Indonesia Expat

Kampung Pulo – Cangkuang: A temple and a tomb

Cangkuang Temple | Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Floating bamboo rafts on a placid lake are ready to take you to the island of Kampung Pulo from Cangkuang in West Java in Indonesia. There in the sylvan air, cottonwood trees with their drooping foliage camouflage an ancient Hindu temple. And beside it is a Muslim tomb. A similar scene somewhere far away beckons me back to a corner in India.

We get onto one of the innumerable rafts spread idly by the quay. The oarsman starts to glide his set of juxtaposed and tied bamboos holding a bower-like roof noiselessly on the lake surrounded by three mountains in the distance. Coconut and banana trees and fishermen’s houses populate the lake’s different edges. Straight ahead stands the temple with historical accounts to narrate. As we went near the shore within five minutes, Odang, my local tour guide points out the Gopura, the peak of the temple tower.


“We get onto one of the innumerable rafts spread idly by the quay.” | Photo by Pramod Kanakath


The temple slowly slides into view and in parts in between the leafy boughs as we make our touristy way into Kampung Pulo enclosure. Souvenir and food selling shops welcome us to a subdued-looking atmosphere. The vendors do not try to steal our attention particularly though a lady holds aloft a replica of the raft we used to hop on to Kampung Pulo. Next to her is a man frying corn on a burning hot charcoal. The smoke and the golden-coloured corn texture are invitingly warm under a cool, rain-sodden sky. My smile at the corn man is probably an indication of a possible return to his kiosk.

Utter silence dominates the air as we enter the six-house compound that is Kampung Pulo. The setting is pretty much like in one of those Agraharams (housing compounds of Brahmins in South India) though this is a miniature version. Three each on left and right, all built alike, walls painted white and yellow and roofed with brick-tiles. Flowery plants deck the front of each small house. A small mosque faces the two rows of houses from where we enter. Odang and I sauntered along hoping to meet someone in front of the houses. There is no sign of movement so we choose to walk further and visit the Cangkuang Temple a few metres away.

“It’s very old, built either in the 7th or the 8th century, not sure about the exact number,” Odang begins his account in a casual way.

He is right as the exact time of the construction of this temple is still debatable though many believe it to have existed since the 8th century AD. Available historical evidence suggests that it was built under the Sunda Kingdom, a stronghold under the Mataram Kingdom, one of the several Indian kingdoms which ruled Indonesia from the 7th to the 15th century. It had remained buried underneath the earth for an unaccounted period of time. The temple and some prehistoric artefacts were excavated in 1966 by an Indonesian research team following a Dutch explorers report. Built in the style of Prambanan temples near Yogyakarta, the Cangkuang temple has four sides and three tiers leading to the Gopura. There is an idol in the sanctum sanctorum.

“That is Lord Shiva,” Odang points to the idol inside. The sanctum sanctorum has been locked.

Odang says that there is a bull’s head under the feet of the God. “The bull is supposed to be Nandi and that was how the idol had been attributed to Lord Shiva.”

A closer peek through the iron bars reveals the idol sitting cross-legged on a Padmasana. The left leg is spread toward the right on the Padmasana. The right one touches the pedestal beneath and the tip of the left leg almost touches the ear of Nandi.

“By the way, the stones and tools are placed in the museum there,” Odang points to the small museum within the temple compound, referring to relics from the Stone Age.

“And this tomb?” I ask Odang with utmost curiosity. A Muslim tomb side by side a Hindu temple should definitely speak something about the conscience of religious harmony.

My mind wanders again. This time to the fortress of Tipu Sultan inside of which is a Hanuman temple in the little known town of Palakkad in Kerala.

“That is Arif Muhammed, the man who founded Kampung Pulo.”

Such concretely symbolical sights are not uncommon in India, but it is very rare in Indonesia. I stand there for minutes, full of awe and admiration for the temple and the tomb, and read the board which announces the status of Arif Muhammed.

Sensing my curiosity, Odang stretches his story further.

“Arif Muhammed fought for the Mataram Kingdom in the 17th century against the Dutch colonial rulers of Batavia (present-day Jakarta). His ambush against the enemies failed and he refused to return to Batavia.”

Arif Muhammed was a Muslim and after settling down in Cangkuang he preached Islamic ideals among the Hindu locals there. The Kampung Pulo he had founded is kept alive and intact to this day by the six families who reside there now. Though Muslims, they still practise certain traits of Hinduism which were part of their forefathers’ culture and belief.

“Both the temple and the tomb were found in ruins,” Odang’s tone gives history a mythical touch. “They say the statue was also broken into pieces. It took more than ten years to reconstruct both the structures.”

“Records reveal that only about half of the remnants of the temple were found during the excavation.”

I gazed at the stones and shape of the temple and wonder how different the original temple might have been. Records reveal that only about half of the remnants of the temple were found during the excavation. This means that though the archaeologists had done a great job at refurbishing the temple structure, it may not have been done using the method of anastylosis which revived many parts of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

“It was really surprising to see two different religious monuments side by side. Probably that explains the unique form of Islamic culture followed in Kampung Pulo.”

“Can we knock the door of one of those houses?”

We walked back to the housing compound where Arif Muhammed’s legacy is preserved in purity three centuries after his death. We spotted two men sitting on the patio of the first house on the left. An elderly man wearing a Muslim turban is chatting with a young man.

Odang greets the elderly man, “Selamat sore, Pak” (Good evening, sir).

“Silahkan, duduk sini,” (please be seated here), the man who looks like Arif Muhammed in my fantastic imagination welcomes us. He introduces himself as Tatang Sanjaya. Dressed in a T-Shirt and a lungi (a skirt-like loincloth) in chequer design, Sanjaya seems to be friendly and welcoming. He dons a peaceful smile which seems to summarize years of experience as a leader and maturity is written all over it.

“This is my nephew. We were just resting after lunch,” Sanjaya says after confirming to me and Odang that he is the Kepala Keluarga (head of the family).

“What you heard is right. There are only six families as there were in Arif Muhammed’s time. Arif Muhammed had six children from his wife. Once someone gets married from one of the families, he or she will have to leave Kampung Pulo. The married ones can stay here only for two weeks. Afterwards, they may visit their houses once in a while and stay here for a few days as guests. Once their children grow up to be on their own, the parents may return to Kampung Pulo,” explains the 60 year-old Kepala Keluarga.

“How about your lifestyles? Ceremonies and with a temple inside a Muslim compound?”

“We follow Islamic tradition and yet keep alive our traditional Sunda customs handed down to us by our forefathers. We do not pray for Eid in our mosque, but we join other Muslims in another mosque in Cangkuang. After the Eid prayers we pay tribute at the tomb of Arif Muhammed and the temple.”

Odang prompts Sanjaya on family customs once again. Sanjaya smiles and says that the rules of the family follow the strict traditional practices.

“Even the number and the structure of the houses cannot be changed. I am the Kepala Keluarga and no more than one head of the family is allowed. Currently there are about 21 residents in six houses and this is our ninth generation,” Sanjaya’s words are issued proudly and without errors.

“We also have certain other Dos and Don’ts. We are not supposed to keep four-legged animals as Pak Arif Muhammed didn’t want to domesticate them. We do not work on Wednesdays as Wednesdays were used by him to preach Islamic ideals to non-working people. Another thing is we do not play gongs and gamelan as one of Arif Muhammed’s sons had died during his circumcision ceremony while gongs and gamelan were being played.”

Sanjaya smiles and a pause strikes a momentary silence. The parrots inside the hanging cage behind Sanjaya start chirping. The nephew blows a puff from a traditional-looking cigarette. Sanjaya musically taps the mat on which we sit with his fingers and smiles again at both Odang and me separately.

“I hope you had a good time here. We would like to see you again in future.” Sanjaya and his nephew get up and shake hands with us, full of beaming smiles.

Known to have mixed and varied cultural characteristics, Kampung Pulo, like many other Javanese sects, follows a tradition called Sunda Wiwitan.

This has influences from shamanism, Hinduism, Buddhism and some animistic beliefs. I feel caught in a cobweb of history thinking about bygone events, what we know about them and what we don’t. Our brief visit to the museum enables us to see the relics and documents which have recorded the history of the temple from its discovery to its resurrection.

We left Sanjaya and his nephew and head for the raft which had been waiting too long for us. The corn man is reserved for the next visit as we start our glide back to the mainland.

Fishermen balancing themselves on two-piece bamboo rafts spread their nets against a backdrop of misty mountains and silhouetted, inclining coconut trees. Situ Cangkuang (Cangkuang lake) looks a bit busy now. Some school children manage their own raft and have after-school fun. The glorious mountains are introduced as Mt. Haruman, Mt. Mandalawangi and Mt. Guntur by Odang. The water remains as calm as does Kampung Pulo. Its glossy surface exudes a kind of serenity hard to be possessed even in villages. Even the oars produce a soft, silent music which can hardly be interpreted as sound. Only the splashing children make a difference when they plunge into the water.  “It’s a mountain-locked village,” grins Odang while getting off the raft.


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