Archaeological travel guide to the Candi Muara Takus temple complex in Sumatra, a unique Buddhist monument from the Srivijaya Empire.
Name: Candi Muara Takus
Where: Muara Takus Village, Riau, Indonesia
Location: 0.33597, 100.64219
Description: Candi Muara Takus is a ruined 11th-12th Century Srivijayan Buddhist temple consisting of 4 monuments inside an enclosure wall.
Getting there: The Muara Takus ruins are located approximately 2.5-3 hours from Pekanbaru, 1-1.5 hours from Bangkinang, and 17km (10.5 miles). Private transportation or a taxi is recommended.
Cost: 15,000 IDR / USD 1
The sky was a thick grey as I set out into another minibus during Sumatra’s palm-burning season. The destination was Muara Takus, a Srivijayan temple complex that held one of the most curious Buddhist stupas I’ve ever seen in Southeast Asia: Muara Takus.
Candi Muara Takus is an ancient Buddhist temple complex in Sumatra, Indonesian. Also called Mahligai Temple, it was built by the Srivijaya Empire, a Buddhist maritime culture that inhabited the region from 700-1200 CE. The archaeology site joined the Tentative List of World Heritage Sites in 2009.
This article will overview the history of the Srivijayan Muara Takus ruins – its development and significance in the Srivijaya Empire, my own experience visiting, and the information you need to visit for yourself.
The Story of Candi Muara Takus
Of the many historic sites around Southeast Asia, ruins of Sumatra’s Srivijaya culture are often overshadowed by those on the mainland – and even those more monumental on the neighboring island of Java. There are several possible reasons for this;
- In general, Srivijaya is not as well known as other regional cultures like Ayutthaya, Angkor, or Bagan
- Srivijaya was a mostly maritime culture and built using perishable materials like wood
- Those monuments that were built using permanent materials like stone and brick were left in areas heavily reclaimed by the jungle for many hundreds of years, causing extensive damage
Muara Takus is one of those monuments left to the jungle. When it was rediscovered in the 1800s, the tropical climate had done notable damage to the ruins. The lime plaster that once decorated the surface of the monuments was all but stripped away, leaving little by which to identify them.
Candi Muara Takus in the Srivijaya Period
The Candi Muara Takus temple was built by the Srivijaya Empire as a place for Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist worship. The 11th-Century monuments are built in the shape of a stupa, a traditional burial mound and one of the most significant monuments found at the majority of Buddhist temples.
No written records (Srivijayan or foreign) of Muara Takus exist and little is known of the Srivijaya presence at the site. What is known has been learned from excavations and artifacts at the site or inferred from what is known from similar archaeological sites.
Muara Takus is located on the Kampar Kanan River, a major east-west river that flows past the modern provincial capital of Pekanbari out into the Strait of Malacca. Srivijaya, which had coastal and inland towns, as well as a large naval trade and military, controlled this important waterway for centuries during their height.
The presence of the large temples at Muara Takus, as well as the very large embankment, demonstrate that a large, organized workforce had to be available in the area. While this may not have necessarily been a king, there was likely a powerful regional chief in the Muara Takus area who was affiliated with Srivijaya.
The Muara Takus temple was eventually abandoned around the 13th Century. This was likely due to its remoteness and the ongoing disintegration of the Srivijaya sphere of influence. There were various competing kingdoms at the time that had sprung out of Srivijaya, including the Pannai Kingdom in North Sumatra that built Candi Bahal and the temples of Padang Lawas.
In 1288, Srivijaya’s capital Palembang was conquered and annexed by the Singhasari Kingdom based in East Java, which was likely the final nail in the coffin for more remote temples like Candi Muara Takus.
Candi Muara Takus in the Dutch Colonial and Modern Period
The Muara Takus complex was first recorded in 1860 by a Dutch researcher named Cornets de Groot (no sources provide a definitive first name) after being abandoned for several centuries. This was taking place during the first few years that the Dutch were first occupying this area of Sumatra.
Based on initial reports, Cornets de Groot recorded in his writings, he thought the stone and brick architecture at the Muara Takus complex was built by the British. However, his opinion changed when he first arrived at the site and saw the architecture.
In the following decades, this original publication was expanded on by other Dutch researchers including van Beest Holle, Groeneveldt, Ijzerman, and Schnitger. In short order, the research and excavation timeline was:
- 1860: An initial expedition recorded by Cornets de Groot discovers the abandoned Muara Takus temple.
- 1880: The first study and excavations were done by Groeneveldt in, uncovering the enclosure wall. Later work was done by Verbeek and van Delden.
- 1889: Ijzerman conducted measurements at the site, including the stupas and the 74 x 74 m (243 x 243 ft) enclosure wall.
- 1935: Schnitger excavated the enclosure wall entrance gate, Candi Tua, Candi Mahligai, and Candi Bungsu. These excavations also mention the artificial embankment along the Kampar Kanan River bank for the first time.
- 1973: The embankment was measured for the first time.
- 1978: Restoration work on Candi Mahligai began.
- 1983: Restoration work on Candi Mahligai completed.
- 1987: Restoration work on Candi Palangka began.
- 1988: Restoration work on Candi Bungsu began.
- 1989: Restoration work on Candi Palangka completed.
- 1990: Restoration work on Candi Bungsu completed. Restoration work on Candi Tua began.
- 1993: Restoration work on Candi Tua completed.
Bricks used during restoration work in the 1980-90s were transported from the Tanjung area (approximately 7 km / 5 mi away). This was done based on local tradition that bricks used in the construction of Muara Takus were also from the same area.
Today, the Candi Muara Takus site is a well-maintained archaeological site open to the public, tourists, and is used as a Buddhist holy place. Although, as Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, there is a small Buddhist population.
The archaeology site is used to host Buddhist weddings and ceremonies on significant days during the year. Among the most important holidays at Muara Takus is Vesak (called Waisak in Indonesia), which commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and passing of Siddhratha Gautama.
In 1992, a hydroelectric dam was built downstream from Muara Takus, creating a large reservoir that reaches 22 km (15 mi) upsteam, almost to the Muara Takus temple complex. Following the completion of this dam, many of the Zone II (secondary and outside the artificial embankment) associated archaeological sites were flooded and remain underwater to this day.
Candi Muara Takus as a Tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 2009, Candi Muara Takus was submitted to UNESCO as a potential World Heritage Site because it has been deemed as very significant in Indonesian history. The main contributing considerations in their application were:
- Unique Buddhist architecture and artifacts found on the site
- Multiple stages of development at the site demonstrating knowledge handed down over generations
- The engineering knowledge in the artificial embankment that protects the site from the Kampar Kanan River and also allows drainage into the river.
There is no current timeline as to when Muara Takus will or will not be confirmed and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Art and Archaeology of the Candi Muara Takus Temple Complex
There are few carvings on any of the temples. However, evidence shows that they were once covered in white plaster, which would have been decorated with designs. During excavations and restoration efforts, a handful of artifacts were found indicating the age and purpose of Candi Maura Takus.
Artifacts and Inscriptions Found at Maura Takus
Compared to other Srivijayan and Indonesian archaeological sites, relatively few artifacts have been found at Muara Takus.
Perhaps the most important is a lotus-shaped brick carving found at Candi Bungsu. This contained ashes with 3 pieces of gold leaf, a gold plate with a trident carving, and 3 words in Nagari writing (unfortunately, I have not found any information on what this writing said).
The Muara Takus Embankment Wall
The Muara Takus Complex was protected by an artificial earthen embankment (wall) that ran for 4.19 km (2.6 mi) along the outer edges of the settlement, including the Kampar Kanan River. First mentioned in 1935, measurements were taken in 1973 showing its height ranged from 0.5-6 meters high.
Muara Takus was built on an elevated area relative to the nearby river, which protects temples and nearby settlement from the Kampar Kanan River when the river floods. The outer side of the embankment was surrounded by a moat measuring 10-20 meters wide and 2 meters deep (33-66 feet wide and 6.5 feet deep).
There is also a complex drainage system built in that allows water inside the embankment during monsoons and heavy rain to drain out and return to the Kampar Kanan River. The presence of this fortification indicates an organized permanent settlement at the site which was able to construct and maintain such a system.
As important as they were to the temple compound and the settlement, the embankments are not immediately obvious to visitors. They were largely overgrown with vegetation and were no longer looked after until it was restored in 1980. The easiest section to find evidence of the embankment is along the nearby riverbank.
The Legend of Datuk Laweh Talingo
A curious legend of the temple’s construction survives in local folklore. In the tale, a man named Datuk Laweh Talingo participated in the construction of the embankments that protected the temple from the Kampar Kanan River.
Datuk Laweh Talingo had been born with unusually large ears, wide enough that he could use them as blankets. As the story goes, when he passed away he was reincarnated as an elephant, which would frequent the temple complex.
My Visit to Candi Muara Takus
Map of Candi Muara Takus
Not knowing better ahead of time, I was visiting Sumatra in October, when the island is having their yearly palm-burning season. This has caused significant air quality issues throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore in the last decade and the air was grey with smoke throughout my entire trip.
After a very long 12 hours overnight in a cramped minibus from Padang Sidempuan through Sumatra’s western corridor, complete with a transfer in Bukittinggi, I arrived in Bangkinang and quickly checked into the SR Altha Hotel located on the main road through the town around 7am.
A conversation with the hotel reception provided me some information on the area and they recommended that the best way to get to the Muara Takus ruins was the shared bus locals use. Similar in concept to songthaews in Thailand, these minibuses ruin semi-fixed routes, but will adjust them based on passenger requests.
Later that afternoon, I flagged down a minibus and headed back out to the western countryside of Riau province. About 1.5 hours later, all the other passengers had already gotten out and the driver let on that was a little annoyed I was the only one going out this far. They dropped me off at the Muara Takus site and headed the 17 kilometers back toward the main road.
The archaeological site itself was mostly empty, but cleared and well maintained. There are other buildings around that are obviously meant to accommodate larger tourist crowds, but these were all empty at the time of my visit – probably due to the smokey season.
The main temple complex is surrounded by a metal gate with a ticket booth on the path leading into the enclosure wall gate on the north side. Entry was 15,000 Indonesian rupiah ($1.00 USD).
The Muara Takus Enclosure Wall
The Muara Takus Temple Complex is surrounded by a 74 x 74 meter (243 x 243 ft) square enclosure wall made from fired bricks like the temples inside. However, these are larger and of a slightly different color than the red bricks making up most of the temples.
Today, it only rises a small height above the ground, not even 1 meter.
Unlike the majority of ancient temples (Hindu or Buddhist) in Indonesia, or Southeast Asia for that matter, the main enclosure wall of the Candi Muara Takus complex opens to the north instead of the east.
Candi Tua (Old Temple)
Located in the northwest corner of Muara Takus’ enclosure wall, Candi Tua (Old Temple) is the largest monument at the temple complex and measures approximately 32.80m x 21.80 m (107.6 x 71.5 ft), 8.50 m (27.9 ft) high, but has an irregular shape consisting of 36 sides.
Like most ancient Sumatran Buddhist temples, the structure of Candi Tua is divided into 3 parts: the base, the body, and the superstructure. The base is made primarily of bricks with highlights of carved sandstone. On the first level, there are 24 outer corners.
Stairs on the temple’s east and west sides lead to the main level of the temple (the body) of the temple. There was not a main room for worship, but instead a small sanctuary housing a stupa (superstructure).
Restoration work on Candi Tua began in 1990 and finished in 1993.
Candi Bungsu (Youngest Temple)
Candi Bungsu (Youngest Temple) is located immediately to the south (22 cm /of Candi Tua. It follows the same basic design as Candi Tua, albeit on a much smaller scale, measuring 7.50m x 16.28m ( 24.6 ft x 53.4 ft) and 6.2 meters (20.3 ft) high.
The most distinctive feature of Candi Bungsu is a clear difference in its construction material between the northern and southern halves. The northern half (facing Candi Tua, only 22 cm / 8.7 inches away) is made of sandstone blocks. Meanwhile, the southern half is made of red bricks very similar in appearance to the rest of the monuments at the site.
This change in materials seems to be from a brick extension added onto the earlier sandstone monument’s south side.
On the top of the northern half is the large, remaining base of a small stupa also made of sandstone. It is decorated with indented corners, resulting in a total of 20 sides. On the southern side, a brick stupa base follows the same pattern, although little remains of this stupa, rising only a small height over the 2nd level.
Each side of Candi Bungsu had a primary stupa, and the south side (brick half) was surrounded by smaller stupas.
The purpose of Candi Bungsu was to perform ceremonial processions common in Buddhist worship. Most often, this involves circumambulation (walking around the circumference) of a stupa in a clockwise direction while reciting a prayer.
Restoration work on Candi Bungsu began in 1988 and finished in 1990.
Candi Mahligai (Mahligai Temple)
Candi Mahligai, with its 14-meter (45.9 ft) tower, is the most distinctive monument at Muara Takus. Set on a 7m x 7m (23 ft x 23 ft) base immediately to the east of Candi Bungsu, Candi Mahligai faces north toward the entrance of the temple’s enclosure wall. It underwent restoration between 1978-83.
The steps on the north side lead to the main (2nd) level where the ritual processions would take place. At the bottom of the tower, the 3rd-level base is 36-sided and decorated with the shapes of lotus petals. One section of the temple was found to depict a vajra with a bija mantra written in Nagari script.
During the excavation and restoration process, evidence for at least 2 phases of construction was found. This was indicated by two types of building materials. While the majority of the structure is made of brick, there are sandstone blocks inserted in certain areas that are thought to have been added at a later date.
The tower-shaped, lotus-bud style is unique among all ancient temples in Indonesia, although it bears a similarity to stupas built by the Sukhothai Kingdom in Thailand. It is thought to have influenced the design of later temples found at Candi Bahal in North Sumatra, as well as some temples found on Java island.
Candi Palangka (Palangka Temple)
Candi Palangka is the smallest of the four excavated monuments at Candi Muara Takus, measuring only 5.85 m x 6.60 m (19 x 21.7 ft). Like Candi Mahligal only 3.85 meters (12.6 ft) to its west, this rectangular brick temple faces north with stairs leading up in order to perform ritual processions.
Currently, Candi Palangka measures 1.45 meters (4.75 ft) tall with a completely flat platform at the top. While there would have once been additional construction on this surface, that has long since disappeared. The stupa on top was recorded in 1860, however, it has since disappeared.
This temple was excavated and restored between 1987-89. When excavations began, archaeologists found that it had sunk nearly 1 meter (3.3 ft) below ground level.
Directly opposite the stairs of Candi Tua is a small mound that’s currently covered over in grass. Excavations found 2 holes in this mound and concluded it was a cremation furnace – the remains would be put into one hole and the ashes collected in the other.
Other than the fact that it looks like a small artificial hill now, nothing of the original brickwork or furnace architecture remains.
After the minibus had dropped me off, I technically had no way to get back to my hotel in Bangkinang. But, I’d been in that situation plenty before in other Southeast Asian countries. Usually, a bus would come by within an hour or so.
Not so in this case.
Candi Muara Takus was far enough out that it soon became clear that no one was coming. Around 4:30, the guy at the ticket booth started signaling me they would be closing soon. And, this was in the days I usually travelled without buying a local SIM card in each new country.
A short while later, around 5pm, a couple locals showed up in their own car to also visit the site. One of them spoke English and was eager to ask what a random foreigner was doing here and take some photos together.
Afterward, he asked where I was going and how I’d even gotten there. I told him I was going back to Bangkinang. He was going the opposite direction once they hit the main road, but offered to take me to a spot where I could catch a minibus back.
By 5:30, I was waiting on the main Pekanbaru-Bukittinggi highway for the bus back to Bangkinang. By 8pm, I was back at my hotel chatting with others at the curious hotel bar that didn’t serve alcohol.
How to Get to Candi Muara Takus
GPS Coordinates: 0.33597, 100.64219
The Candi Muara Takus ruins are located in a relatively remote area in the middle of Sumatra, approximately 17km (10.5 miles) off the main road between Pekanbaru and Padang. The nearest town of any significance is Bangkinang, approximately 1-1.5 hours to the east. The nearest city with an airport is the provincial capital of Pekanbaru, approximately 3 hours to the east.
Muara Takus can be reached by local shared minibus from Bangkinang. However, this is the furthest point these minibuses go and will only do so if they have passengers. Finding a minibus for a return trip is not guaranteed, and it’s too far to walk from the main road they frequent.
To the west is a large north-south mountain range blocking any direct routes to the west coast, however there is transportation from western towns such as Bukittinggi and Padang.
With many more options for transportation and tours than Bangkinang, Pekanbaru will be the easiest place from which to access the Muara Takus archaeology site. Most often, these can be easily arranged by hotel staff, whether you’re looking for a tour or a private driver.
bija mantra (Sanskrit: बीज मन्त्र)
Meaning “seed mantra”, this is a one-syllable word chanted in order to spark concentration and meditation. The best known of these is “Om”
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
Malay name for a Hindu or Buddhist temple or stupa
Ruling dynasty of southern India and northern Sri Lanka (c. 300 BCE to 1279 CE) that controlled a large maritime fleet and held influence over many areas of Southeast Asia
Walking in a ritual circle around an object or building during religious worship
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.
City in southern Sumatra, Indonesia and historic capital of the Srivijaya Empire founded in 671 CE.
Buddhist kingdom in northern Sumatra (and possibly mainland Malaysia) that emerged after the breakup of the Srivijaya Empire
Passenger pickup trucks modified with 2 benches in the covered rear end commonly used for local transport in Thailand
Hindu kingdom based in East Java (1222-1292 CE)
Empire based in Sumatra which controlled or influenced much of the Malay archipelago circa 600-1200 CE.
Strait of Malacca
Narrow waterway between Sumatra and the Malaysian Peninsula that has been one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world throughout history.
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
Sect of Buddhism that embraces tantric practices and mysticism.
- “Candi Muara Takus, Jejak Kerajaan Sriwijaya Di Provinsi Riau.” Www.Jpnn.Com, 2 Nov. 2014, www.jpnn.com/news/candi-muara-takus-jejak-kerajaan-sriwijaya-di-provinsi-riau.
- Farhan, Afif. “Candi Muara Takus, Warisan Dari Kerajaan Sriwijaya.” detikTravel, 24 May 2012, travel.detik.com/cerita-perjalanan/d-5403224/candi-muara-takus-warisan-dari-kerajaan-sriwijaya.
- “Muara Takus Compound Site.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2009, whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5464/.
- “Penelitian Muara Takus Kota Tjandi Oleh Corn. De Groot.” RiauMagz, 26 Mar. 2018, www.riaumagz.com/2018/03/penelitian-muara-takus-kota-tjandi-oleh.html.
- Ramelan, Wiwin Djuwita Sudjana. “Kompleks Candi Muaratakus.” Candi Indonesia: Seri Sumatera, Kalimantan, Bali, Sumbawa, Direktorat Pelestarian Cagar Budaya Dan Permuseuman, Direktorat Jenderal Kebudayaan, Kementerian Pendidikan Dan Kebudayaan, Jakarta, 2014, pp. 108–116.