DIENG PLATEAU (Central Java)


Realizing Unity through Clear Mind

High up on a road northwards from the Central Javanese town of Wonosobo, the entrance to the Dieng plateau within what seems to have been the vast crater of some ancient super-volcano. On the way there from Yogyakarta one becomes aware of the volcanic mountain range that spreads East to West across Java, passing through the shadows of the five big volcanoes of Central Java namely Merapi, Merbabu, Unggaran, Sumbing and Sindoro. At last, after an optional rest in the vast Tambi Tea plantations before the crater, one reaches this isolated and unique place.

An active caldera with several boiling lakes and steaming crater holes, it is also the home for an ancient ethnic sub-group of the Javanese called the Dieng cultural area. This fact is noticeable by examining the set of very old Hindu temple-complexes and other archeological remains strewn around the caldera. The highlight of a visit to Dieng is undoubtedly these very old Shaivist (Shiva worship) monuments set in the center of the caldera. According to Dutch and Indonesian archeological specialists, these represent the oldest such building heritage of the monument building Sanjaya Dynasty of the 7th century AD. About 21 temples remain grouped in 5 complexes, most famous of which the Candi Arjuna complex. As it borrows architectural styles from North as well as South India, the temples show distinctive Javanese Hindu traits which make them peculiar and different from Indian examples. The names are taken from the Mahabharata wayang stories, as these heroes were always revered by the ancient Javanese for their ethical and spiritual qualities. Even Semar the clownish yet divine ancestor of the Javanese has a temple dedicated to him, which indicates a proper Javanese spiritual cult complementing the Hindu Dharma teachings. A neat museum nearby the Bima complex has a wealth of information on the ancient and contemporary history and culture of the Dieng plateau Hindu civilization.

The temples are the stars of the Dieng showcase, yet in reality they are dwarfed by the imposing natural environment surrounding them, especially approaching evening time when the silent mists mixed with sulfuric clouds from the nearby volcanic lakes and ponds cover the whole area in shrouds of mystery. The lakes or kawah, are the signs of the activity below ground, reminding one of the hazardous nature of the place set in a volcano caldera. A unique feature of the crater-lakes is the different colors between them, due to several natural factors including the amount of sulfur in the gases. The characteristic smell of rotten eggs proper to sulfuric gases will be immediately apparent upon entering the crater. Obviously many hot springs and thermal spots abound in the area. The most famous lake is Kawah Sikidang or the Deer Lake as it moves location from decade to decade and boils like a giant and steamy caldron.

Anthropologists and observers visiting the place since early Dutch colonial days have all testified to the strong animistic cults and beliefs of the local Dieng society. Both the ancient manmade temples and the odd natural features of the caldera landscape have been associated to powerful resident deities and spirits. This might be a clue to understand the etymology of the word Dieng, which derives from the Sanskrit Di-Hyang which in turn refers to Kahyangan Dewa or ‘Mountain residence of the Deities’. The local population to this day holds a literal belief system whereby the place and its features indeed serve as shelters for the many spirits and Gods of the Javanese land. For someone interested in the cartography or topography of spiritual Java, this plateau is definite must with so many sacred and haunted spots strewn around. This fact also explains the number of surviving ritual and ceremonial practices held around some lakes and caves near the colored lakes (Telaga Warna).

For example the cult of an ancestor spirit named Kyai Kalagete said to inhabit one of the colored lakes is still a vibrant focus of the local people’s religiosity. Due to a legendary anecdote whereby Kyai Kologete is said to have acquired Rastafarian-like dreadlocks during his quest to meet with the famous Queen of the South Seas Ratu Kidul, local children who genetically grow dreadlocks naturally are said to be partly his offspring, and thus are treated in a mystical convention. Their locks eventually get cut and thrown in the lake as the main offering to both Kyai Kalagete and Ratu Kidul as the waters from Dieng flow down to the Indian Ocean through the Serayu River.

The Dieng plateau with its unique spiritually-laden atmosphere and sacred spots is a favorite pilgrimage destination for Javanese mystics and followers of the Javanism (Kejawen) tradition, yet is also visited for ritual reasons by Balinese Hindu adepts. The caves set in a rocky outcrop in between the colored lakes provide the nucleus for nighttime meditations and ascetic practices, whereby people leave offerings of incense, flowers and ritual foods. A jurukunci or key holder provides access and preparatory incantations to communicate with the divine and celestial beings said to haunt in and around these caves. Many wonders and benefits related to health, wealth and safety are believed to ultimately result from genuine spiritual practice by visitors. The holiness of these places is uncontested by the local residents, and it is this holy energy that attracts the true seekers.

Holiness in Javanese kejawen interpretation is understood as realizing the Emptiness of the Self-identity (Suwung kasunyataan). Emptiness here is not to be approached in a logical time-space perspective, rather than a spiritual concept meaning void of disturbing desires. One who is able to calm the desire mind will create space for the awareness mind to guide perception, which in turn allows the practitioner to unite in subtle feeling (roso batin) with outer things and beings. This is a state called Kaweningan (mental clarity). This state of mind is sought because wisdom in action, speech and thought will result from it, whereby such a person tends to come up with thoughtful answers rather than continuously questioning things or oneself. In other words also expressed in Hindu/Buddhist Dharma, ignorance of life and universe will be reduced.

Dudu ning endi, ananging endi kang ening
(Not anywhere physically, yet within the clear center of the heart)
Javanese believe that in the keheningan state, answers to all questions can be revealed.

By Moko Pramusanto and Patrick Vanhoebrouck


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