Image by Jane Sweeney / Robert Harding Getty Images
In a magnificent position 900m above the Solo plain with fine views of Gunung Lawu, Candi Sukuh is one of Java’s most enigmatic and striking temples. It’s not a large site, but it's beautifully proportioned with a truncated pyramid of rough-hewn stone. Fascinating reliefs and Barong statues decorate the facade. It’s clear that a fertility cult was practised here: several explicit carvings have led to Sukuh being dubbed the ‘erotic’ temple. It’s a quiet, isolated place with a potent atmosphere.
Built in the 15th century during the declining years of the Majapahit kingdom, Candi Sukuh seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with other Javanese Hindu and Buddhist temples. The origins of its builders and strange sculptural style (with crude, squat and distorted figures carved in the wayang style found in East Java) remain a mystery and it seems to mark a reappearance of the pre-Hindu animism that existed 1500 years earlier.
A large stone lingam and yoni mark the entrance gateway. Flowers are still often scattered here, as locals maintain that these symbols were used to determine whether a wife had been faithful, or a wife-to-be was still a virgin. Any woman wearing a sarong and jumping across the lingam had to keep the sarong firmly wrapped: if it fell off, her infidelity was proven. Other interesting cult objects include a monument depicting Bima, the Mahabharata warrior hero, with Narada, the messenger of the gods, both in a stylised womb. Another monument depicts Bima passing through the womb at his birth. In the top courtyard, three enormous flat-backed turtles stand like sacrificial altars. A 2m lingam once topped the pyramid, but it was removed by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1815 and now resides in the National Museum in Jakarta.
Sarongs are required (available for a small donation at the entrance).
Virtually all travellers arrive here on a tour from Solo or Yogyakarta or come by private taxi. For those determined to use public transport, a bus bound for Tawangmangu from Solo stops in Karangpandan (18,000Rp). From here a Kemuning minibus (5000Rp) stops at the turn-off to Candi Sukuh, from where it’s a steep half-hour walk uphill (2km) to the site.