Text and photo by Ayos Purwoaji & Dwi Putri Ratnasari

Located in one of the highest plateaus in the world, with local wisdoms that have stood against the test of time.

The bus I was riding from the Wonosobo market started to moving up and bouncing, shaking its passengers and loads, waking me up from my sleep. When I squinted my eyes out the window, I saw a spectacular view: a narrow gorge with layers of flanks filled with colorful fields. Cotton candy clouds above seemed so close that I felt like I could touch them with my hand. In a short while, I had been refreshed and starting to fantasize that I was in New Zealand, a country full of fertile land and sheeps that I often see on television.

But the sound of the bus cracking and rows of people with bright-skinned and pink cheeks on the street interrupted my reverie. Instantly, I realized the reality that I was still in Java, on the Dieng plateau, Wonosobo to be exact. I looked out once again, observing the local people, who are mostly medium height with brown skin and slanted eyes. “There are villages whose population tend to have slanted eyes since we were in deed descendants of Chinese people,” said a slanted eye Dieng woman who sat next to me.

At three o’clock, the normal temperature on the plateau is around 5-15 degree Celsius, but it would decline to an extreme zero degree upon entering dry season. In August, according to Bu Siti, the owner of the homestay in Dieng Kulon, grass would look like ice bar. Located at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters above sea level, the Dieng Plateau is one of the highest plateau in the world, second only to the Tibetan Plateau in Nepal. From a distance Dieng looks like a giant saucer surrounded by hills and mountains. And at 2093 meters above sea level, the temperature in Dieng is always cold.

When the dusk comes, fog begins to fall from the top of the mountain. By the time the sun sets, the whole area has been filled with fog. It’s so cold. Wearing thick jacket is a must if you want to fight the cold. But the locals prefer to cover their bodies with sarong, while their faces covered with checkered pattern cloth. Their look is similar to the description of the Sawang people in Rainbow Troop (Laskar Pelangi) novel that I got to think, the sea and the mountain people are actually the same: they love to hide under their sarong.

Some sources say that the word “Dieng” comes from Sanskrit, but others say that it comes from ancient Sundanese. “Di” means place, and “hyang” is God. Perhaps the plateau is called ‘Dieng’ because it is the most fitting place for gods and men to meet. It is in deed close to the sky, but hermits can still reach the place. In fact, there was a time when this area was a sacred ground where Hindu Brahmins went to meditate, self-isolating themselves to establish a connection with the gods and goddesses. Once, Dieng was the most popular place for young hermits to forge their souls. Traces of history can still be seen today. One of them is the reconstruction of a hut that was used to be the place where the Brahmins took a rest. This place is located in the courtyard of Candi Arjuna.

I imagined the place as Shambala, the holy city sought after by medieval adventurers. A legendary dwelling for holy men with no worldly needs, a miniature of heaven on earth, a utopia. In his novel The Secret of Shambala, James Redfield described the city above the cloud as a city of eternal peace and pure knowledge that can only be reached by the real seekers of truth.

I could feel the aura of little Shambala in Dieng. Especially since the beautiful and magical sound of tabla played by Ravi Shankar and Deepak Ram was on heavy rotation at my MP3 player throughout my trip, providing an eerie magical aura of Dieng. No doubt, this is the perfect place for New Agers to spend time to meditate.

But now not only the pilgrims come to Dieng, many tourists also visit the place. The plateau region has long been a popular vacation spot, as exemplified in a song from Serat Centhini, an ancient Javanese literature written in the 19th century. The ancient letter had also informed us of the existence of three temples that were already lost, no one really knows their present locations, i.e. Candi Duryudana, Candi Dahyang Durna, and Candi Sakuni.

In Dieng, there are many Hindu temples (candi) from the reign of Sanjaya Dynasty with names taken from the shadow puppet figures, which are based on the book of Mahabharata, such as Candi Arjuna, Candi Sembrada, Candi Srikandi, and Candi Puntadewa. There are also some other temple complexes, such as Gatotkaca and Dwarawati. From these various relics, we also learn that once Dieng people are devoted to Lord Shiva. This is visible from the temple’s reliefs and stone inscriptions, which are now displayed at Museum Kailasa.

The museum hosts and preserves many cultural artifacts. It is located in front of Candi Arjuna complex and was only inaugurated by the government in 2008. The museum looks neat and clean with modern architecture. It presents short duration film screenings about Dieng and various natural and cultural phenomena around it. Various artifacts and inscriptions are arranged and preserved. The entry ticket is Rp20 thousand per person.

In this museum, visitors would learn the stories about local residents, mostly Dieng farmers. In addition to potatoes as their major agricultural commodity, Dieng is also known as producer of carica fruit, which has a distinctive, refreshing taste. Although it is a member of papaya family, the carica tree can only grow and bear fruit in low temperature environment. Local people usually process the fruit into carica sweets, carica jam, or carica syrup, which are the most common gift people bring from Dieng.

In Dieng, watching the sun rise is a must-do activity. People can observe two kinds of sunrise, something that may not be found elsewhere, i.e. golden sunrise and silver sunrise. As the name suggests, during golden sunrise, a golden glow of sunlight would appear from behind the mountains. The scene can be viewed from the viewing post at Tieng village, or higher if you don’t mind climbing Mount Sikunir. The hill is located at Sembung Village, the highest village in Dieng Plateau areas. Meanwhile the silver sunrise phenomenon occurs around seven o’clock in the morning and can be viewed at Candi Arjuna temple complex, 30 minutes from Mount Sikunir.

Watching the sunrise from Mount Sikunir would make you feel the magic of the place where the gods live. Seeing the sunlight peeking from behind the mountain would chase away your tiredness and cold after climbing the mountain. From the top of Mount Sikunir, you can see Mount Merapi, Mount Sumbing, and Mount Sindoro in a distance, standing tall and blanketed by soft white cotton candy-like clouds. When the sun has fully arisen from its deep slumber, your eyes will be spoiled with long line of green hills surrounding Mount Sikunir. I felt like I was in paradise.

To reach the top of Mount Sikunir is not difficult. It does not require special equipment or skills. But stinging cold air and slippery, steep trail that you had to take in the dark in order to get to the top made the journey somewhat daunting and downright exhausting. You must be physically fit and wearing proper footwear before deciding to pursue the sunrise view from the top of the mountain.

In Dieng Plateau area we can also findseveral active craters, which are still coughing gases and hot mud. I visited some of the craters, i.e. Sikidang and Sileri. People say, the word “Sikidang” comes from the word “kidang,” which in Javanese means deer. The crater is named as such because of the jumping gases and hot mud ejected by the crater, just like jumping deer.

More amazing scenery can be seen when you stand a few meters from the lip of Crater Sileri. As far as your eyes could see, hot boiling muds are spread in an area of 2 hectares wide. Crater Sileri has recorded several eruptions and spewed hot mud high into the sky. Visitors should take extra care not to get too closer to the lip of the crater, or passing the barrier, or smoke in the area around the crater.

Besides active craters, there is a dead one filled with water that it looks like a giant well with a very large diameter, which exceeds 90 meters, and hundreds of meters deep. The locals call the well Jalatunda. Some people believe that the water from the well has the power to heal. But I just don’t understand how people can take water from the well, which is surrounded by steep cliffs. “I used to come down the well quite often… whenever there’s a sick person who asks for water,” said Muji, a middle aged man who sell rocks around the well with her little girl. The rocks are offered to visitors for Rp 500 per piece. According to local belief, if you can throw a stone across the well and land on the other side, your wishes would come true.

Ruwatan for Children with Dreadlock Hair

Another distinctive feature of Dieng Plateau is children with dreadlock hair in the village of Tieng. Actually they are ordinary children but, since birth, they have natural dreadlock hair. These dreadlock haired children are indeed very unique and curiously found only in Dieng. The local people, especially in Wonosobo, believe that dreadlock haired children are the offsprings and the favorites of Kiai Kolodete.

The legend says, the kiai (religious community leader), who according to local belief is the ancestor of Dieng community, has dreadlock hair and was very disturbed by his hair. Therefore, Kiai Kolodete left his offsprings a message that he would leave his dreadlock hair behind in order to have peace in the afterlife. The legend goes on to say that Kiai Kolodete did not want to shave his head because he had vowed to “never cutting his hair until the area become developed.”

But the grace of a dreadlock haired child would not survive maturity. At a certain age, these children would go through a ruwatan (a ritual to dispose bad luck) specifically held before cutting a child’s dreadlock hair. “When I grow up, my hair will be cut,” said Sinta, a dreadlock haired girl told me. Sinta is only four years old, not old enough to have a ruwatan. Usually the ruwatan ritual is carried out when a child is already at school age.

After a ceremonial procession led by the village elders, these little children with dreadlock hair are set free from their knotted and red colored hair. Not only that it is not fashionable, you can not comb this kind of hair. One thing is certain, if these little girls keep their dreadlock hair until they grow older, they’ll never be a shampoo ad model on television. []