Gunung Padang: the Javanese "Mountain of Light", between (fanta) archeology and folklore

We went to the island of Java in Indonesia to visit Gunung Padang, an enigmatic archaeological site that some have called "the oldest pyramid in the world". From the “Out of Sunda” theory to the recent surveys with the carbon-14 method, we will try to give a historical location to the “Mountain of Light”, between (fanta) archeology and folklore.

di Marco Maculotti

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about Gunung Padang archaeological site (literally, "Mountain of Light"), located in the village of Karyamukti, 25 km south-east of the city of Cianjur, in the province of West Java. It was primarily the researcher and prolific writer who made it so famous Graham Hancock, as well as a plethora of both Indonesian and international scholars who have supported the most science fiction theories on the site, citing an age of more than 20.000 years for the Gunung Padang and defining it - somewhat erroneously, as we will see - "The oldest pyramid structure in the world".

Author's photo. All the photographs in this reportage are to be considered the exclusive property of AXIS mundi

Between truth and mystification, the site also attracted the attention of the then Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who financed its excavations and scientific research and visited it personally, congratulating the archaeologists for the work done; he also took a clear position, which some have interpreted as strongly nationalist, supporting the hypothesis of the Gunung Padang as "the oldest pyramid in the world". But to what extent the pseudo-scientific theories of Hancock & co. and can the Sundanese homeland pride awakened by this discovery be taken seriously?

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Carbon-14 analyzes and dating

Developing on a series of five successive terraces, one rectangular and the others trapezoidal in shape, the site occupies an approximate area of ​​3.000 square meters, which make it the largest megalithic site in all of Southeast Asia. The five terraces are reached via a central staircase, built with an exceptional number of andesite blocks of prismatic shape (the steps are exactly 370, for a total length of 110 meters and with an inclination of 45 degrees), the same ones that were used to build the terraces themselves, some of which exceed 600 kilos.

It is therefore not surprising that the Sundanese then declare Gunung Padang the most impressive archaeological site in the Southern Seas. But what age can you recognize objectively to its construction? An attempt was made to answer this question with the 2012 investigations, conducted by a team coordinated by Indonesian geologist Danny Hilman Natawidjaja del Indonesian Research Center for GeoTechnologies, with the applause of President Yudhoyono.

These recent operations are responsible for the surveys with the carbon-14 method, which they provided for the highest terrace a dating of approx 5.000 years. An already impressive age, which is however overshadowed by the dating of the lower layers: the second terrace was dated to 7.000 years ago, the third 12.000, the fourth 17.000 and for the fifth and last level there is an age of even 24.000 years! To give the reader a rough idea, according to this theory the Gunung Padang would be 12.000 years older than the ceremonial site of Göbekli Tepe and its construction began almost 20.000 years before that of Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids!

All this obviously contrasts strongly with the academic vision concerning the spread of "civilization" and of man himself in the Pacific, which until recently was believed to have arrived in this area only a few millennia ago. Nonetheless, the scientific findings of the site seem to confirm "other" theories, such as theosophical ones which frame the history of humanity within a succession of cosmic cycles that ended in apocalyptic cataclysms (The Indonesian geographical area has often been connected by theosophists and independent researchers to the mythical submerged continent of Mu / Lemuriaor like that of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, which in the middle of the last century theorized the existence of one oceanic and thalassocratic civilization highly evolved capable, thousands of years ago, of bringing its culture - centered on navigation, agriculture and megalithism - from one side to the other of the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific.

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A less "fantastic" interpretation

It will be seen, however, that, as tantalizing as certain hypotheses may seem, they are ultimately seldom backed up by actual evidence., at least as far as Gunung Padang is concerned.

Although the artificial character of the arrangement of the prismatic blocks of andesite in the five levels of the site is real and indubitable, it does not take long to understand how these have not been modeled by human hand, but constitute precisely natural blocks, of volcanic origin, which the ancient inhabitants of this area limited themselves to arranging according to architectural requirements and rituals; in this one can approach the Gunung Padang to another enigmatic archaeological site in the Pacific, il Nan Madol in Pohnpei, Micronesia, also made with prismatic blocks of andesite.

The dates obtained from the 2012 operations, therefore, would refer to the geological age of the volcanic stone used for the construction of the site, and not - as instead Hancock & co. they would suggest - to the much more recent construction periods. Furthermore, it must be emphasized how the work of man has limited himself to modeling the morphology of a hill (obviously of natural origin) that already exists, and does not include -  as the most imaginative researchers suggest - the erection of a pyramidal structure stricto sensu.

In other words, iThe naturally formed columnar basalt (see eg 'Giant's Causeway' in Northern Ireland or some similar examples in Iceland) on Gunung Padang was used as a building material and was laid out according to an architectural plan: but this does not allow to legitimize either the definition given to the megalithic complex of "the oldest pyramid in the world", or to attribute to it a calculable age in the order of tens of thousands of years.

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From Theosophists to the "Out of Sunda" hypothesis

Immersing ourselves further in the theories ascribable to the vein that has been called di "Heretical archeology" (o fantarchaeology), it must first be noted that the first "seeds" can already be found at the beginning of the last century - therefore well before Hancock and his more recent followers - with the essay by theosophist CW Leadbeater (1854 - 1934) titled The Occult History of Java (published posthumously in 1951), a sort of "soup" in which, shortly after declaring that he wants to stick to archaeological and historical studies on the subject, he soon prepares to offer the reader a "hidden history" of the island which sometimes to really existing traditions, he deviates from them in a completely arbitrary way to corroborate his imaginative working hypothesis.

While not yet going so far as to hypothesize a construction of the site dating back to tens of thousands of years ago as others will do later, Leadbeater theorized an "Atlantean invasion" around 2.000 BC, which would bring with it the most abject cults and bloodthirsty practices, including the infamous human sacrifices. which are found in the ethnographic studies of the last few centuries all over the Pacific. This invasion would be followed by others of an "opposite" sign, that is to say a harbinger of an opposite type of religiosity, uranic-celestial: and the latter would be framed in the much broader historical framework of colonization of the "Arya" from the Indian subcontinent, the first of which seems to have occurred around 1.200 BC, and then reaches that of 700 AD of the Sailendra Dynasty, which was responsible for the construction of the Borobudur temple complex, the most impressive Buddhist sacred site in the world.

However, it will be necessary to wait until the end of the twentieth century to come across the first truly striking dates, such as the one proposed by physician and geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer in Eden in the East. The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia (1998). The latter advanced the hypothesis that the real Eden was located much farther east than the Middle Eastern basin, and precisely in an emerged land that he called Sunland (the name and guidelines of this hypothesis are from the biologist Desmond Sydney Johnson and date back to 1964), partially submerged about 12.000 years ago due to cataclysmic events (probably volcanic in nature).

Indeed, in the midst of the many unsubstantiated hypotheses, it must be recognized that the geologists themselves have identified, at the end of the last ice age (about 10.000 BC) a sudden rise of about 120 meters in sea level followed by the separation of the islands of Java and Sumatra and Borneo, previously united in a single emerged land which also included what today looks like the Philippine archipelago, as well as the Malaysian peninsula and the South of Indochina. According to Oppenheimer, this cataclysmic event started the dispersion of the original population of Sunda throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific, a theory he called "Out of Sunda".

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It didn't take long for a plethora of more or less accredited researchers to track down the mythical Sunland Platonic Atlantis: among them the American geologist Robert Schoch (Voyages of the Pyramid Builders, 2003), the aforementioned Danny Natawidjaja (Plato Never Lies: Atlantis is in Indonesia, 2013), Indonesian hydraulic engineer Dhani Irwanto (Atlantis: the Lost City is in the Java Sea, 2015), Aunt Abbas (Atlantis: the Final Solution, 2002), William Lauritzen and Arysio Nunes dos Santos (Atlantis: the Lost Continent Finally Found).

These are mostly mystifications based on half-truths, as often happens when this or the other author believes he recognizes the mythical Platonic Atlantis in a land more or less close to his respective birthplace. These hypotheses become even more paradoxical when, as in this case, the mythical sunken island is located in a geographical area completely detached from the geographical indications of the story of the priest of Sais in Solon, as reported by Plato in the Timaeus and in Critias.

It is however curious that Irwanto locate the mythical Garden of Eden on the legendary island of Taprobane, in Kilimantan in Indonesia; an island also mentioned by Deslisle de Sales in the eighteenth century, who cited an anonymous source according to which Atlantis was located in Taprobane, but considered at the time to be located in Ceylon (today's Sri Lanka).

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The spread of megalithism in Southeast Asia

So what age can you recognize at Gunung Padang? Some academic archaeologists, while resolutely rejecting the more science fiction hypotheses mentioned above, tend to confirm a certain age of the site, framing its construction in the chronological context of Neolithic revolution, during which the first megalithic sites appeared throughout the Indonesian archipelago (Sumatra, Java, Nias, etc.), as well as more generally in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos): we would therefore speak of an epoch that can be framed between 10.000 and 4.000 years ago.

Others, on the other hand, including VL Pérez Garcia, believe it dates back to the metal age, which in South-East Asia dates back to 500 BC, up to about 1.000 of our era. Pérez Garcia traces the construction of the site back to a the "paleometallic" period or the Bronze-Iron Age, during which an animist cult was practiced on the island of Java.

The fulcrum of the cultic practices was constituted by the veneration of the spirits of the Ancestors who were believed to inhabit the peaks of the mountains and hills, which consequently were considered sacred - beliefs also confirmed in other neighboring areas, such as the islands of Timor and Sumba, where the megalithic funerary tradition has been kept alive to this day. It was precisely to the spirits of the Ancestors residing on these peaks that they would offer themselves ritual sacrifices, including human ones, more recently of water buffaloes (an animal which in the Sundanese, Indonesian and more generally Southeast Asian traditions has strong psychopomp values).

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Pérez Garcia, confirming his theories, provides a long list of prehistoric Javanese sites, such as the Gunung Padang, among the so-called punden berundak, that is to say terraces of earth and stone with a pyramidal aspect, with steps:

Concretely es en Java Occidental, the region of Gunung Padang, whence abundan más las estructuras del type punden berundak: Kosala, Arca Domas (Rangkasbitung) y Lebak Sibedug / Cibedug (Citorek, Bayah), with 5, 13 and 11 terrazas respectively, in the province of Banten; Lembah Duhur, Pasir Ciranjar y Bukit Kasur (regencia de Cianjur), with 5 terrazas each; Hululingga, with 3 terrazas, y Gunung Gentong (regencia de Kuningan), with 6 terrazas; Pasir Lulumpang (Cimareme), Pasir Tanjung, Pasir Gantung, Pasir Luhur, Pasir Asteria, Pasir Tengah, Pasir Kolecer, Pasir Kairapayung y Cangkuang (regencia de Garut), with 13, 13, 9, 12, 11, 15, 15, 15 , 11 y 3 terrazas respectfully; Gunung Susuru (Kertabumi, regencia de Ciamis), Pangguyangan (Sukabumi) with 7 terrazas; Tampomas I y II (regencia de Sumedang), with 7 y 3 terrazas. Como ejemplos de terrazas megalíticas de Java Oriental podemos citar Gunung Penanggungan (regencia de Mojokerto), Gunung Argopuro (regencia de Bondowoso), Gunung Arjuno y Gunung Ringgit (regencia de Situbondo). To terminate añadiremos el sitio de Pugung Raharjo, located in the sur de Sumatra (regencia de Lampung meridional), right at the other side of the estrecho de Sonda.

Pérez Garcia considers all of these punden berundak like ritual centers where human sacrifices would have been made for centuries as part of the cult of the Ancestors. While presenting an indisputable heterogeneity, some of them - in addition to the typical pyramidal structure with stairs, obtained through the artificial processing of a natural hill - are scattered by the "fateful" prismatic pillars of andesite that we have already had the opportunity to find, as well as on the Gunung Padang, also in the Micronesian one of Nan Madol.

To the above list must also be added a list of similar buildings, probably built in more recent times than the Javanese ones, in the South Seas area including Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, Society Islands, Samoa, Tonga "and many other islands of this vast area of ​​the Pacific Ocean ». In the number of these archaeological sites the author also includes le marah Polynesian, raised megalithic platforms, also theater within the complex of cultic practices of the native populations of human sacrifices officiated towards the spirits of the Ancestors / cultural heroes remembered in the epic and folkloric sagas.

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Spread of megalithism in the Indonesian archipelago.

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Beliefs of Sundanese folklore

Precisely for this reason we want to conclude our journey into the maze of the "enigma Gunung Padang" by asking - after hearing the opinions of geologists, scientists, theosophists and archaeologists - the voice of local folklore. In this regard, we asked the guide who accompanied us on our visit to the archaeological site: «What do the popular traditions hand down on the very enigmatic 'Mountain of Light'?». 

The answer was not long in coming: as in many other parts of Indonesia or more generally in Southeast Asia, even in the case of Gunung Padang the legends attribute the erection of the megalithic site to the work of mythical and supernatural beings, who would have completed it in a single night. The construction of the site under analysis here would have been carried out by the mythical king Siliwangi, a character of the popular epic who has all the trappings of cultural hero of Sundanese folklore. But similar beliefs exist, as mentioned, in a much wider geographical area, and are found, in Java itself, even in the mythical chronicles concerning the construction of the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, dating back to 850 AD. 

In the four shots of the slideshow above you can see some significant details regarding the processing and treatment of the stone of volcanic origin from which the site is composed. In some shots perfectly circular cracks are visible which can be identified on numerous of the prismatic blocks present on the site. Even more bizarre are the "signs" imprinted in other megaliths of andesite: some remember - in the opinion of the local guide - the "footprint" of a feline paw, while others would be interpreted as "furrows" left by human fingers.

If academic archeology does not dare to comment on such oddities, local folklore still retains memory of them today: the guide reports the belief that they were left in ancient times by King Siliwangi and his "people", further mentioning the ability attributed to the aforementioned mythical heroes of turn into felines and make the rock malleable to their liking. Curiously, very similar legends can be found on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, on the coast that goes from Peru to Mexico; think, for example, of "demonic" divinities of the Olmecs or of the cultures of San Agustín (Colombia) and of the Chavín (Peru), all characterized by hybrid traits between the human and the feline, as well as the Andean myths concerning the "magical" building, from gigantic and pre-human lineage (the so-called "Gentiles"), one of the most impressive megalithic sites in South America. 

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Feline metamorphosis in Southeast Asia

Beliefs reminiscent of Javanese beliefs about mythical ancestors capable of "magically" turning into feline are also found in the Indian subcontinent, particularly among the Kondhs of Orissa, and in the regions of Meghalaya and western Assam (Naga, Khasi and Garo tribes). In the aforementioned geographical area, they are considered i guarantors of the socio-religious order at the local level, as well as living manifestations of eminent ancestors and dead sacred workers, and at the same time divinities in some degree "demonic" dwelling within the forest. Although Francis Brighenti carry the hypothesis that connects these cults and beliefs to the Shaivite influence (but also to the Tantric one), it seems that generally (and especially among the Kondh) the so-called "Weretigers" meet in conferences led by Darni Penu, the goddess of the earth, to whose commands they respond directly.

In any case, the functional sphere of individuals to whom this metamorphic ability is recognized is considered to be the sacral one, alongside shamans and healers, and therefore far from being considered exclusively negative (Idem in the Sundanese tradition, where the "tiger-men" are considered cultural heroes and mythical ancestors to whom great honors must be paid). According to a testimony collated in the field by Brighenti [Feline metamorphosis of the living and the dead among the Kondh of Orissa, p. 18],

"On an individual level, a kradi mliva is destined to be such by the will of the spirits of the hills, soru penu, but originally, at the time of the creation of the world, it was Darni Penu herself who established that there should be men invested by priestly authority and the magical-religious power inherent in it, men or women endowed with shamanic and mediumistic powers, diviners, healers, and finally people predestined to develop the faculty of transformation in feline.

Less encouraging are the beliefs ascribable to the Garo tradition of Meghalaya, where these hybrid entities are called matchadu and considered malignant, also because of the suppositories cannibal habits. Garo folklore also recalls "the epic struggle waged against the matchadu by the ancient heroes who led the tribe to its current settlement areas in the Garo Hills" [F. Brighenti, Traditional beliefs in weretigers in Meghalaya and Assam western, pp. 5-6]. Even according to the Garo legends, the "tiger-men" profess a sort of matriarchal cult towards "an immortal being of the female sex, called Durokma or Dorokma", or more simply with the appellative of Matchama, "Mother-Tiger". His main place of worship was a cave located on Koasi Hill in the Garo Hills, [p.7]

"[...] covered with huge boulders and home to a bloody Garo sacrificial cult until around 1860, when the place was 'desecrated' by a group of Garo who converted to Christianity. "

For their part, the Khasi, an Austro-Asian-speaking ethnic group based in the Indian state of Meghalaya, believe that the mythical hybrid beings "in spite of their sometimes rather bloody deeds, used their power only for good and noble purposes", and therefore they they worship as true heroes [p. 17].

Not infrequently in these testimonies there are references to megalithism or more generally to stone, seen as an object in correlation with the theriomorphic capacity: in some traditional Khasi stories one of the methods of achieving morph would be to rub one's body against a special rockwhile in the kondh tradition it is sometimes believed that the "tiger-men" are spirits residing in the megaliths raised on the hills outside the village. According to the Bhoi-Khasi the "weretigers", dwelling in "a parallel world quite distinct from that of men", the so-called ram-ia, they would meet at "stone circles located in the thick of the forest" [pp. 19-20].

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The analysis carried out by Brighenti on the beliefs in the Indian area of ​​the so-called "weretigers" is absolutely worthy of applause and highlights the shamanic cultual and cultural substratum on which folklore was then grafted over the centuries: we talk about out-of-body travel, of pacts with spiritual entities, of metamorphosis, of cannibal banquets reminiscent of those of the Sabbaths of the European Middle Ages, of the existence of a "World of dreams and shadows" and other “subtle” dimensions which the soul of the ecstatic can visit.

While not being able to properly deal with the subject here, it is important to emphasize that, although often attributable to the spiritual and "subtle" world, no less rarely these "tiger-men" seem to be people of flesh and blood, most of the times members of initiatory brotherhoods which have their own counterpart even in ancient Europe (think of Luperci Romans, To Berserker and Nordic Úlfheðinn, or ai "werewolves" livoni, ai Taltal Hungarians, Istrian kresniks, Romanian calusari, etc.), as well as in other geographical areas (the "leopard men" of black Africa).

Nevertheless - and here we conclude - the metamorphosis in the form of a tiger can be considered characteristic of Southeast Asia: in addition to the aforementioned regions of the Indian subcontinent, it is found in the Burmese and Malay traditions, in Thailand as well as in Cambodia and Vietnam; and obviously in the Indonesian archipelago, on the island of Java, where the Gunung Padang stands motionless, silent perhaps for millennia, the "Mountain of Light" that in recent years has made us dream so much (perhaps a little too much with open eyes) the Sundanese, from insiders to the presidents themselves.

The Author at Gunung Padang, August 2018


4 comments on “Gunung Padang: the Javanese "Mountain of Light", between (fanta) archeology and folklore"

  1. Hello, without taking a position in one direction or the other, however, there are some issues that should be explored from a technical point of view, in order to discredit the work of the geologist Natawidjaja. Surveying techniques, whether electrical or seismic, allow the presence of voids to be detected with certainty and to distinguish healthy rock complexes from superficial ones and from fill materials of anthropic origin. So the geometric reconstruction of the "pyramid" should be quite objective, as well as the presence of empty chambers and tunnels inside it. How can we discredit the result obtained from widely used and highly reliable instruments?
    As far as the datings are concerned, as far as I know, they are made by digging at different depths and looking for anthropic remains, which contain carbon (usually the remains of hearths are sought). This method has nothing to do with the dating of rocks, which obviously do not contain C (excluding special cases such as graphite or similar). So what you wrote makes little sense in my opinion: “The datings obtained from the 2012 operations, therefore, should refer to the geological age of the volcanic stone used to build the site, and not — as Hancock & co. would suggest — to the much more recent periods of construction”. You don't date a basalt with C14! And then the rock would have all the same age and would not vary with depth (this is due to the genetic nature of the basaltic columns).
    Here, to arrive at an answer, it would be a matter of jointly analyzing the finds considered reliable.
    In summary:
    – the geologist first states that the rocks used are natural, columnar basalts are evident
    – the fact that they are all of similar dimensions, however, indicates their partial processing
    – their disposition is of anthropic origin without a doubt
    – the classification of the structure in pyramid ss or not, should be easy based on the results of the geognostic surveys, based on the volumes of remodeling of the hill (someone will have to establish the limit to be able to consider it a pyramid)
    – deep voids have been found which would indicate a major remodeling of the hill, but are not being explored. All the answers could be found there

    In short, far from espousing Atlantean theories, but it doesn't seem to me that a clear answer has been given to everything.
    Yours sincerely

  2. I agree with the previous comment, the 20000 year dating was certainly not done on andesite, but on c14

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