Candi Sambisari

Candi Sambisari is one of the ‘Hidden Temples’ that we visited on our tour of Prambanan and the Hidden Temples from Yogyakarta. And it’s not a hidden temple because it’s off the beaten track, but because it has literally spent centuries hidden.

candi sambisari

I loved each and every one of the ‘Hidden Temples’ that we visited on that day in the countryside in Yogyakarta on the back of a motorbike, but Candi Sambisari is the one whose history really touched me. And possibly because the old man is still around telling his story…

Candi = temple and Sambisari is the name of the temple.

Candi Sambisari was built as a Hindu Temple for worship to the god Shiva. When we visited the temple, one of the first things we noticed was that it was set well below ground level in its own well. Our guide, Mukhlas, told us all about its history.

Candi Sambisari

Candi Sambisari’s amazing story:

Candi Sambisari was only discovered in the 1960’s. But it is said to date from the 7th century. Wow! How?

In the 9th century, Mount Merapi, which is today the world’s most active volcano, erupted and buried the whole area in ash and lava. Including the temple.

By the 20th century the ground level in this area had risen considerably. In 1961 a rice farmer had a recurring dream: he dreamt that outside, in his field, there was something precious buried and that he was digging it up. He had this same dream for seven nights and then decided to actually go and take a look.

After digging for quite some time in the same spot as his dream, he struck rock. And this rock turned out to be the tip of the temple Candi Sambisari.

When it became clear that there was something of interest here, the farmer’s land was bought by the government and the site was excavated. It took ten years to fully uncover the monument and to restore it. And now, fast forward a few decades and here we were admiring it in all its glory.

I asked our guide about the rice farmer. What happened to him? Was he still alive?

“Oh yes, he’s about 90 now,” Mukhlas told us. “He comes here often. I’ve seen him here many times.”

Imagine that! Imagine being a struggling rice farmer, imagine stumbling upon something like that. Imagine then that your land is taken from you. And imagine being that man at the moment that Candi Sambisari was finally restored and ready to accept visitors…

I couldn’t get my head round it.

Visiting Candi Sambisari and learning about Hinduism

We walked up the steps and into the temple. In the centre was a simple, tall, rounded piece of stone.

“Do you know what that is?” asked Mukhlas.

We didn’t.

“It’s Shiva’s penis,” he said matter-of-factly.

Candi Sambisari

And with that, he proceeded to tell us the basics of Hinduism:

There are three Hindu Gods:

  • The Creator (and therefore the boss) Brahman
  • The Destroyer Shiva
  • The Preserver Vishnu

In a nutshell…

Brahman instructed Shiva to go somewhere to do some work for him and to then come straight back. When Shiva did not return immediately, and Brahman realised it was because he had been fooling around with his lover, he cut Shiva’s penis off.

When temples are built to Shiva, in order to appease the Destroyer, often an enormous model of this organ is incorporated into the design.

After that incident, Shiva had to go away for a long time to meditate and he begged his wife Parvati to wait for him. She said she would, but when he returns he finds a young, handsome man in his home. In a rage he cuts off the man’s head.

When Shiva’s wife comes home she is horrified and she tells him it was Ganesh, his son. Filled with remorse, Shiva declares that he will replace his son’s head with the head of the next creature he lays eyes on (clearly didn’t think this through). He steps outside and sees an elephant. And from then on, Ganesh has the head of an elephant.

Candi Sambisari

In the Hindu religion, Ganesh is wise and intellectual. The god with the elephant head is often adopted as the symbol in schools.

Shiva’s wife, Parvati, is the goddess that used a cow for transportation and is often depicted sitting on it. And this is why the cow is sacred in Hindu countries.

Information from Candi Sambisari

The following is from the information on display at the temple:

Candi Sambisari was discovered in July 1966 when a peasant was hoeing his vegetable patch and his hoe struck something hard. He stopped to examine the stone and found it to be carved and to be imbedded in the soil with others all of which had obviously been part of a building.

When Archeological Service heard about this find they began to dig the Candi out. Their work was made much more difficult by the fact that a village road crossed the site and because the base of Candi lay buried six metres below the current surface.

A band of volcanic ash, covered over with oxidised sand to a total depth of one metre had been further buried in a water-borne flood containing ash, sand, large stones and other eruption debris.

Merapi, an active volcano is just 18km from Sambisari. It is believed that this eruption took place in the early tenth century. We can conclude that Sambisari was buried by this eruption, since the candi is dated to the end of the ninth century.

Sambisari is a Hindu temple and was therefore probably built by one of the rulers from the ancient Mataram Kingdom. Since Mataram vanished from central Java after this eruption Sambisari may have been the last candi to be put up by Mataram rulers.

Candi Sambisari consists of four stone buildings. The main building measures 13.65 x 13.65 metres and 7.5 metres high. In front of the main building there are three small buildings known as Pewara Temples.

So what do you think? Interesting, huh? Have you been to a temple with such bizarre history?

Click here for more about Yogyakarta.

I would like to remind you that all the photos used on are my own unless otherwise stated.
You can see my whole collection of Travel Photos here.


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  1. susan sykes says:

    Ah I never knew why he had an elephants head and now I do, very interesting post.

    • Lisa says:

      Ah thank you. I just loved this temple even though it wasn’t even really what we’d gone to see. We learnt loads about Hinduism that day, it was really interesting.

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