Unlike on the island of Java, where legacies of once thriving Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms are evident through imposing temples, these are rarely found on Sumatra.
Among the few discovered on Sumatra, one particular temple complex stands out as a rare monument of the time when Buddhism flourished on the island. The complex is called the Bahal Temples and is located at the Bahal Village, at Padang Bolak District, South Tapanuli Regency, in the province of North Sumatra.
While Bahal is taken from the name of the village, the temple is otherwise known by another name which is the Portibi Temples. In the local Batak ethnic language, Portibi literally means “the World” or the “the Earth”, thus, giving the temples a special and unique name as the Temples of the World.
The Bahal or Portibi is estimated to have been around for thousands of years, and is believed to have been built by the Shiva Hindu King of Tamil who ruled from South India. However, other experts suggest that the existence of the temple is related to the Kingdom of Pannai which was part of the vast Srivijaya Empire, and had its seat in South Sumatra. The temples are also estimated to have been built during the same era as the Muara Takus Temple in the Riau Province, around the 12th Century.
Experts reveal that the three temples currently found in Bahal form part of at least 26 similar temples that were spread over a total area of 1,500 square kilometers at Padang Lawas, in South Tapanuli. Due to its location which is in the middle of a vast field, the local people often call these the Candi Padang Lawas or “Temples in the vast Field”.
The Bahal Temple Complex consists of three temples which are approximately 500 meters apart. A few kilometers from the Bahal Temples, was also discovered the Pulo Temples Complex.
The Bahal temple complex is situated on the bank of the Batang Pane River. Several theories suggest that the Batang Pane River was once an important transportation waterway bustling with economic activities. However, nowadays the river has silted and near impossible to accommodate trading vessels.
Also known as Biaro by the local people, The Bahal Temple Complex is recognized as the largest temple complex in North Sumatra. All temples, the Bahal Temple I, Bahal Temple II, and Bahal Temple III, are built using red bricks, while statues are carved from sandstone. Each of the temples is surrounded by a rectangular 1 meter thick and 1 meter high brick wall. The gate is located on the eastern side and extends outward with 60 cm high walls on both sides. In the center of each area stands the main temple with its entrance facing the gate.
The complex is centered around Bahal Temple I, which is regarded as the main temple, and is relatively larger than the other two. The architecture of the temples is similar to that of the Jabung temple located in Probolinggo Regency, East Java. In general, the temples are composed of a foundation, foot, body, and roof, and are laid over a rectangular base of about 7 square meters.
Among leading experts who have conducted research at the Bahal Temple Complex are Franz Junghun (1846), Von Rosenberg (1854), Kerkhoff (1887), Stein Callenfels (1920 and 1925), De Haan (1926), Krom (1923), and also F.M. Schinitger who are known to have studied and explained much of Sumatra’s historical archaeological remains..
F.M Schinitger was a German Archeologist who conducted a research on the temple complex in 1935 based on the Tanjore Tablet which uses the Tamil Language, and is said to have been built by King Coladewa from South India in 1030.
Schinitger believed that according to records by Chinese explorer, I-tsing, the king was said to have conquered the land of Pannai. Through further research, Schinitger concluded that the temple complex must be closely related to the Vajranaya Buddhism which is slightly different from Buddhism as is known today. This sect is marked by ferocious symbols expressed by the terrifying faces of the statues of giants. The symbols that were also found in the reliefs of the temples depict monstrous giants performing the Tandava dance. Tandava is described as a vigorous dance that is the source of the cycle of Creation, Preservation and Dissolution.
Among the ruins at Bahal Temple II, a Heruka Statue was found , considered to be the only one of its kind ever found in Indonesia. The statue depicts a rather vicious giant dancing over corpses and is decorated with rows of skulls. Bambang Budi Utomo, a researcher from the National Archeology Research Center describes the statue as follows: ”The right hand (of the giant) holds a vajra up high, while his left hand holds a human skull in front of his chest”.
The Padang Lawas temple complex is situated on top of a hill surrounded by valleys and rice paddies at Bahal Village, in the Padang Bolak District, in South Tapanuli Regency, North Sumatra Province, some 80 Km or three hours’ drive from Padang Sidempuan. The entrance to the Bahal Temple Complex is located at Bahal Village through the Portibi crossing in the town of Gunungtua.
The site is approximately 400Km from Medan, capital of North Sumatra, and can be reached following the route of Medan-Padang Sidempuan-Padang Bolak-Bahal Village. The entire trip will take approximately 12 hours.
Before visiting the actual temples it is best to first visit the Museum of Bahal Temples, located by the guard post of Bahal Temple I. In the museum you can observe some parts of the ruins of the temples that are still being studied before determining their actual spots.
There are also parts of statues or ornaments that are made of sandstones which are not part of the temple that are builg with red bricks. The museum is also the site where archeologists conduct reconstruction processes of the temple complex. However, to visit the museum you need to contact the officers in charge, for special permission since it is not entirely open for the public.
Bahal Temple I is easily accessible by vehicle and serves as the entrance to the entire complex, while the smaller Bahal Temple II is located 300 meters from Bahal Temple I. To reach Bahal Temple III, you need to walk on a footpath, across rice paddies, and local houses.