An ancient Javanese text, the tantu panggelaran records how in times long past the holy Mt Mahameru was transported from India to Java, in order to hold the island in place. During the journey, however, the mountain began to break apart, pieces of it falling to earth to form a chain of volcanic peaks. The base became Mt Semeru, Java's highest mountain, while the summit, Mt Pawitra, came to rest on the plains to the south of Surabaya.
The legendary Mt Pawitra is identified today with Mt Penanggungan, which spans the regional boundaries of Pasuruan and Mojokerto. Rising just 1,650 metres above sea level, Penanggungan is not a high mountain. It is, in fact, dwarfed by the 3,000 metre peaks of the Arjuna/Welirang range which lie not far to the south. Yet, this mountain's unique shape, as well as its isolation on East Java's northern plain, make Penanggungan especially prominent. It has a central, almost perfectly rounded summit, below which lie four minor peaks, more or less symmetrically located in the cardinal directions. Little wonder, then, that the ancient Javanese saw in the form of Mt Penanggungan a reflection of the sacred Mahameru of Hindu mythology.
Although research on Mt Penanggungan had already begun during the early years of this century, it was not until the 1930's, following an expedition which revealed no less than 81 separate locations, that the mountain's importance as an archaeological site came to be fully appreciated. Since many of the monuments had no name, they were eventually given Roman numerals by Professor van Romondt in 1951, a system of classification which has since remained the standard one.
Dated inscriptions from Mt Penanggungan span a period of more than five centuries, from A.D. 977 until 1511. The earlier remains, notably the bathing places of Belahan and Jolotundo, have been connected with the historical figures of Mpu Sindok, Udayana and Airlangga in the 10th and 11th centuries. The majority of the sites, however, date from the later Majapahit period and are to be found higher up on the mountain's northern and western slopes.
Taking the form of small, terraced sanctuaries, built against the natural contours of the mountainside, this group of monuments exhibits the tendency in the declining years of Majapahit towards a re-emergence of ancient traditional beliefs, connected principally with the worship of ancestral spirits and the souls of departed. heroes. Orientated to the summit of the mountain, the buildings consist, for the most part, of three or more stepped levels, crowned with a type of altar, or 'ancestral seat' (pelinggih).Relief carvings found at some of the sites, such as at Candi Kendalisada, while not so different in style to those found on other East Javanese temples from the period, tend to display themes which are at once more mystical, as well as more firmly rooted in local tradition.
The numerous stone sanctuaries scattered over the slopes of Mt Penanggungan have further been compared with the complex of temples at Besakih on Mt Agung in Bali. In much the same way as different regions and clans are represented at Bali's 'mother temple', Penanggungan has been seen as representing the 'mother mountain', upon which the various petty kingdoms of East Java built religious monuments.
Many of Mt Penanggungan's more accessible sites can be found on the slopes of the minor peaks of Bekel and Gajah Mungkur. Intending visitors have the choice of starting out from a base on the western side, at Jolotundo, or from the northern slope, at the gateway of Jedong. Guides, who are an essential requirement, can be arranged from these two points of departure. A full day's climbing can cover about half a dozen interesting locations, set in the midst of a wild, mountain landscape.