Sukuh Temple is located on the west side of Mount Lawu in
Sukuh Hamlet of Berjo Village, Ngargoyoso Subdistrict,
Karanganyar Regency in Central Java Province. The temple in
constructed on an elevation of + 910 meters above sea level.
This temple was discovered in damaged condition in 1815 by
Johnson, then Resident of Surakarta during Raffles
administration. Sukuh Temple was further investigated by Van
der Vlis in 1842, the results of which were reported in Van
der Vlis’ book entitled Prove Eener Beschrijten op Soekoeh
en Tjeto. Further researching works were conducted by
Hoepermans between 1864 and 1867, and were reported in a
book entitled Hindoe Oudheiden van Java. In 1889, Verbeek
performed inventory works on this temple, which was
continued by Knebel and WF. Stutterheim through a research
Sukuh is a Hindu temple, and was probably built in the
end of the 15th century AD. Unlike that of typical Hindu
temples in Central Java, the architecture of Sukuh Temple is
considered to be departing from requirements stated in Wastu
Widya, a guide book for constructing Hindu shrines. The book
requires that a temple should be laid out on a square plan
with the most sacred place located at the center. The
deviation seems to be resulting from the fact that this
temple was built when the influence of Hinduism was waning.
The waning influence of Hinduism had given rise to the
revival of local cultural practices of Megalithic era. The
influence of this pre-historic era is seen in the shape of
Sukuh temple structure, which is a terraced-mound. Such
shape is similar to stepped-mound that is characteristic of
pre-Hinduism shrines. Another characteristic of pre-Hinduism
shrines is that the most sacred place is located on the
highest and rearmost part.
Scholars argue that Sukuh Temple was built for
purification rituals to repel or release evil power that
affects the life of an individual for having particular
special characteristics. The argument is founded on stories
of purification rituals such as Sudamala and Garudheya
depicted in the temple’s sculptures and on statues of turtle
and garuda found in the temple.
Sukuh Temple compound is laid out on an area of 5,500 m2,
comprising three terraces. Platform on each terrace is
surrounded by stone wall 2 m high. At a glance, this temple
looks like shrines belonging to the Maya in Mexico. The main
and additional entrances that lead to each terrace and the
main building face westward, which is different from typical
Central Java temples that face eastward. The three terraces
are split into two right in the middle by an arrangement of
stone blocks that form a stairway to the next terrace’s
The gate to the first terrace is a paduraksa, a
roofed-gate. The gate’s frame is embellished with
long-bearded kala relief decoration. The wall on the north
side of the gate is adorned with sculptures depicting a man
running while biting a snake. According to K.C. Cruq, the
sculptures symbolize Javanese year that reads gapura buta
anahut buntut (giant gate biting a snake’s tail),
representing the Javanese year of 1359 or 1437 AD, which is
believed to be the year the temple’s construction was
completed. Above the figure, there are sculptures of a
flying human-like creature and a reptile.
The south side of the gate is adorned with sculptures of
a figure swallowed by a giant. The sculptures also symbolize
Javanese year that read gapura buta mangan wong or giant
gate that eats a man. The symbol is interpreted as the
Javanese year of 1359 or 1437 AD, the same as that on the
north side of the gate. The outer wall of the gate is also
embellished with sculptures of a pair of birds nestling on a
tree, overlooking a dog and a garuda spreading its wings
with a snake clasped in its claws. On the front court
outside the gate, there is a pile of stones in various
shapes; some have holes like pedestal, and some others like
The floor inside the entrance gate is embellished with
sculptures of phallus and vagina that nearly touch each
other. The sculptures represent the unity between lingga
(female genital organ) and yoni (male genital organ), a
symbol of fertility. Today railings are placed around the
sculptures, making it difficult to pass through the gate. To
access the first terrace, visitors use a stairway next to
the gate. It is believed that the sculptures serve as a
suwuk (magic spell or medication) to purify (to heal and
release) any dirt that reside in the heart. That is why the
sculptures are engraved on the floor in the entrance gate.
People will pass through them, and, therefore, any dirt
sticking on their body will be cleansed.
Above the gate frame and facing the first terrace
platform, there is Kalamakara ornament which is already
badly damaged. The north and south walls have sculptures of
men holding a weapon in squatting position.
Platform on the first terrace, which is not wide, is
split by stone blocks that form a walkway to the second
terrace. To the north, there are stone panels that are
placed in a row. The first panel carries sculptures of a man
on a horseback escorted by spearmen. Next to the horse is a
man walking and carrying an umbrella. The second panel is
engraved with sculptures of a pair of cows, while the third
panel carries sculptures of a man riding an elephant. To the
south of the platform, there are piles of stone blocks in
various shapes and a number of linggas.
To the northeast or the rear part of platform on the
second terrace, there is a 'bentar' gate (gate without roof)
flanking a stairway that leads to the third terrace. No
sculptures or ornaments are found on the walls of this gate.
This relatively small platform has neither statues nor
relief. To the east or the rear section, there is another 'bentar'
gate flanking a stairway to the third terrace. This gate is
in heavily damaged condition. Pair of Dwarapala statues,
which are already worn-out, are placed in front of the gate.
These two gate-guarding statues are roughly carved, with
awkward and barely fearsome look, and they even look
The third and highest terrace is the most sacred place.
Its platform is split into two sections, north and south,
by a stone walkway that leads to a shrine on the back of the
terrace. This platform has many statues and sculptured stone
panels. To the north, or the front section of the platform,
there are 3 statues of winged man with the head of a garuda
in standing position, wings spread. Only one of the three is
still intact. The other two are headless. Inscriptions are
found on one of the garuda statues dated in the Javanese
year of 1363 or 1441 AD and 1364 or 1442 AD. To the north,
there is a row of stone panels, each with ornaments of
elephant and cow sculptures.
In front of the main building, slightly to the south,
there is a stone post carrying a passage of Garudheya myth.
The upper part of the left corner contains inscriptions
written in Kawi that read “Padamel rikang buku tirta sunya”
symbolizing the Javanese year of 1361. Garudheya is the name
of a Garuda, an adopted child of Dewi Winata. The goddess
has a sister Dewi Kadru who is also her husband’s other
wife. Dewi Kadru rears several adopted children, who are
snakes. Dewi Winata loses in a bet against
Dewi Kadru, so she becomes a slave to Dewi Kadru and her
children. Garudheya finds Tirta Amerta (the water of life)
that is required in the purification to set her mother free
from the slavery. Relief telling Garudheya story can also be
found on Kidal Temple in East Java, which was built by
Anusapati to purify his mother Ken Dedes.
These stone panels hold relief of stories adapted from
Kidung Sudamala. Sudamala tells about Sadhewa, one of the
five brothers of Pandawa, who manages to free Dewi Uma, the
wife of Bathara Guru, from a curse. Dewi Uma was cursed by
her husband because she cannot restrain her anger after her
husband asks her for sexual intercourse at a time she
considers to be inappropriate. For her furious anger, the
goddess is cursed to be a giant called Bathari Durga.
Bathari Durga, pretending to be Dewi Kunthi, the mother of
Pandawa, sees Sadewa and asks the knight to purify her. The
story is narrated in five relief panels.
The first panel depicts Dewi Kunti approaching her son,
Sadewa, to ask him to 'purify' (remove curse) Bathari Durga.
The second panel shows Bima, the elder brother of Sadewa,
engaging in a fight against a giant. Bima’s left hand lifts
the giant, while right one piercing the opponent’s belly
using his Pancanaka nail (Bima’s powerful weapon).
The third panel describes Sadewa, who refuses to 'purify
Bathari Durga, is tied in a tree. Bathari Durga stands in
front of him, threatening with a sword.
The fourth panel tells the marriage between Sadewa and
Dewi Pradhapa, who is gifted to him for 'purifying' Bathari
Durga. The fifth panel shows Sadewa and his accompaniment
appears before Dewi Uma, who he has already purified.
A small shrine with small statue inside is placed on the
porch to the south of the stone. According to local
mythology, the shrine represents the residency of Kyai Sukuh,
who is the mana of Temple Sukuh.
In front of the main building there are three big-sized
tortoise statues. The statues, Tortoise, which can also be
found in Cetha temple, symbolize the under world, i.e. the
foot of mount Mahameru.
The main building is trapezium, laid out on a 15 m2 wide
plan and standing 6 m high. On the west side of the
building, right in the center, there is a narrow and steep
leading to the roof. It seems that the remaining building
is the temple’s platform, while the temple itself was made
of wood. The assumption is founded on the presence of some
stone pedestals on that platform. In the middle of platform
there is a lingga, of which the pair (the linga) is kept in
National Museum, Jakarta.
Preservation efforts of Sukuh temple have been conducted
since the Dutch era. The first restoration works were
carried out by the Archaeological Agency in 1917. The
second were organized in the 1970s by the Department of
Education and Culture.