Sukuh Temple in Java – different, embarrassing, erotic and largely unknown

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by Neil Godfrey

Borobudur temple view from northeast plateau, ...
Borobudur Temple Image via Wikipedia

I was recently holidaying in central Java and one “ancient” temple I had hoped to see was Candi Sukuh. I had heard it was very different from the usual run of the mill temple complexes at Borobudur and Prambanan, which I also had to see of course, and I hoped a first-hand look would help me understand a little more about the culture and people that built it, and a little more about what we (humanity) are.

Prambanan temple complex from the front gate.
Prambanan temple complex image via Wikipedia

I had not realized that there was more to Jogyakarta than Borobudur and Prambanan. There were also other smaller but no less interesting temples (candi) – Plaosan and Sewu. And nearby Solo’s Candi Sukuh was neighboured by a somewhat similar Candi Ceto. It will take me time to sort out and label the photos I took of all of these, but I have completed my Flickr set of the Sukuh photos.

Some of my labels and descriptions are really questions begging for more knowledgable persons to enlighten me to the meanings and stories behind them.

It was no easy task finding and reaching the Sukuh temple. The locals I asked at Jogyakarta seemed never to have heard of it. At one point I was told to change buses just outside the city, but there I was put on a bus that returned me to my starting point! Another generously took me on his motorcycle to what he thought was where I wanted to go, but I had to tell him he had taken me to the wrong temple. Finally I was told that the temple I wanted to see was way over in east Java towards Bali, and it was impossible to see it from Jogyakarta.

After all that I finally gave up any hope of seeing it, but a chance meeting at the Prambanan complex with an architecture student from Solo university was my lucky breakthrough. I owe Vava much — he very kindly offered to take me out to the sites on his motorcycle the next day. All I had to do was catch a train from Jogyakarta to Solo and meet him the following morning. I drove him mad with my incessant photographing, I’m sure. But he was responsible for the best part of my holiday, enabling me to see not only temple complexes too rarely seen (or even known) by outsiders, but also so much of the central Java countryside and people.

A major feature of the Candi Sukuh complex, a two-meter high phallus or lingga, has been removed and placed out of public view in a back workroom of the National Museum. At first I thought it might be on display in the museum, but I soon had doubts about that when I visited the museum to find it quite small and flooded throughout with classes of happily noisy and mobile young schoolchildren. But I eventually found the two-meter lingga through a smudgy window to an out-of-bounds workroom.

Presumably, Muslim sensibilities are at work here, both at the official and local levels.

But the temple does certainly raise interesting questions about our religiosity when contrasted with the far more modest and widely known temple complexes of central Java. The similarity with the Mayan structures is also remarkable.

My Candi Sukuh photos are now on Flickr. Links to Wikipedia and other information about the temple are also included there.

A few of them here —

The pyramid – how reminiscent of the Mayan structures!

Yoni again - the same

Dancing elephant-man in smithy

Three flat tortoise platforms

Scene from Sudamala story?

Someone must have really liked his head
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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Sukuh Temple in Java – different, embarrassing, erotic and largely unknown”

  1. After Napoleon completely took over Holland. Raffles governed/maintained the Dutch Indies for a brief time. It was during that time expeditions uncovered the Borobudur complex. I was at Candih Sukuh some time ago. Is it not a Hindu complex. The prevalent religion before Islam. There are similar erotic statutes in Nepal.

    Most disturbing statues from Pompei are underneath in the vaults of the Naples museum. Hidden from the Christian eye.

  2. We went there in 1979.
    Had quite an adventure getting there because the locals at Jogja did not know it at all, although my memory says we actually left from Solo…whatever.
    But one bemo driver said he did and so we set off in the general direction. It soon became obvious that he had no idea where it was, he kept stopping and asking locals if they knew the place and the locals all obligingly pointed in various directions and so we continued on.
    In fact thanks to Bill Dalton’s “Indonesian Handbook” I think we had a better idea than the driver.
    Of course we kept picking up and dropping off locals along the way and as is often the case travelling the trip was as important a part of the experience as the destination.
    After wheezing our way up a mountain engine complaining and various lights on the dash flashing frantically we actually found the place and said goodbye to the driver who told us a bus at the bottom would take us back to Solo, I’m pretty sure we were based in Solo at the time.
    We were the only people there and really enjoyed the silence, the fertility of the place and the ‘fertility’ of the carvings themselves. I remember the headless fella with his handful in your photo above and the lingan/yoni inside the temple.
    Getting down was easy, just start walking with gravity on your side for a change and grab the bus at the bottom. Although while we were waiting we get thoroughly drenched when one of those Javanese thunderstorms erupted and we were caught in the open.
    Had a great day, really enjoyed it as we enjoyed the whole of that 2 months in Java.
    Incidentally we were, of course, highly impressed with Borobodur but also a couple of small Buddhist temples, still being used for worship, near the Borobodur approach.
    Candi Parwon and Candi Mendut, the latter if I recall correctly having a Buddha inside.
    Nice photos by the way and thanks for reviving some nice memories of our trip of thirty years ago.
    Blimey seems like yesterday in some ways.

    1. Your experience kind of confirms my suspicions that locals or Indonesians generally don’t know of it at all. Presumably it’s not something a Muslim government and culture wants endow with too much tourist value or even local historical interest. (An Indonesian work colleague from Jakarta told me she had never heard of it, either.)

      You are right in that it is best accessed from Solo. I had attempted to rely on Jogjakarta tourist offices advertizing bus trips to Candi Sukuh, but it turned out they would only run if they had a small party of people to take. I was lucky to have met someone from Solo who was able to ride me out to see it from his home town.

      I have a photo set of various temples around Jogjakarta and Solo if interested. Did not see all the same ones you saw, however. One of them I turned my back simply because I saw when I got there that it was not Candi Sukuh, which my motor bike rider had mistaken etc etc.

      Thanks for exchanging notes.


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