Sacred Sites in Southeast Asia | Candi Sukuh

Candi Sukuh
Indonesia, Central Java, 15th century, Andesite

Candi Sukuh is perched on the western slopes of Gunung Lawu, a volcano rich with tea plantations, at the threshold between Central and East Java. Constructed in the fifteenth century, Candi Sukuh was one of the last temples to be established within the Majapahit period.

Pyramidal temple in bright sun
Stepped temple built into forested mountainside

The central shrine is pyramidal, its form echoing the shape of the mountain.

Morning light on temple gate

Because the temple faces west, as is typical for Majapahit period shrines in East Java, it is illuminated in reverse as the sun rises. The inside of the main gateway becomes bathed in morning light

Demonic face above a door

Demonic heads (rakshasas) guard the passageway into and out of the sacred precincts.

Two stone turtles

Candi Sukuh’s sculptures connect with the foundational tenets of Indic religions. Turtles (also seen in abundance at Candi Cetho, higher up on Gunung Lawu) flank the staircase to the main shrine. In Indian cosmologies, the universe is said to rest on a turtle’s back. This symbolic image was widely incorporated into Southeast Asian art beginning in the eighth century.

Eagle statue, headless, wearing pubic plaqueTantric sculpture of figure holding his genitals

However, by the time of this temple’s construction, Hindu-Buddhist culture had evolved into a unique tradition in Java. Created centuries after various streams of Brahmanic (Hindu) and Buddhist religions had been transmitted across the seas, Candi Sukuh’s architecture and imagery finds no direct parallel in India. Transgressive and tantric, the sculptures emphasize genitalia as signs of ritual potency and power. Similar themes can also be seen at Candi Cetho.

Relief showing wayang figures
Relief showing demonic dwarf
Relief showing two people and a mythological animalRelief showing two figures fightingStone stele with serpents at the base

Candi Sukuh’s sculptural reliefs are deeply rooted in Java’s local artistic practices. The figures strongly resemble the characters of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance tradition. Candi Sukuh’s visual program focuses on Bhima, a figure originally found in the Indian epic Mahabharata, who found great favor in East Java’s tantric tradition.

Narrow stone steps
View from top of terraced temple View from mountaintop over rice fields

The main shrine is not entered, but ascended via a narrow flight of stairs. Holes in the upper terrace suggest that wooden posts once supported a temporary shelter. Looking west, away from the mountain, presents a soaring view.