In a magnificent position 900m above the Solo plain, Candi Sukuh is one of Java’s most enigmatic and striking temples. It’s not a large site, but it has a large, truncated pyramid of rough-hewn stone, and there are some fascinating reliefs and Barong statues. The pyramid was under renovation and surrounded by scaffolds when we last visited. Even so, on clear days the view of the terraced emerald valley and the volcano looming above are magical. The restoration is estimated to be completed in 2017.
It’s clear that a fertility cult was practised here: several explicit carvings have led it to be 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.
At the gateway you'll find a large stone lingam and yoni. Flowers are still often scattered here, and locals believe these symbols were used to determine whether a wife had been faithful, or a wife-to-be was still a virgin. The woman had to wear a sarong and jump across the lingam – if the sarong 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 Stamford Raffles in 1815 and now resides in the National Museum in Jakarta.
If you’re driving here note that there are almost no signposts to help direct you to the site and you have to pay a small fee to pass through Kemuning. Virtually all travellers get here on a tour from Solo or Yogyakarta. Public transport is very tricky: take a bus bound for Tawangmangu from Solo as far as Karangpandan (6000Rp), then a Kemuning minibus (2000Rp) to the turn-off to Candi Sukuh; from here it’s a steep 2km walk uphill to the site or a 40,000Rp ojek ride. For around 70,000Rp, ojek will take you to both Sukuh and Cetho.