The ancient legacy of water management
Nedi Putra AW
The Jakarta Post
The 1,653-meter high mountain, popularly known as the Mahameru or Pawitra in ancient Javanese myths, is a protected cultural heritage site with its ancient baths and pools — considered sacred by locals — that have existed for thousands of years.
There are at least four sites with ancient water-management systems located on the mountain. These sites are found in the trenches surrounding Jawi Temple in Prigen subdistrict, the Belahan and Tetek fountains in the Gempol subdistrict, the Jedong site in the Wotanmas village of Ngoro subdistrict and the Jolotundo pool in the Seloliman village of Trawas subdistrict.
“During the times of ancient Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms in Java, water fountains were very crucial as an integral part of religious sites,” M. Dwi Cahyono, an archeologist from Malang State University, said during a recent heritage trail event on ancient water management sites around the mountain.
“For an agriculture-based kingdom, the existence of patirthan [baths and pools] not only served religious purposes but also practically functioned as a water supply for the people’s daily lives, including for watering their paddy fields,”
Dwi said that thorough observations on the ancient sites showed just how thoughtful the ancestors were in developing the water management system, which was efficient, effective and withstood the test of time.
A perfect example of the system is seen in the trenches surrounding Jawi Temple, he added.
Symbolically, Dwi said the trenches represent the ocean surrounding the holy mountain, represented by the temple, which was built by King Kertanegara of the Singosari kingdom in the 13th century.
“At the same time, the trenches, technically speaking, also functioned as a measuring tool for water debit. This, of course, was very important for farmers who wanted to water their paddy fields,” he said.
Meanwhile, according to local tradition, the Belahan and Tetek fountains symbolize the source of life. The water in this site comes out from the nipples of a statue of Sri, the goddess of fertility, which has existed since 1049 AD, the year in which King Airlangga passed away.
In addition to the Sri statue, there is also a statue of Laksmi, a goddess believed in Hinduism to be the mother of the universe. However, unlike the Sri statue, Dwi said, no water bursts from the Laksmi statue as a result of a depleted water source.
Today, locals continue to use the Belahan and Tetek fountains for religious rituals because they consider it a holy site.
Oase: Visitors queue up to cleanse themselves using a seemingly endless supply of water at the Jolotundo pool.(JP/Nedi Putra AW)
“Locals also use the water from the Belahan and Tetek fountains for their daily needs,” Dwi said.
Jedong, an ancient water management site built around the 14th century, features collective reservoir technology that provided water to the people of ancient kingdoms.
Dwi said that the existence of the reservoir technology proved that the ancestors who designed it were ahead of their time in terms of engineering.
The water management system of the Jotolundo pool features a unique and special design, Dwi said.
“The architecture of the site uses the principles of the U-shaped pipe to distribute water coming from the slopes of the mountain,” he said.
By using a U-shaped pipe, the system distributes water to the people living below the mountain through channels that were built underground.
The Jolotundo pool, one of the most advanced water management systems of its time, according to Dwi, was built in 977 AD.
Like the Belahan and Tetek fountains, the Jolotundo pool remains a major attraction for locals looking to take a bath or conduct religious rituals. They are also permitted to take the water to their homes for their daily needs as long as they pay the entrance fee of Rp 10,000 (75 US cents).
While the ancient sites were integral to the locals’ day-to-day lives, Dwi said, they were also important in the conservation of the surrounding forest, which provided separate water sources.
Water has been continuously depleting due to uncontrolled illegal logging and longer dry seasons in recent years, Dwi said, adding that he wanted today’s society and stakeholders to realize that they needed to be wiser in dealing with natural resources.
“The younger generations of today must take notes on the work of our ancestors who successfully developed a sustainable water management system so that we can preserve the water sources that are available today for the future,” Dwi said.
One of the participants of the heritage trail event, Fahmi Hidayat, said he agreed with Dwi that sustainable water management systems have been an integral part of Indonesian society since ancient times.
Fahmi, who works as a technical deputy at state-owned water supplier Jasa Tirta I, said the government had issued numerous regulations to ensure that sustainable water management systems would thrive while also respecting local wisdom and culture.
“However, the implementation of those regulations remains lacking,” Fahmi said.
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