Travel | People | Culture

Jolotundo – The Bathing Place

There is a scent of incense on the damp evening air. The temple is set into the green hillside: a facade of dark basalt fronted by a shallow pool full of slow-moving fish. Water pours in continuous rivulets from spouts in the masonry, and on either side of the pool is a bathing tank.  Tiny freshwater crabs clamber over the stones, and black frogs squat like malevolent spirits in the dripping recesses.

This place – the Jolotundo Temple, deep in the forest on the slopes of the 1653-meter Mount Penanggungan – is less than two hours by road from central Surabaya.  The chaos and congestion of the East Java capital seem a world away, but I am not alone in the green twilight: there are other pilgrims here.  Sitting at the edge of the pool I watch a man in a batik sarong pad over the stepping stones to a raised platform at the centre of the temple.  He settles himself cross-legged, lights an incense stick, and facing the empty plinth where the statue of some Hindu deity once stood, presses his palms in prayer.  In the bathing tanks – women to the left, men to the right – people are standing chest-deep in the cool, clear water.  Clearly something unusual is going on here; clearly Jolotundo is more than just another thousand-year-old relic of Java’s classical Hindu past.


Fresh from bathing a slim man comes and sits beside me at the water’s edge.

“My name is Muslim, and I’m a Muslim – easy to remember, right?”  He comes originally from Yogyakarta, the cradle of high Javanese culture, but is married to a Surabaya woman and has lived in the city for 15 years.

Muslim is a regular visitor to Jolotundo.  “Today I just came to bathe, but often I come to meditate, at night, from evening until morning.

“Javanese people believe there is power here.  This place is from the time of the Majapahit Empire.  We believe the remnants of Majapahit – the power, I mean – are still here.  It is a place where you can make a connection with your batin.”  Batin is a difficult word to translate precisely, meaning something along the lines of “inner spirit”.  Together with the idea of sacred power, held in places, people or objects, it is a key concept in Javanese mysticism – as are connections to Majapahit.

In truth the Jolotundo temple predates that mightiest of Hindu Javanese kingdoms by some 300 years.  It was built in the late 10th Century under the Sanjaya Dynasty.  Inscriptions connect the place to Udayana, father of Sanjaya’s last ruler, Airlangga.  However, the Penanggungan Mountain, a perfect cone standing sentinel between the coastal plains and the volcanic hinterland, was certainly still important in the Majapahit era.  It was said to be the broken summit of the mythical Mount Meru, home of the Gods; there are other, later temples on the slopes behind Jolotundo.  Under successive dynasties the peak and its sacred places had a powerful hold, and even today, long after Hindu-Buddhist Java gave way to Islam, the idea of the bathing temple as a place of power, of sacred energy, still lingers.

As a damp, leaden darkness falls and a cacophony of insect noise rises that power is almost palpable.  The static orange pinpricks of burning incense sticks show in the gloom and the meandering green sparks of fireflies fall like snowflakes.  More pilgrims arrive; the smell of incense thickens; naked forms, burnished in the light of oil lamps, move around the bathing tanks.


I pick my way through the dark forest to a small warung, a cafe built of bamboo in a clearing of smooth red earth below the temple.  It is owned by a man named Sembodo.

“We stay open all night; most people come to the temple at night.  The energy is best between midnight and 2 am.”  Pak Sembodo explains that the early hours of Friday morning is the best time to visit Jolotundo in any given week, but the most powerful nights of all are those of a full moon, or a Kliwon Tuesday, when the second day of the seven-day calendar coincides with the last day of the traditional five-day Javanese market week.

“On those nights it’s really busy.  You have to queue to bathe, for two hours sometimes.”


Observers of Java are quick to label phenomena like pilgrimage and nighttime meditation in search of sacred energy as the preserve of those who follow the traditional belief systems known as Kejawen – and are just as quick to present Kejawen as the absolute counterpoint to the Islamic orthodoxy of mosques and headscarves.

In the mid-20th Century anthropologists indentified what they saw as a distinct division between the Muslims of Java: there were the Santri, those who followed global Islamic strictures closely, and there were the others, the Kejawen or Abangan, whose faith was more closely rooted in Java itself and for who Islam, if it had any significance at all, was just one thin thread in a knot of Hinduism, Buddhism, ancestor-worship and animism.  Never the twain shall meet, the theory went, and the idea of an absolute Kejawen-Santri division in Java passed out of academia, through the pens of mainstream writers, and into public consciousness.  And the leap to the conclusion that, with concrete minarets sprouting like wet season rice shoots, Kejawen must be on the retreat was as easy as skipping over the stepping stones to the Jolotundo bathing tank.

But something about this strange, powerful place in the damp forest on the slopes of a sacred volcano seems to challenge such absolute ideas.  Plenty of the nighttime visitors pray, orthodox-fashion, in the langgar, the little Muslim prayer room, behind Pak Sembodo’s warung after they have scattered an offering of petals at the temple.  And the place is clearly the preserve of neither Javanese nor of Muslims: there are Chinese Indonesians and Balinese Hindus amongst the pilgrims.


Throughout the night a succession of men on motorbikes appear from the darkness to sit chatting and drinking coffee in the flickering lamplight of Sembodo’s warung.  Some come to bathe; others only to “refresh” after a long day in an office or campus in the cities of Sidoarjo and Surabaya.  Many of them wear dark, heavy jewels set in rings of tarnished pewter – amulets, little receptacles of the same kind of power that surrounds the temple.

A stocky, long-haired man named Syafik talks of the fleeting glimpses he has had of jins and spirits in the forest; a student called Martin smiles as he offers me a cigarette and asks, “Am I the first Kejawen Christian you’ve met?  There are lots of us…” and a Catholic from Sidoarjo asks, “Mas Timothy, do you believe in the Other World?”  In the noisy silence of the forest, the warung floating alone in the blanketing darkness, I answer in the affirmative…

All of them agree that I should take a midnight bath at the temple, but despite the endless cups of coffee tiredness creeps up, and a brief nap on a bamboo platform behind the warung turns into a full night’s sleep…


The air is fresh in the morning.  Lean, wiry men with sickles and hoes over their shoulders and thin dogs at their heels stalk up the potholed road towards the rough terraces on the mountain.  The temple is deserted, only burnt-out incense sticks and scattered petals to hint at what went on in the night.  Visiting Jolotundo on a quiet weekday, you would probably assume it was just another Sunday picnic spot – with a ticket booth and a few concrete benches – and unless you asked you would never hear the story of the friend of a friend who had the baby she had long been trying for only after bathing here at midnight on a Kliwon Tuesday.  This is the kind of thing that is easy to miss in Java.

I peer down into the bathing tank.  The water shimmers in the washed-out green light of the forest and I can see that the gargoyle from which the flow emerges is a naga, the serpent of Hindu mythology often associated with rivers, rearing up with its hood half-open in two flapped ridges and its brow menacingly wrinkled.  Muslim, the pilgrim I met the previous evening, told me that the water here is the second best in the world, after that from the holy Zamzam Well in Mecca; one of the late-night coffee-drinkers at the warung said it ranked third after Zamzam and the mouth of the Ganges.

As I sit pondering this, the first of the day’s pilgrims arrive at the temple.  These people are not the amulet-wearing mystics of the hours of darkness.  The women, giggling and fluttering, are dressed in white headscarves.  The men wear tartan sarongs, embroidered collarless shirts and crocheted skullcaps.  They have the purple bruise of devout prayer on their foreheads and when I skip down over the stones to talk to them their speech is peppered with affected Alhamdulillahs.  They are, unmistakably, Santris.

Their leader is a man with a sparse tuft of beard at his chin.  His name is Safi’i.  He has completed the Haj, the ritual journey to Mecca – a pilgrimage far longer than the three kilometer trip up the bumpy road to Jolotundo from his home village on the lower slopes of the volcano.  But something still draws him here.

“The water is good.  I come here to bathe to stop myself being stressed.”

While the men splash in the right-hand tank – with, it must be said, a little less solemnity than the visitors of the previous evening – the girls flutter at the edge of the pool.

“I want to bathe,” says a young woman called Holifa; “they say the water here makes you strong.  But I’m scared it will be cold…”


On the one hand you could view the Jolotundo bathing temple as a place so powerful that its draw reaches out across the Kejawen-Santri divide.  But as the little orthodox party drift away like white ghosts, carrying old Aqua bottles filled with spring water, I am left with a bigger idea.  This place simply makes a mockery of arbitrary religious categorizations made by anthropologists, journalists and even by the participants.  There are no absolutes in religion in Java; there are no concrete boundaries between faiths; only tangled threads.  Sitting cross-legged under the trees I try, on a back page of my notebook, to categorize the people who are drawn to Jolotundo, but the groupings splinter and multiply beyond the point of usefulness: there are Kejawen traditionalists, esoteric modern mystics, Majapahit fetishists, the casually curious, Santris, Balinese, Christians, Chinese – and now at least one foreigner…


It is midnight.  I make my way up from the warung to the temple.  The forest is a wall of insect noise and between the treetops the narrow strip of sky is smeared with stars.  The noise of running water fills the air.

Four men are sitting at the edge of the pool.  They are three Javanese and a Balinese man named Widiyasa who have driven up together from Surabaya.  They have just finished their ceremony.

Why, I ask, have they felt compelled to come here in the middle of the night?

“This is a good place to make myself pure, to clean myself,” says Widiyasa.  “There is still something here from Majapahit time.”

“The power, you mean?” I ask.  I can see nothing of Widiyasa’s face in the darkness and would never recognize him if we passed one another in a Surabaya shopping mall.

“There is more than that,” he says; “actually Majapahit itself is still there, still complete; you just cannot see it unless you have sixth sense.  At night the condition is better.  Between midnight and 2 am we say the gate is open; that is the time when there is something really special here…”

When Widiyasa and his friends have gone, lighting the way back to the road with their mobile phones, I am alone in the darkness.  It is 1 am.  The gate is open.

I tiptoe over the stepping stones and up the slippery ladder to the edge of the bathing tank.  The masonry is cold and wet and here the noise of running water is a roar.  I undress, shivering in the starlight, and drop into the cool, clear water…


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