By: Ar. Nadge Ariffin
The sprawling nation of Indonesia is often overlooked in world issues. This includes in fields such as archaeology or other aspects of history, ancient or modern. But together with its ethno-culturally related neighbours Malaysia and the Philippines, which together make up the vast Malay Archipelago of Southeast Asia, there are many treasures and much to learn in this region.
Indonesia itself consists of about 17,500 islands; it is the biggest archipelagic nation on earth. But it wasn’t always insular. As near as around 10,000-plus years ago during the last Ice Age when ocean levels were much lower, Indonesia and its above-mentioned neighbours were a conjoined continent. Connected to mainland Asia by the Malay Peninsula, this continent is sometimes geographically called Sundaland although native Malayic legends call it by a local name “Benua Mu”, the lost continent of Mu.
Mu was long inhabited as attested by the many bones unearthed of prehistoric humans in the region. A most famous of whom is the 11,000-year-old Perak Man, the oldest complete skeleton, found ceremonially buried in a cave at the UNESCO-listed Lenggong Valley in Malaysia. But various other evidences of sapient human presence around the archipelago, including prehistoric tools and paintings, go back tens of thousands of years.
How about pyramids?
Ancient built structures in Indonesia are a contentious issue and still require much proper research. At present in Southeast Asia the oldest-known built civilisational site is at Sungai Batu in Kedah, Malaysia. Surprisingly it was an iron smelting and exporting complex of brick structures, certified dating back to the 8th century BC (yes, Before Christ). The Sungai Batu site is part of the old Malay kingdom of Kedah, which still exists today as a component royal state in Malaysia, making it one of the oldest continuous geopolitical entities in the world on par with contemporary Greece.
In Indonesia, a main reference point of historic architecture is the spectacular 9th-century AD Borobudur carved stone temple complex in central Java. This stepped pyramidal temple-mountain predates Cambodia’s Angkor Wat by several centuries. There are in fact many other historic stone or brick temples and structures numbering in the hundreds scattered around the region, attesting to the civilisational power of Southeast Asia. Besides stupa towers such as the stunning Hindu Prambanan temples, many are pyramidal structures, especially stepped models. This is the type associated with the Gunung Padang site.
The Gunung Padang Pyramid
Located several hours drive from Indonesia’s capital Jakarta inland at Karyamukti village, Cianjur regency, West Java province, Gunung Padang is touted as a megalithic site and has become a tourist attraction with basic facilities.
While “gunung” means mountain, “padang” means bright as in ‘daylight’ or even ‘bringing light’ in the local Sundanese language. Gunung Padang is almost 900 meters above sea level and at the summit there are five stepped, flat terraces strewn with some seemingly shaped rocks and stones in rubble or jumbled rows and walls. While Sunda locals had always known of the “punden berundak” (stepped terrace) sacred site and legends associated with it including as a palace of king Prabu Siliwangi, the Dutch colonials did mention it in reports from 1914.
In 1979 following local initiatives, studies were begun by the Indonesian government, and have continued off and on with various teams doing research. Several surveys including lab-tested dating studies have been done, but with the resulting controversies and contentions more peer reviews, detailed studies and verifications are needed. Funds, or lack thereof, are a perennial issue. Nonetheless, at end-June 2014, the Ministry of Education and Culture declared Gunung Padang a national Megalithic Site, covering about 72 acres or 29 hectares.
At present, this writer was told that Gunung Padang’s status is in the process of land acquisition for the whole site to enable more comprehensive studies.
For now, the announced survey results basically declare that the site is a huge asymmetric stepped pyramid built in four layers over different eras covering an extinct volcanic formation. The dates for each layer range from 3000 years BP (before present) at the youngest or top surface, all the way down to over 20,000 years BP at the lowest claimed man-modified section. Parts of the summit site are comparable in looks or concept to the ancient mountain city of Machu Picchu in Peru, or even Nan Madol megalithic lagoon city on Micronesia’s Pohnpei island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Research leader geophysicist Danny Hilman Natawidjaja of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences suggests that the site is a very ancient pyramid temple dating as far back as possibly 28,000 years and that there are chambers or cavities within the hill or pyramid.
Certainly more verification studies need to be conducted, but if the claims are correct, Gunung Padang will obviously change the entire perception of prehistoric societies. More so if coming from Southeast Asia, it would completely overturn the history of the beginnings of human civilisation. For now, the Gunung Padang pyramid remains a mystery.
Footnote: Internet searches for Gunung Padang would usually bring up information and images of not one but two other claimed pyramid sites further east, towards the Borobudur site. These are Gunung Lalakon and Gunung Sadahurip, which are presently tall hills that when photographed from certain angles look uncannily like smooth four-sided pyramids. Similarly, both have been claimed as long-forgotten ancient man-made structures. Thus, even more pyramid mysteries.