Some time in the late 19th century, a Roman Catholic priest from Holland ventured into the mountain jungles of Central Java. He met with the villagers, walked the treacherous terrain, and prayed in the hot steamy weather. And then a miracle came about. A large tree high above one of the dirty mountain streams sprouted clean, fresh water. Believing it to be a sign from heaven, this priest converts the villagers to Catholism, and establishes a grotto. Soon, believers from all across Asia would hear of Sendang Sono and would make pilgrimages there.
Sendang Sono celebrated its centennial anniversary as a pilgrimage site in 2004, its founding coming several years after Father van Lidt first gathered converts to his western faith. It is a peaceful mountain refuge, accessible only by following a ten-mile long and steep, half-paved mountain road without a guard rail. There is little if anything else around for miles, making it a retreat in the truest sense. Only about fifty villagers, all fervent Catholics, actually live there. But year round, pilgrims come by bus load for a few hours of peace, quiet, prayer, and reflection.
We arrived in late morning, before the pilgrims arrived in numbers, and began our tour with the village. The layout is pretty simple, there is a deeply-cut mountain stream. Along one bank (which we'll refer to as the 'left bank', as you approach it from the parking lot) is the village selling food and various relics out of wooden huts. The grotto, church, and other landmarks line the opposite 'right bank'. Several small bridges crossed over the stream.
Most of the architecture on the right bank was a combination of colonial Dutch and Javanese, with red being the predominant color. The first photograph shows examples in the form of the Stations of the Cross, a sequence of fourteen stations traditionally used by Catholics to tell the story of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. The red-painted A-frame roof style was the norm. The hexagonal cement-tile sidewalks and stairs were definitely European as well. Above the Stations was an altar building, and the path led us to the grotto.
The grotto is shown in the second photograph, one of the most beautiful grottos we had seen. We did not see a lot of flowers sold by the villagers, basically these were all imported by the pilgrims and dropped off. On the other hand, the villagers sold candles (and plenty of them) for burning at the grotto. We purchased a box of eight for less than a dollar, each to represent family who did not make the trip. On the side was a pile of wooden or straw mats, that the faithful can lay out in front to pray on. We noted that while the common praying positions for Americans was standing or kneeling, the pilgrims in Sendang Sono were more apt to sit cross-legged or prostrate themselves before Mary.
The rest of the right bank was full of landmarks. A stairwell led up to the main altar, which was a fabulous diorama of Jesus at Golgotha. This was a gorgeous lifelike scene, full of color. It is used as the altar for outdoor Masses, with the congregation watching from the sidewalks and passageways far below. Further up to the right was a huge and decorative wooden crucifix. Near the crucifix was the plaque shown in the third photograph, the scene of Father Van Lidt baptizing the villagers of Sendang Sono. This copper plaque stood about five feet tall and seven feet wide. Tom climbed up beyond the crucifix and plaque to the cemetery constructed at the top of the hill. It gave a good view over the whole complex.
The famous tree was located on the opposite side of the grotto, and in shown in the fourth photograph. That water comes out of the ground by itself was fact, but now a water tank installed on the site captures it. This tank is in the foreground of the photo, filled with water that will be bottled and sold or distributed as holy water. The villagers sell vials of this water to visitors as well.
The village shops along the left bank are fabulous. A number of the relics sold -- crosses, rosaries, and the like -- are locally made and high quality for the price. The left bank also has a path with another set of the Stations, but this time each Station is the size of a small building. We bought several small relics as gifts for friends and faithful back home, then hopped back in our car and headed off.
As for getting to Sendang Sono, when we said 'ten-mile long and steep,' etc., etc., we weren't kidding. There are two access roads, each one-laners coming from opposite directions -- one from Yogyakarta and the other from Borobudur. The roads follow along a ridgeline overlooking a very steep and thick jungle valley. Some parts of it were paved, such as shown in the fifth photograph, but most of it was washed out, choppy, and treacherous. The photo showed about the only really flat spot. Needless to say, four-wheel drive was a must.
One of the amusing things we passed was an unfortunate Javanese farmer who was pushing his bicycle uphill, completely loaded down with straw. It was extremely steep, and it was clear he had a couple more miles to go. This was dedication at its finest.
Those not familiar with Java (or Indonesia in general) might be very surprised that such a place as Sendang Sono exists, and thrives. It is a testament to the archipelago's tolerant multi-cultural and multi-religious heritage, not just for the Catholic minority, but also the Buddhist and Hindu minorities that are also well represented. This allows places like Sendang Sono to cultivate its own purity of existence -- a pilgrimage there is nothing like the tourist-dominated Lourdes of France, or other sites of Christian importance that have tapped into the economic mainstream of society. There is only one reason to go there, and that is to pray. And to get there, you have to want to get there.
Trip taken 31 May 2004 through 2 June 2004 -- Page last updated 28 October 2006 -- (C) 2004 Tom Galvin