Image Source: Didi Trowulanesia
The island of Java is over 1000 km long and about 100 km large. Its main summits are, from west to east, Slamet (3432 m), Ragajembangan (2177 m), Prahu (2565 m) and Ungaran (2050 m).
However, not all Javanese mountains are considered equal. Some of them have been considered sacred places of power and since the most ancient times. Until today, they are sought after places for pilgrimage, purification and meditation.
The 9 mountains are said to be related to the Dewata Nawa Sanga.
- 1. Mount Semeru – the Great Mountain
- 2. Mount Merapi – the Volcano of Destiny
- 3. Mount Penanggungan – the mountain of the Kings-Priests
- 4. Mount Tidar – the ‘Nail of Java’
- 5. Mount Lawu – the Mystical Mountain
- 6. Mount Gede Pangrango – the Mountain of the Goddess
- 7. Mount Bromo – the Cauldron of Brahma
- 8. Mount Kawi – the Mountain of Fortune
- 9. Mount Salak – the Mountain of Ascetics
1. Mount Semeru – the Great Mountain
This majestic volcano is the highest mountain in the whole of Java. It is also known as Mahameru (‘The Great Mountain’), the abode of the gods, the center of the spiritual Universe. It is surrounded by the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru national park. Special ceremonies are held at the top of Mount Semeru on Independence Day.
Mount Semeru is mentioned in an Old Javanese manuscript from the Majapahit period which relates that Java was once floating on the ocean and, to stop its movement, the gods nailed it to the Earth by moving a part of the original Meru to Java. The result was Mount Semeru.
The majestic Pura Mandara Giri Sumeru Agung in the village of Senduro on the eastern slope of Mount Semeru is the spiritual center for the Hindu-Javanese in East Java.
2. Mount Merapi – the Volcano of Destiny
Mount Merapi overlooks the city of Yogyakarta and the ‘Plain of a Thousand Temples’ which includes Borobudur, Prambanan, and hundreds of other ancient temples and shrines. Mount Merapi is central to Javanese culture, and is surrounded by many myths and legends.
Despite being an active volcano, there are villages and inhabitants. Despite the dangers, they choose to live on the slopes of Merapi because of its soil fertility and the sacredness of the mountain.
To keep the volcano quiet and to appease the spirits of the mountain, the Javanese regularly bring offerings on the anniversary of the Yogyakarta sultan’s coronation. Merapi has a significant cosmological symbolism for the Yogyakarta sultanate, because of the sacred North-South axis line between Merapi peak and Southern Ocean.
The sacred axis is composed of Mount Merapi in the North, the Tugu monument in the center of Yogyakarta, it then runs along Malioboro street to the Northern Alun-alun across the Yogyakarta Keraton, then the Southern Alun-alun, all the way to Bantul and finally reach Samas and Parangkusumo beach on the estuary of Opak river and the Southern Ocean.
This sacred axis connects the hyang, or spirits of the mountain revered since ancient times. The sultan of Yogyakarta is seen as the leader of the Javanese kingdom, and Nyi Roro Kidul the Queen of the Southern Ocean (a form of Tara) is the deity revered by Javanese people as the spiritual consort of the Javanese kings.
The mountain is connected to many legends:
• The legend of the Bubrah Market – Under the crater of Merapi is a haunted location used as a busy place of gathering for spirits (makhluk halus). It is chaotic (‘bubrah’) and busy like a market, hence its name. Many climbers recall a mystical experience when camping there or passing this place. At midnight, loud crowd-like noises can be heard and even Javanese gamelan music is heard among the crowds. Many climbers also claim to have seen spirits, like a figure hanging on a cliff or a long-haired creature.
• The legend of Keraton Merapi – One of the palaces (in Javanese, kraton) used by the rulers of the spirit kingdom lies inside Merapi, ruled by Empu Rama and Empu Permadi. This palace is said to be a spiritual counterpart to the Yogyakarta sultanate, with roads, soldiers, princes and vehicles.
Merapi seen from Borobudur temple
On the western slopes of Merapi lies the Gunung Wukir (“carved hill”) temple, a Shaiva holy site, located in Canggal hamlet, Kadiluwih village, Salam subdistrict, Magelang. Because of its remote location, the temple is rarely visited by foreigners. It is 4 km southeast from Muntilan. To get there, turn west from the Semen intersection, on Yogyakarta-Magelang main road.
One of the best places to experience the view of Mount Merapi is Samiran, a village in Selo district, situated 20 km west from Boyolali on the northern slope of Merapi, on the road from Solo to Borobudur. At 1,300 m altitude, this area is renowned for the organic vegetable agriculture that thrives on the amazingly fertile volcanic soil. Selo has lots of available homestays and flower gardens.
3. Mount Penanggungan – the mountain of the Kings-Priests
Mount Penanggungan is one of Java’s most sacred mountains. According to myths, when Mount Meru was shifted to Java, its peak suffered some damage in transit: the base broke away to form Mount Semeru in the Bromo-Tengger massif, while the smooth summit tumbled some 60 kilometers to the north to form Mount Penanggungan.
In Hindu-Buddhist mythology, Meru has four terraced ledges, the first being the ‘heaven’ of the Four Great Kings facing north, south, east and west. Interestingly, Penanggungan has four lower peaks around its base in an almost perfect square formation: Bekel (NE), Mungkur (SE), Kemuncup (SW) and Saraklapa (NW).
The mountain’s enigmatic purple cone is visible from Trowulan, the capital of Majapahit 30 km to the West. For centuries, pilgrims traveled by foot from Trowulan to the temples on Mount Penanggungan.
The remains of more than 120 temples dot the forested slopes of the mountain. New temples are regularly discovered among the thick forests. In addition to the temples, the slopes of Mount Penanggungan are covered with numerous ritual sites.
Spiritual travelers can find places to stay in the nearby hill resorts of Trawas or Tretes, small towns with fine views looking out across the rice terraces and thick forests towards Penanggungan.
The Jolotundo sacred spring
In the deep forest on the slopes of Mount Penanggungan lies Candi Jolotundo. This water temple (petirtaan) is over a thousand years old and always attracts a steady stream of pilgrims who come for purification and meditation. People drive up from the nearby cities to bathe and to fill bottles with the water said by locals to be of the highest quality, which was confirmed even by lab analysis.
But for those serious about accessing Jolotundo’s power, locals say it is necessary to visit after dark, between midnight and 2 am. Every night but especially when the moon is full, this remote place deep in the forest is busy with visitors.
There is another sacred bathing place on the eastern side of Penanggungan, called Candi Belahan. The sacred spring-water here emerges from the breasts of a statue of Goddess Laksmi, a manifestation of Uma Parvati. This place is also a memorial for King Airlangga. Pilgrims also come there for purification.
The closest accommodation to the mountain is a kilometer downhill from the Jolotundo temple at PPLH Environmental Education Centre where you can rent bungalows . This is the place to start from if you want to make your way up to the summit of the sacred mountain.
Penanggungan is one of Java’s most accessible peaks – it takes only a day hike rather than 2-3 days for most other mountains. The walk from the PPLH Centre to Jolotundo takes about 30 minutes. After seeking blessings at the Jolotundo water temple, hikers can follow a path through the forest, which leads to a succession of small Majapahit temples before rising sharply for the final climb to the summit.
From Jolotundo, the trail passes five small temples: Bayi (909 m), Putri (1,083 m), Pura (1,110 m), Gentong (1,153 m), and Sinta (1,157 m). Except for Gentong, these temples are in disrepair.
The trail is dotted with temple ruins, that still make ideal spots for meditation
Another trail is known as the Bekel trail: at the Sinta temple, the trail divides: straight ahead to the summit, or left to Gunung Bekel. The temples on the Gunung Bekel trail are rarely visited: they include Yudha (1,086 m), Pendawa (1,078 m), Naga I (1,126 m), Puncak Bekel (1,245 m), Kendali Sada (1,127 m) and Kama II (993 m). A guide is necessary there.
The most impressive and spiritually significant of all Penanggungan temples is certainly Candi Jawi, southeast of the mountain in the village of Prigen.
Candi Jawi is a syncretic Hindu-Buddhist candi (temple) from the Singhasari kingdom and at the same time is the mortuary stupa of King Kertanegara, the last king of Singhasari, who built this temple as place of worship for followers of the Shiva-Buddha religion (the pinnacle of both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy that is still practiced in Bali today).
This syncretic religious tradition is indigenous to the Javanese people who unified the aspects of both Shaivism and Buddhism into the same Oneness of the Dharma. This is all mentioned in the Kakawin Sutasoma, from which comes the Indonesian national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika. When Kertanegara was deified as Shiva–Buddha, it symbolized that he had achieved final liberation (moksa).
4. Mount Tidar – the ‘Nail of Java’
A hill of only 503 m, Mount Tidar is located in the middle of Magelang, and is known as the ‘Nail of Java’. It is said that who controls this spot controls the whole of Java. Mount Tidar is said to be guarded by Kyai Semar, the guardian spirit of Java. This is why the Indonesian Military Academy is based there. Even when Britain took briefly control of the region in 1811, Magelang became the seat of government.
In 78 AD, a Brahmin called Aji Saka, from the kingdom of the great King Ranishka had come to Java. He introduced the Javanese script and gave all the Javanese mountains the Sanskrit names by which they are known today. In seven places in the country, Saka buried certain magnetized objects called tumbal in order to protect Java from evil influences.
Shrine to Kyai Semar in Magelang, with Shiva murti in the background
Saka selected Mount Tidar for the burial of the most powerful of his talismans. This talisman is still buried somewhere at the top of Mount Tidar, in a wide field, where stands a monument with the symbol of the Javanese letter Sa written on three sides.
Later on, the Moslems tried to transmute this story into an imaginary ”Sheikh Subakir” from Turkey who is supposed to have defeated Kyai Semar himself and who would have re-switched the stone in favor of Islam. Therefore, an imaginary ”tomb of Sheikh Subakir” has been installed by Moslem radicals at the location of the ancient shrine to Semar (as often in Java, the true meaning of the myths has deliberately been obscured by islamization. Yet the true spiritual meanings of places and legends remain for those who bother to find them) .
Mount Tidar in Magelang city
5. Mount Lawu – the Mystical Mountain
Mount Lawu is definitely one of the most spiritual destinations on this list. It is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in Java. The Northwest slope of Mount Lawu is home to three of the most mysterious temples in Java, Candi Cetho, Candi Sukuh and Candi Kethek. The area was one of the last stronghold of the Majapahit empire, and a vibrant Hindu-Javanese community maintained itself on the holy mountain to this day.
Candi Cetho is very impressive, at 1400 m up the slope of Mount Lawu. Looking through the candi bentar, it’s almost as if you are dropping off one kilometer below into the sky. Built in the 14th century, it is an architectural transition between the earlier Hindu candi of Central and East Java and the modern Hindu pura found in Bali.
The Jalak Lawu is a bird endemic to Mount Lawu and is not found anywhere else. It is said that the Starling birds on Mount Lawu can serve as a guide of the climbers. They are supposedly the incarnation of Kyai Jalak, a Hindu priest and mystic who reached moksha on Mount Lawu.
Only the climbers who are of good heart and well intended can be guided by the starlings. Anyone with bad intentions or an impure heart will be lost and have bad luck. It is also recommended not to wear green clothes on the mountain, or it will invite spirits that will interfere.
In Sukuh temple, a mysterious, octagonal light often appeared during Soekarno and Soeharto’s time, but is now rarely seen. According to local witnesses, the light is seen to fill the corners of the temple in the shape of an octagon and forms a portal towering upwards. Some believe it is a portal to another dimension. Even NASA satellites have detected this mysterious light, which has puzzled researchers.
The slopes of Mount Lawu attract an increasing number of spiritualists from overseas, especially in Demping village and Anggrasmanis. The Lingga Bhuana Mahendra Agung temple was inaugurated in June 28 2018 in Karanganyar, during a ceremony which drew many foreign visitors interested in learning about Javanese spirituality.
The Labuhan ceremony – Brawijaya V, the last king of Majapahit retired on Mount Lawu to live as an ascetic, where he dies in a state of moksha. Since then, he is venerated as ‘Sunan Lawu’. The sultans of Yogyakarta, who are descendants of Brawijaya, have the obligation to honor their ancestors with a labuhan, an annual offering on Mount Lawu in the village of Nano. There, the villagers hold a selamatan then move in a procession until the summit of Lawu, to a place called Argo Dalem (”the Mount of the Lord”).
Where to stay near Mount Lawu: The easiest is to take a day trip from Solo, if you’re planning on climbing the sacred mountain you can stay in Cemoro Sewu. You can also stay in Tawangmangu, a nice hill resort on the other side of Mount Lawu, there are some nice treks to do there.
6. Mount Gede Pangrango – the Mountain of the Goddess
Mount Gede-Pangrango, located in the Mount Gede Pangrango National Park, is classified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It is famous for its number of bird species: 251 of the 450 species in Java inhabit this park, among which the famous Javan hawk eagle.
This area is surrounded by ancient legends. At certain times of the year, people flock to the caves around Mount Gede to meditate or hold ritual ceremonies. The spirits of King Siliwangi and Eyang Suryakencana are said to keep Mount Gede from erupting.
Traditional sources said that the first kingdom in Java was at Mount Gede. Its first king was Dewowarman, or King Wisnudewo. He married a local woman, Dewi Pratiwi who was the daughter of Lembu Suro, a famous ascetic holy man of Java.
Lembu Suro had mastered high level of spiritual knowledge and was able to live in the seven different dimensions of life (Garbo Pitu in Kejawen). His domain was at Mount Dieng in Central Java. The word Dieng itself comes from the word Adi Hyang which means: the perfect Spirit.
7. Mount Bromo – the Cauldron of Brahma
Mount Bromo is an active volcano, and even though it is not the highest peak of the massif, it is the most well known. Mount Semeru in the background is Java’s highest point. The landscapes here are absolutely spectacular.
The Tengger Massif is a fearsome landscape. It emerged from an ancient volcano that gave birth to five new volcanic cones which now lie across each other around the mother crater. The massif is surrounded by the Tengger Black Sand Sea which covers an area of 5,250 ha at an altitude of 2,100 m. Mysterious cloud formations regularly appear above it.
The otherworldy landscapes of the Tengger Massif remind of Tolkien’s fantasy world. Its most prominent peak is Mount Bromo (Javanese wording for Brahma, the God of Creation). The other volcanoes are Mount Batok (2,470 m), Mount Kursi (2,581 m), Mount Watangan (2,661 m), and Mount Widodaren (2,650 m). All peaks are active except Mount Batok, which is covered in vegetation.
The massif also contains the highest mountain in Java, Mount Semeru (3,676 m), four lakes and 50 rivers. This is the home of the Javanese edelweiss, of 200 species of orchids, of the Javanese Green peafowl and of the Javan leopard.
The region is home to the Hindu Tengger community, descendants of Majapahit loyalists who fled to this sacred mountain to escape the islamization of Java. The Tengger people are one of the significant Hindu communities remaining in Java. Their population of roughly 600,000 is centered in 30 towns in the Tengger mountains that include Mount Bromo.
Every year the Tengger Hindus hold the famous Yadnya Kasada ritual. This event starts in the Pura Luhur Poten temple at the foot of Mount Bromo, and then a processionleads to the crater, where offerings are made to Lord Brahma. Mount Bromo is seen as the biggest fire altar in the world.
Every five years is also held the Unan-Unan festival in which they perform prayers for the purification of the entire world. As many as 50,000 people may attend in each locality where it is held.
Prior to the rituals at the crater, they worship at the Pura Luhur Poten temple for blessings of Sang Hyang Widi Wasa (God Almighty). Pura Luhur Poten is an open temple in East Javanese style. The main sanctum faces away from Mount Bromo, as do all temples of the area.
In Majapahit times, the Bromo complex was already a place of important ritual activity. An important work of the Majapahit period, the Tantu Panggelaran also mentions Mount Bromo as the spot where the Brahma, does his smithing. Yet the whole Tengger area had long been a place of pilgrimage and meditation (tirta yatra), even before the Majapahit era.
Ganesha pratima at Mount Bromo
8. Mount Kawi – the Mountain of Fortune
Mount Kawi in Wonosari is not a very high volcano, at just 2000 m high, but it is inextricably linked with the Javanese folklore of the sacred Dewa Daru tree. This mountain is very crowded, especially on Jum’at Legi in the Javanese calendar. This place is popular among Chinese-Indonesians for business and fortune-related rituals.
Gunung Kawi is a blend of Javanese and Chinese culture. Indeed, there is the belief that praying and holding ritual here can bring luck for business, luck or family life. Accommodation facilities and restaurants are widely available here. Many fortune tellers practice in this site. Incense from Mount Kawi is well sought after for rituals.
Sacred places in Gunung Kawi include an old sacred banyan tree with 5 roots and tombs such as that of Raden Ayu Tunggul Wati, a descendant of King Kediri, or of Eyang Subroto, Eyang Djoyo and Eyang Hamid, that are believed to grant virtues for success in life.
There are also various tombs of Moslem saints that were placed there to obliterate the meaning of ancient Hindu holy sites and are now frequented by Moslems.
* Gunung Kawi in Java is not to be confused with the Gunung Kawi of the same name in Ubud, Bali.
9. Mount Salak – the Mountain of Ascetics
Mount Salak is famous for being haunted. Many strange events have been experienced in that area. Some climbers saw strange creatures. Often, climbers got lost and disappeared. Campers are reported to have died in their sleep usually attributed to poisonous gases emitted from craters. Many spirits are said to be guarding Mount Salak and are looking for sacrifices.
Mount Salak is also famous for a great number of accidents involving land and air transportation, which is said to be related to the activity of supernatural beings. Plane crashes on the mountain have been very frequent over the years. Between 2002 and 2012 alone, there were seven aviation crashes in the area of Mount Salak. Old legends tell of birds flying over Salak ‘falling out of the sky’.
Mount Salak has dozens of temples scattered on it slopes. The mountain was used for the meditation retreats of the Javanese kings and high priests. It is the location of Pakuan Padjajaran and of the tomb of King Sri Baduga Maharaja, as well as over 40 tombs of ancient Hindu hermits who meditated to death on Mount Salak.
Around the mountain slopes, people are often seen conducting rituals that can be both positive and negative. They ask for help or guidance to spirits in all matters of life, such as dating, career, finances or longevity.
As elsewhere, the local Moslems tried to deflect pilgrimage to those locations by replacing them with pilgrimages to tombs of Moslem saints, sometimes, real, sometimes, invented, such as the tomb of Moh Hasan and others.
Each of its several peaks is said to have an invisible guard, or Juru kunci – Puncak IV is guarded by mysterious grandmothers who appear every 9 to 12 noon. Peak III is guarded by Eyang Sarean. Salak II Peak is controlled by Sri Baduga Queen of Hajj. And the peak of Salak I is guarded by KH Moh Hasan or Mbah Salak.
Legends also tell that Mount Salak contained a very large wild boar-like creature that is about the size of a truck. Another creature in the shape of a golden half horse, half snake is said to be wandering in the forest. Those two are said to act as forest guards to protect the mount from hunting and illegal logging.
In Mount Salak also exists the ritual of marrying a genie, or hyang, initiated by the caretaker of Mount Salak named Abah Anom Jaya. This ritual is often done by people who are pressed with financial issues. By practicing polygamy with the spirits, people hope that their lives will be more prosperous and boost their business. The time and place of the ritual are not arbitrary – the ritual must follow certain days in the Javanese calendar, namely Wednesday (Pon), Thursday (Wage), until Friday (Kliwon). Applicants must also bring offerings.
Pura Parahyangan Agung Jagatkarta
The most impressive location on Mount Salak is perhaps Pura Parahyangan Agung Jagatkarta (“Temple of the Perfect Divine Nature”), located in Ciapus village, Tamansari subdistrict. It is the largest temple in Java and the second largest in Indonesia after Pura Besakih in Bali.
The temple complex is a pura kahyangan jagad, or ‘mountain temple’ for the Hindu devotees in the Greater Jakarta area. It was built in 1995 to honor the hyang of King Siliwangi of the Sunda Kingdom, who died at that location in Parahyangan with his soldiers. Pakuan Pajajaran (now Bogor) was the capital of the kingdom.
Tourist visitors are generally prohibited from entering the main temple, except for those who want to pray – otherwise access is only available to the outer court temple (nista mandala).
How to visit Mount Salak – Salak has several peaks, with the true summit, known as Salak 1, at 2,211 m. It lies directly behind Bogor and is easily accessible from Jakarta via the Ciawi-Sukabumi road at Cicurug. The trek begins at the National Park entrance at Javana Spa, just after Cicurug.