Finding the meaning of life in Gedong Songo

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(Photo: Freddy Wally)

IO – The COVID-19 pandemic, which since the beginning of the year has spread globally, has inspired travellers to rethink going on vacation, because staying at home for the past few months feels safer from deadly virus attacks. 

An ancient Hindu temple complex called Gedong Songo, located near Ungaran, Central Java (also known as the Bandungan area), long an attractive destination for urban residents of Semarang and its surroundings, might be an option for a weekend escape in the new normal era. 

Located right on the slopes of Mount Ungaran, at an altitude of 1100 meters above sea level, Bandungan is not only growing rapidly as an alternative urban escape for the residents of Semarang and its surroundings (because it is only 45 minutes from downtown Semarang) but also offers a calming natural beauty, because the climate is fairly cool (ranging from 17 to 25 degrees) and the condition of the forest is still more or less natural. 

Occupying an area of more than 10 hectares above the expanse of Mount Ungaran’s natural forests makes the Gedong Songo Temple complex not only historic but also offers adrenaline challenges for any traveler who comes to conquer a hard hike: climbing steep tracks is a separate journey for travellers eager to complete the exploration of 9 temples in this complex. 

Songo, which means the number nine in Javanese, is not just pinned to the name of this complex. Indeed, there are 9 temples in the temple complex which was built by the House of Syailendra in the 10th century AD (estimated at the year 927). 

In much of the historical literature or even if we ask Google, we will find that initially there were only seven Hindu temples discovered by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1804. In an era just before the beginning of the 20th century two Dutch researchers, Van Stein Callenfels and Knebel, managed to find the two remaining temples in a collapsed state. So after nine temples unfolded in full, according to Javanese for the number nine, the name “Songo” was pinned to this temple complex. 

The Songo Building, which was originally called Gedong Pitoe by the British aristocrat Raffles, grew rapidly and revealed its destiny after the arrival of Dutch archaeologist Van Braam who wrote about this hidden temple and published his findings. 

Towards the beginning of the 20th century, or precisely in 1910 to 1911, the massive revitalization of the Gedong Songo was carried out by the Dutch Colonial government through the Archaeological Agency of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, including exploring hot springs that are still flowing. Temple 1 was being restored in 1928-1929, and then continued with repairs to Temple 2 in 1930-1932. 

The Government of the Republic of Indonesia itself has arguably long ‘abandoned’ Gedong Songo. Of existing records, after Independence, no significant restorations were made on this complex, until 1977-1983, when there were several quite serious improvements in temples 3, 4 and 5 carried out by the Indonesian Archaeological Preservation Agency. At least it took decades since the era of the 70s to the second half of the millennium to restore Gedong Songo as we see it today. 

Arguably, 9 temples in this complex are set far apart, as they are in limited by rows of steep hills and also wrapped in a dense forest. The traveler who wants to visit all the temples there certainly needs to be in a strong physical condition and also sufficiently energetic to follow the trail to each temple. 

However, just relax, walk leisurely while breathing fresh air in the Bandungan area, to make life feel lighter. Cement paths or sometimes modified stone walkways make it even easier to explore Gedong Songo today. 

If you want to explore this temple complex but don’t want to expend extra energy, there is a horse rental service that can be used as an alternative to getting around the temple. Horse riding rates range from IDR 40,000 to IDR 70,000 for a single trip. Usually the visitor will be accompanied by a horse handler who will accompany the trip around this temple complex. 

Both horse riding and walking offer the same eye-catching travel experience for travellers who come to Gedong Songo. 

The expanse of green hills with a distinctive bandage of tropical pine forests indeed remind us to continue to make sense of life, even during a pandemic such as the current one. Arguably, this place is also like a stretch of natural painting that makes humans remember the Creator again. 

Travellers visiting Songo Temple will not only get peace of mind but also an injection of energy to restart the life that has been given by the Creator. 

“It is said that if we successfully climb and also explore every temple in Gedong Songo, what is our dream (generally) will come true,” said Bagas, one of the guides who had accompanied the travelers that day. 

Going through every temple in the Gedong Songo complex is indeed quite thrilling: despite the ubiquitous signposts, this complex is like a puzzling natural maze. Now and then we rest and see the reliefs on the walls of the temples while taking photos. 

When afternoon falls, fog from the mountains around Ungaran (Sindoro, Sumbing, Merbabu, and Telomoyo) will soon drift down, usually accompanied by a light drizzle. And this can take place throughout the year, irrespective of the season. Maybe this is indeed a characteristic of Ungaran which has fairly high rainfall in the Central Java area. 

In addition to the 9 temples that have become icons of Gedong Songo, this complex also has a spring or a natural pool with hot water (from sulfur content) for bathing. This hot sulfur-rich mineral water flows between the 4th and 5th temples. 

The sensation of soaking in a hot water pool with high sulphur content in this complex can be an interesting alternative to unwind after exploring half of the Gedong Songo complex. The pool, that has been made in a modern manner with a size of 5 meters X 10 meters also offers a view that is no less spectacular: the expanse of Mount Ungaran’s towering forest, and sometimes with a thin mist. Charming and also magical! The atmosphere like this certainly reminds me of onsen baths in Japan. 

Satisfied with a warm bath, travellers can return to explore other temples from the spring, starting from the 6th temple. The track leading to the rest of the temples which are located on the eastern side of the hills offers a view that is no less amazing. As far as the eye can see, only a row of pine trees is visible. 

Upon arriving at the 6th temple complex the gloom was increasingly felt because the fog had fallen. Many anecdotes later circulated that this side after the 5th temple is often mentioned by many explorers as the peak of paradise because it is covered by mysterious lush pine trees that stand firmly as if to fortify the temple. 

The condition of some of the 6th to 9th temples does not all look intact like the early temples in Gedong Songo. Some of us even can find scattered debris left but the view from here is of course not to be missed. Travellers must fully enjoy the atmosphere here. 

In addition to the Gedong Songo Temple, one of the other tourist attractions that are quite crowded to visit in Bandungan is the Umbul Sidomukti tourist area. You could say this place offers a one-stop holiday facility because it has a camping ground, a hawker center to a classy hotel. 

Don’t miss the sensation of bathing in a pool whose water comes from the Ungaran mountain spring. This pool is made terraced and offers a charming view of the Bandungan region. It is said that springs that fill this pool will continue to flow throughout time. 

This place is also famous as a location to challenge adrenaline. The flying fox track has two tracks, one of which has a length of 110 meters, with an altitude distance from the lowest point of the valley at around 70 meters. 

One of the things that also makes the heart beat harder is the sensation of going slowly down the marine bridge to cross the valley. Besides, we can drive ATVs through steep hillsides. At certain times, trekking activities around Umbul Sidomukti are also popular with many travellers. 

Along with the implementation of the new normal in several domestic tourist attractions which began to be opened gradually starting this July, of course, choosing which one suits your needs can be a distraction. 

Is it safe to visit Gedong Songo Temple in the middle of Pandemics like today? If you follow applicable health protocols, of course; this place is not only fun and safe to go, but also offers another meaning to life. It’s time to pause and enjoy the gift of life that has been given by the Creator.  (Freddy Wally)