Ancient Hindu temples, atmospheric setting
Candi Gedong Songo is among Java’s oldest antiquities, a complex of seven small Hindu temples dating from the eighth or ninth centuries (plus several more in ruins).
Architecturally similar to the earlier temples scattered around Dieng Plateau, they don’t so much have the appeal of impressive (later built) Borobudur or Prambanan near Yogyakarta, however a devastatingly beautiful mountainous setting on the slopes of Gunung Ungara, makes them well worth the 35 kilometre trip from Semarang.
Gedong Songo literally translates from Javanese as “nine buildings”, not the original name nor numerological accurate, nine is considered an auspicious number in Javanese culture, perhaps stemming from the nine virtues of Buddhism, or Java’s wali songo, nine Islamic saints (Ramadan also falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar).
Restoration works were commenced in the Dutch colonial period with ongoing projects by the Indonesian government in the 1980s and again in 2009. The reconstructed temples sit on five plateaus within the hilly landscape, signposted Candi Gunung I to V, around a looping two-and-a-half kilometre hillside path. Although the site is magnificent, we were shocked and disappointed to see much graffiti carved into the stonework of the temples, such a shameful disrespect of Indonesia’s heritage.
From the main gate, Candi Gedung I is about 250 metres along the path. This simple square structure, the earliest of the group, is constructed with a triple-stepped roof representing simultaneously Mount Meru, the holy Hindu mountain and the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (Trimurti), typical of Hindu architecture of the time. Decorated with minimal floral relief, an open-mouthed Kala face grimaces over the top of the doorway. Note also, the carved figure on the stairs whose long curling tongue forms the balustrade.
The interior contains the remains of a yoni-lingga with just the yoni base remaining with a niche that in the past contained a standing lingga. Water poured over the top during rituals would have been collected at the spout as holy water. Arched nooks in the wall provided a place for lamps and offerings. This small temple is the only one within the complex with anything remaining inside.
The path continues 500 metres up the hill, looping west to the second candi passing a group of traditional wooden houses and a path that leads to a small spring and shallow meditation cave. Candi Gedung II is similar, but its overall appearance is less squat than the earlier temple and perhaps shows Buddhist influence with small stupas adorning the corners of the stepped roofline and what seems to be seated Buddha reliefs. Alcoves flanking the doorway and at the sides indicate missing sculptures.
Candi Gedung III, a further 130 metres along the path is a cluster of three small temples, the most interesting and well preserved within the complex. The larger of the three is dedicated to Shiva, with iconography repeated in the later shiva temple in Prambanan. As you circumnavigate this temple clockwise, facing north is an eight-armed statue of Durga, Shiva’s consort, continuing around facing east, Shiva’s elephant headed son, Ganesha and then to the south, Agastya a Hindu sage. The west-facing portal is flanked by guardian statues, and the now empty interior would have probably contained a statue of Shiva. The smaller temple to the north was dedicated to Vishnu, and it seems likely that there would have been a third similarly styled temple positioned to the south for Brahma. A smaller rectangular temple fronts the Shiva temple, its curved roof topped with three stupas.
From Candi Gedung III, the path heads 150 metres into a ravine where volcanic jets of sulphurous steam hiss and splutter rotten-egg gas. Pack your swimwear for a dip in the hot springs believed to cure all kinds of ailments, 5,000 rupiah entry fee—somewhat grotty change rooms available.
Continue 250 metres to Candi Gedung IV, climbing the other side of the ravine, a fork leads uphill to the temple. From here, cast your eye back at the other temples in the distance, for stunning views over the valley. Candi Gedung IV and Candi Gedung V, a further 200 metres south, are both surrounded by jigsaw puzzle piles of yet to be reconstructed temples. Look amongst the rubble for carved details—we spotted a, (ahem) rather well endowed, stallion.
The complex could be whizzed around in about an hour, but we spent a pleasant two-and-a-half hours wandering the paths and exploring the temples. If you’d like a soak in the hot springs, factor in some extra time. Horses can be hired for the trek, but they are rather small old nags who’d probably be happier with Indonesian kids on their backs rather than Western adults.
Warungs sell drinks, snacks and souvenirs (Gedong Songo flip-flops anyone?). Candi Gedong Songo is popular with local tourists on weekends, and at other times you’ll possibly have the atmospheric site almost to yourself. Wear comfortable walking shoes and pack a light jumper and rainwear as it can get cool and wet at this altitude. We were informed the complex is open 24 hours, however we doubt this is true of the ticket booth.
To get to Candi Gedong Songo, take a Somowono bus from Terboyo terminal in Semarang (15,00 rupiah, 1 hour) and let the driver know you want to get off near the temples. We’re informed it’s a three kilometre walk or ojek ride from the drop off point (although we haven’t done this). Alternatively hire a car and driver (around 600,000 rupiah) for a day trip and visit the Indonesian Railway Museum at nearby Ambarawa. Have lunch and tour the coffee plantation at Kampoeng Kopi Banaran.
Address: 35 kilometres south of Semarang.
Coordinates (for GPS): 110º20'31.62" E, 7º12'36.21" S
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Admission: 75,000 rupiah for foreign tourists and 10,000 for Indonesians
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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