Stairway to heaven: The area surrounding the Hindu temple known as Cangkuang is kept immaculate by local residents. JP/Simon Marcus Gower
On the road between the West Java towns of Bandung and Garut is a small turning at a village known as Leles. Much of the traffic along this minor road consists of horse-drawn carts, or delman, which evidently provide the taxi or bus services in this area. The winding road goes on, meandering through scenic countryside and several lakes and ponds.
It is these small bodies of water that connect to our destination, which is also surrounded by water. Once the narrow, winding road with its busy horse-drawn carts has been negotiated, one arrives at a large body of water. This lake is initially covered with water lilies, while local people restfully dip their fishing rods in the lazy-day hope of getting a bite.
There is already a sense of time being much more leisurely, even of having stood still here. There is no hustle and bustle; the only noise comes from the surrounding nature and perhaps the jangle of the reins and bells and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves from the passing carts. This feeling of time moving at a more leisurely pace is only accentuated upon arrival at our destination.
Our destination lies across the lake, which, short of swimming, is only accessible via quite unusual bamboo rafts. These long rafts can seat perhaps a dozen or more people in the small roof-covered seating down the middle. They are unusual for their remarkable length, typically about 20 meters, and are made up entirely of large shafts of bamboo lashed together.
Sitting on a small peninsula in the lake, surrounded by huge and beautifully matured trees, is the Hindu temple known as Cangkuang. This is reputed to be the oldest preserved building in all of West Java, dating as far back as the seventh century. Its age is one attribute, but upon arrival it is its location that makes a greater impression.
No frills: Cangkuang temple is plain and simple, featuring shaped stones rather than carved decorations. JP/Simon Marcus Gower
As the bamboo raft gently glides across the still waters, the degree of calm and restfulness that may be experienced can be a deeply satisfying and even spiritual experience. The temple comes in and out of view, guarded as it is by the majestic legion of trees.
Although the temple is considered the oldest preserved building in West Java, the word “preserved” is the operative one when viewing the building close-up.
It is very apparent that much restoration and indeed reconstruction has taken place. In fact, there is a photographic record of this restoration and reconstruction work in the small, one-room museum that stands next to the temple.
In 1914, the Dutch Archaeological Service noted the collapsed remains of a temple here, and then in the 1960s and 1970s extensive work was carried out. It seems that 40 percent of the original stones remained and these were added to so that the temple could stand tall atop the peninsula again.
Looking at the temple up close, though, all of this reconstruction has left the temple looking too good to be true, so to speak. The stones are too crisply cut and fresh-looking, and so, despite the claimed age of the building, there is a feeling of artifice about looking at the temple today.
It is a simple, plain and quite typical design for a Hindu temple, with steps leading up to a small single chamber within. There are no statues to be seen anywhere around the exterior, and decoration is primarily via three tiers of finials that create a chorus and stone fingers pointing heavenward.
Within the small internal chamber is a small stone statue of the seated figure of the Hindu deity Shiva. This small statue is heavily worn and shows its age in a way that the surrounding stones do not; perhaps because of its size the chamber is gated and locked, otherwise the statue could quite easily be removed.
In spite of the security, religious devotion is still practiced here, with incense sticks and money being placed within the small chamber. It is also clear that this small peninsula is an area of devotion in other ways too. Right next to the temple is the grave of Arief Muhammad, a 17th century resistance fighter.
Arief led numerous attacks against the Dutch in Batavia (now Jakarta), but seemingly gave them up to settle in this region with his wife and family, eventually to be buried here. But doubts and mystery still shroud his death, for it is said that when the grave was excavated, no human remains were found.
All around the peninsula are graves, and among the sprawling roots of the mighty shade trees are stones that suggest the trees took root and grew around and over graves. The peninsula is, then, the final resting place for many, and this seems appropriate for it is an extremely peaceful place.
A small village sits on the peninsula, a sleepy and quiet handful of homes. The local residents sell refreshments and trinkets to visitors, but it’s not too touristy or unwelcome. Rather the opposite, in fact, and it seems the people are happy to see visitors to this unusual and deeply harmonious place. It is with reluctance one takes the bamboo raft ride back across the lake.