Hindu Bathing Rituals in the Temples of Jolotundo, East Java

The temple is set into the green hillside: a facade of dark basalt fronted by a shallow pool full of slow-moving fish. The Jolotundo Temple, deep in the forest on the slopes of the 1653-meter Mount Penanggungan – is less than two hours by road from central Surabaya.  Jolotundo is more than just another thousand-year-old relic of Java’s classical Hindu past.

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Jolotundo temple predates that mightiest of Hindu Javanese kingdoms by some 300 years.  It was built in the late 10th Century under the Sanjaya Dynasty.  Inscriptions connect the place to Udayana, father of Sanjaya’s last ruler, Airlangga.  However, the Penanggungan Mountain, a perfect cone standing sentinel between the coastal plains and the volcanic hinterland, was certainly still important in the Majapahit era.  It was said to be the broken summit of the mythical Mount Meru, home of the Gods; there are other, later temples on the slopes behind Jolotundo.  Under successive dynasties the peak and its sacred places had a powerful hold, and even today, long after Hindu-Buddhist Java gave way to Islam, the idea of the bathing temple as a place of power, of sacred energy, still lingers.

As a damp, leaden darkness falls and a cacophony of insect noise rises that power is almost palpable.  The static orange pinpricks of burning incense sticks show in the gloom and the meandering green sparks of fireflies fall like snowflakes.  More pilgrims arrive; the smell of incense thickens; naked forms, burnished in the light of oil lamps, move around the bathing tanks.

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Observers of Java are quick to label phenomena like pilgrimage and nighttime meditation in search of sacred energy as the preserve of those who follow the traditional belief systems known as Kejawen – and are just as quick to present Kejawen as the absolute counterpoint to the Islamic orthodoxy of mosques and headscarves.

In the mid-20th Century anthropologists indentified what they saw as a distinct division between the Muslims of Java: there were the Santri, those who followed global Islamic strictures closely, and there were the others, the Kejawen or Abangan, whose faith was more closely rooted in Java itself and for who Islam, if it had any significance at all, was just one thin thread in a knot of Hinduism, Buddhism, ancestor-worship and animism.

jolotundo 3Plenty of the nighttime visitors pray, orthodox-fashion, in the langgar after they have scattered an offering of petals at the temple.  And the place is clearly the preserve of neither Javanese nor of Muslims: there are Chinese Indonesians and Balinese Hindus amongst the pilgrims.

The temple is deserted, only burnt-out incense sticks and scattered petals to hint at what went on in the night.  Visiting Jolotundo on a quiet weekday, you would probably assume it was just another Sunday picnic spot – with a ticket booth and a few concrete benches – and unless you asked you would never hear the story of the friend of a friend who had the baby she had long been trying for only after bathing here at midnight on a Kliwon Tuesday.  This is the kind of thing that is easy to miss in Java. On the one hand you could view the Jolotundo bathing temple as a place so powerful that its draw reaches out across the Kejawen-Santri divide.

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