The temples were built between 730 and 780, the first temple excepted, which could have been built some 30 years later. Gunung Songo is not the original name and also doesn't point at the number of structures. The number nine has a special meaning in the Javanese culture, in which there is a strong attachment to numbers. The temples are located at about the same distance from each other (100 meters, 200 meters) on a naturally formed terrace of edge of a mountain.
Bandungan and the Gedong Songo Group
South of Semarang Bandungan, a popular 981-meter-high hill resort on the southern slopes of Mt. Ungaran, is the base from which visitors explore the Gedung Songo temple group. It is always crowded, especially during the weekends and holidays. The area produces abundant vegetables, fruits, and decorative flowers. The locals hire out horses to explore the surrounding mountain trails.
But the main attraction of the area is the archaeological park, seven kilometers uphill from Bandungan on the slopes of a small valley on the southern side of Mount Ungaran. The Hinduistic temples that make up the complex are among the earliest antiquities in Java. The name of the group, Gedong Songo, means "Nine Buildings." The number nine had profound numerological significance in ancient Java.
At 900 meters elevation, this is perhaps the most breathtaking archaeological site on Java. The location was chosen with great care for its magnificent views over north-central Java, encompassing Mount Ungaran (2050 meters), Lake Rawapening, Mount Merbabu (3142 meters), and hazy Mount Merapi (2914 meters). On clear days it´s even possible to see massive Mount Lawu in East Java.
The area is also scattered with volcanic fumarole jets and sulphurous hot springs which no doubt added to the awe which the locality was once held by the ancients. It was probably a rite of purification for pilgrims to walk from hill to hill among the powerful vents, paying homage to each of sanctuaries in turn.
These ancient candi (temples) were built between 730 and 780 A.D. by the Hindu Sanjaya dynastic line that ruled a 100 kilometer wide area (from north to south) of Central Java. The Sanjaya were most likely also responsible for building the sanctuaries of Dieng, an even more famous mountain complex to the west.
The simple yet charming monuments of Gedong Songo are superb examples of the Early Classic style of Javanese architecture. The spires on top of some of the structures are given the name "false linga." Another feature of the Early Classic period are the temples´ projecting vestibule, often with its own roof.
Although most of the main candi in each group were dedicated to Shiva, one shrine was set aside for Vishnu, a Hindu god rarely worshipped on Java. Temple I, the youngest of Gedong Songo, stands by itself, but the others form groups of structures.
Some sections of the stone pathway from Temple I to Temple II is original. Temple II has a very well-preserved kala-makara relief on the portal. When viewing a candi, it´s best to walk slowly and look carefully because many attractive embellishments are not set at eye level.
Group III is the largest. It consists of three main shrines, all facing west and each dedicated to a Hindu god: Brahma to the south, Vishnu to the north, and the main temple to Shiva in the center. In front of the Shiva shrine, a small structure housing Shiva´s mount Nandi, was built in strict accordance to an Indian architectural manual.
Though vehicles can drive almost to the first temple up an incredibly steep road, it´s better to walk the six kilometers to Gedung Songo from Bandungan through a beautiful region of vegetable patches, rambling roses, and pine trees.
Starting only 30 meters from the parking lot, a 2427-meter-long walking path connects all five complexes of Gedong Songo. It takes only about 20 minutes to walk from the parking lot to Temple Gedong V, one of the most faithfully and completely reconstructed. The temples, lying on hilltops and ridges, are spaced 100-200 meters from each other.
The tour of the temples by horseback (Rp50,000 for one to two hours) is one of the best deals going on Java. You can either ride or be led. It is as if these non-complaining, small, sturdy beasts are on automatic pilot - they know all the trails and they plod uphill with their heads down indefatigably as if on tracks.
The steep trail takes you through well-tended gardens of papaya, bananas, potatoes, tobacco, cabbages, beans, grapes, tomatoes, and corn, with cloud-scudding temples above and volcanoes looming in the far distance.