple and direct comparison reveals volumes regarding the cultural orientation to sex in the respective cultures. In one culture, sex is a taboo topic – something that is never mentioned in polite society. In the other, sex is a tool for spiritual enlightenment. What is your underlying belief?

Further, it seems evident that the lingam/yoni linkage, 'one inside the other', must symbolize sexual intercourse to the worshippers of Shiva, the Shaivites. Further, the milk poured on top of the lingam certainly suggests ejaculation. This somewhat obvious symbol evokes the notion of the sexual climax, an orgasm. If so, does this widespread symbolic representation, the lingam inside the yoni, remind Shaivites of the potential for divine ecstacy in everyday life? Does this sexual symbol further point towards the necessity of abandoning the polarity of self and the immersion in the union of opposites - male and female – to attain this orgasmic ecstacy? Transcending the duality of words and dogma to embrace the potentials of the sensual world seems to be an innate message of this mute representation. The sexual abstinence required of Buddhist monks and Hindu yogis is certainly antithetical to the implications of this Shaivite symbol. [Of course, I never mentioned any of these subversive thoughts due to the 'polite' and 'respectable' nature of our group.]

Sumedi: "The Javanese yoni is square, while many Indian yonis are round."

Me: "The Chinese influence? The circle in the square is certainly an important concept in Chinese philosophy."

Martin: "Probably a stretch. The circle in the square could be part of many cultures."

Me: "True. Remind me again. What does Shiva represent?"

Sumedi: "Shiva is the destroyer god. He is part of the Trimurti (the 3 gods as manifestations of the 1 god). The others are Brahma, the creator god, and Vishnu, the preserver god."

Me: "What does Shiva, as the god of destruction, have in common with the lingam?"

Sumedi: "Shiva in charge of death and rebirth."

My wife Laurie: "The god of recycling?"

We all laugh.

Me: "Isn't Shiva also the god of the spiritual ascetics, the yogis?"

Sumedi: "Shiva the perfect yogi."

Taking a different tack, Me: "What do the Shaivites believe in?"

Sumedi shrugs his shoulders and says: "They worship Shiva."

This stock, yet evasive and tautological, response was fairly typical when I questioned any of the Indonesians regarding the beliefs of those who worshipped Shiva. It is almost as if the Shaivites are more interested in the ceremony, ritual and temple building than in beliefs.

Me: "Is there any connection between the lingam/yoni shrines, destruction, and yoga that Shiva is associated with?"

Sumedi: "I'm not sure, but the temple/shrines are also dedicated to our ancestors."

Me: "Ancestors and Shiva?"

Sumedi: "We Javanese still worship our ancestors."

Me: "But what religion are the Javanese?"

Sumedi: "Muslim, strictly Muslim."

Me: "Hmmm? What happened to the Dieng Plateau culture?"

Sumedi: "The Javanese abandoned the plateau with its many temple/shrines due to increased volcanic activity. They simply moved their temple building activity to the central valley, where they built even more magnificent structures, such as Borobudur and Prambanan. The Dieng temples were forgotten for centuries. The Dutch archaeologist, Van Kinsbergen, rediscovered them hidden in a boggy marsh in 1856. The Dutch drained the marsh and renovated the shrines. We will see evidence of the tectonic activity that drove the Javanese away at our next stop."

Laurie: "Cool!"

Sumedi: "No, hot."

The Volcanic Cauldron

Don at Sulfur Pond

After the temple/shrine tour, Sumedi guides us to a volcanic hot spot, major evidence for the lively tectonic activity in the area. As an indication of how truly large this 6000'+ foot high mountain plateau is, we must take a short drive to arrive at this point of tectonic interest.

Before embarking, we, the members of Martin's caravan, must don surgical masks to protect us from the abundant sulfuric fumes that are continually wafting up from the small continually burbling puddles that dot the rolling, but arid landscape. After a short stroll – careful to avoid the these open and lethal scrapes on the earth's surface – we arrive at a bubbling, sulfurous, steamy, smelly pond – a cauldron of burning gas combined with water. It is reminiscent of what we might imagine Christian hell to be.

The Javanese call the hot spot the 'Leaping Deer' – as the poisonous pond shifts from spot to spot occasionally. The change in geography is not due to eroding banks, from which more than a few tourists have died – taking pictures a little too close to the edge. But instead the lethal liquid pit chooses a brand new location on the broad plateau. The guide assured us that the volcanic action in the area is well monitored with scientific devices so that we were in no danger of a chasm of hot sulfuric lava opening upon beneath our feet. In other words, volcanic activity is alive and well on this flat mountaintop.

Sulphur Pond

Boiling Mud Puddle

The Dieng Volcanic Complex is the name geologists give to the entire plateau. This is due to the multiplicity of tectonic features in the area (the map on the left). The middle map is an aerial view of the plateau. Many volcanic circles are visually evident. The greater area is also filled with volcanic activity as seen in the map on the right. The arrow indicates the Dieng Plateau, while the volcano at the bottom of the map is in a neighboring state.


The reason Java has so much volcanic activity is twofold. The southern edge of the 600 mile long island is the Ring of Fire that encircles the earth. This is where tectonic plates collide to create earthquakes and volcanos. The deep trench in the following map indicates the subduction of one tectonic plate beneath another. The northern edge of the island is on the Alpide Belt, an unbreakable ridge that extends from Southeast Asia to the European Alps. The complex collisions of tectonic plates with the ancient ridge creates enormous friction. This tectonic friction heats the Javanese land to molten levels, which eventually explodes in volcanos.

As we walked back from the molten mud puddle, Sumedi began telling me a Hindu story that is associated with the mountain. We have a great rapport due to my familiarity with the charaters in the Mahabharata. A prince on the top of the mountain is looking for a wife. On the plain is a family with 3 sisters. The youngest is required to do all the work, Cinderella style. The oldest dress up in fancy clothes to impress the prince. In a resonant and beautiful tenor voice, Sumedi then softly sings the song that the prince calls out to the maidens and then sings the maiden's response. I can't believe the artistic delicacy of the moment. The prince ultimately rejects them because of their impurity. Even though the 3rd sister is ugly due to being muddied by her older sisters, the prince chooses her because of her purity. Sumedi sings their parts as well. I begin lightly crying in joyous response to this special treatment. The song enables me to briefly abandon self and ideas for joyous sensuality. I express gratitude to the gods and Martin for allowing me to be part of this intimate drama. [Although Laurie entreats him to sing for the camera at a later time, Sumedi refuses, saying that he only sings in the shower.]

Lake Telega Warna

The Dieng Plateau had not yet revealed all of her wonders. We piled into the vans for another short drive to the southeast corner of the 36 square mile plateau. We eventually reach Lake Telega Warna. It is nicknamed the 3 color lake due to the multiple hues of the water. Lake Telega Warna is a volcanic crater lake. Although the water is not hot and bubbling, it is sulfuric, which is why the lake has such unusual colors.


Laurie and I take a casual stroll on a well maintained path around the perimeter of the lake. It is a gorgeous and serene environment.


Lake Telegu Warna has great significance to the Javanese, as the Semar Cave is located there. Holy men have employed the cave as a meditation retreat for centuries.

Sumedi: "The devotee meditates in the cave for 3 days without food, coffee or tea - nothing but water. They emerge from the seclusion rejuvenated and inspired."

Me: "Not for the casual. Only serious practitioners dare enter in."

Sumedi: "True. Permission is required to use the cave."

Martin: "Suharto, Indonesia's leader for 30 years, came regularly to the Semar Cave to meditate. The seclusion might have provided him the focus and insight to survive the intrigues of his decades of power. He was given his nickname, the Puppet Master, due to his amazing ability to manipulate cirumstances to his benefit. His meditation retreats also provided him with prestige and validation to the traditional Javanese, as he was aligning himself with a traditional power spot of Java. This is important because the leaders of Indonesia all come from Central Java. Even though Java is only the 4th largest island in Indonesia, it is the cultural and political center of the country.

As we were standing around the lake, it began to rain - adding mystery to the already mystical experience. Here is a picture of some locals escaping the rein. Notice the elegant diversity of the headresses that the Muslim ladies are adorned with. This was typical throughout Indonesia. The headresses and veils are worn partially for beautification - as a fashion statement – with as much variation, if not more, in style, color and design as women anywhere in the world.

Indonesians: Muslim, Traditional and Modern

Our discussion continued as we motored down the steep hill.

Me: "Let me get this straight. Most Javanese are familiar with the Hindu spiritual works, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, worship their ancestors, and are also Muslims?"

Sumedi: "Exactly."

Martin: "Muslim in the morning; traditional Javanese during the day; and modern at night."

We all laugh, including Sumedi, who confirms Martin's characterization.

Me: "What does this mean?"

Martin: "There's an old classification of the Javanese into abangan and santri. The abangan are nominal Muslims with the Javanese/Hindu/traditions more prominent. In contrast, the santri are practising/devout Muslims. Normally the santri are located mainly in the coastal areas where foreign influence is high. Also, Islam spread into Java through Indian and Arab traders and especially by Chinese Muslim (more Chinese than Muslim – Cheng Ho armada etc.) – not through harsh conquest like elsewhere. Thirty years ago (before Iran's revolution and Saudi's funding of fundamentalism/Wahabi creed), I would say 90% of Javanese are abangan. Now maybe 70%.

Even then most regions in Indonesia, except recent Aceh autonomous Islamic province, and some isolated corners, the Indonesian Muslims, as with most islanders or wet tropical countries are fun loving, especially compared to desert/dry area Muslims in Saudi/Afghan/Pakistan etc).

For major ceremonies - marriage, circumcision etc. – Islamic rituals start the ceremony but by afternoon tradition/western fun dominates. For instance, my wife's sister wedding and son's circumcision started in the morning with local mosque elders prayers. But clothing is traditional Sundanese or Javanese (bare shoulder for both groom and bride). When the elders had their lunch and gone back, live stage music (Dangdut – indian beat influenced songs and music) starts with people dancing. By night time, it's electronic organ disco music. No separation of sexes after lunch.

Also the inauguration of a new building/projects etc. will have Muslim elder chanting prayer, but sprinkling holy water and cutting cone rice as a Javanese tradition.

As you see, the heavy Hindu influence in our proud pre-Islamic history tempered Islam in Java.

Me: "Thanks. An excellent example of the flexible and supple nature of the Javanese belief system. Instead of either one or the other, they believe in elements of both."

The precipitation increased as we drove down the mountain. It was pouring when reached the city below the plateau. We stopped to have lunch at a small cafe. Javanese helped us across the street, sheltering us with a big umbrella. Although it was warm, we were not supposed to get wet as it leads to ill health, at least according to tradition. The meal was incredible, perhaps augmented by the special circumstances. Noodle soup, crispy crackers and spicy condiments.

Of course, the warm and convivial company further magnified the intensity of our experience. We will always remember this simple lunch on a rainy day in a small city at the base of the Dieng Plateau with Martin's entourage of wonderful human beings.

After lunch, we drove to Borobudur, the key to our entire journey. What would this entail?


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