The Chicken Church of Java
Among the many things you're unlikely to encounter in everyday life, a church built in the shape of a giant chicken is probably one of them.
Modelling a place of worship on a flightless bird doesn't seem to make much sense, and it probably wouldn't have done to the man behind this gem of a place either, until he received instructions from on high to do just that. A chicken church hidden away in a Javan forest may sound like fantasy, but exist it does, and it is somewhere I found to be just as alive, engaging and filled with spirit as its legendary temple neighbour, Borobudur.
Gereja Ayam, to give its official name, lies in the peaceful forested hills of Central Java. This part of the country seems to be dominated by two things – highly active volcanoes and the 9th Century masterpiece of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. As such the area around Yogyakarta is heavy with tourists year round, eager to climb the flanks of brooding Mount Merapi or watch the sun rise over the stupas of the great temple. Being one of those very tourists, I had had offers of a sunrise trip to Borobudur rammed down my throat since arriving, and even before. As tends to happen when one is urged so insistently and relentlessly to have “an experience of a lifetime” at somewhere “awe inspiring” and, worse of all on “every bucket list”, I began to take a disinterest in the main event and was looking for something quirkier, quieter and crucially just a little bit more contemporary.
And so I found myself early one morning climbing the steep, shady road to this quirky little “prayer house”. The concrete path led up through forests of giant black bamboo, past sleepy villagers sipping strong Javan coffee or boiling coconut milk to make sweet smelling batches of coconut sugar. A few chickens scratched around at my feet as I walked, blissfully unaware that one of their own brethren had been chosen as God's own design. I reached the top of the hill breathless from both the climb and the sight of a huge concrete chicken, its gaping red beak open as if crowing and its long, bird like body stretching far back into a feathery metal tail. With tiny coloured glass eyes, wings carved into its sides and two angels at its base, it was a true avian masterpiece.
Gereja Ayam was built 30 years ago by Daniel Alamsjah, a Christian man from Jakarta who once dreamed a vision of a pure white dove sitting atop a forested hill. Daniel's literal labour of love which eventually brought his “chicken” to life is a spiritual tale punctuated by bureaucratic delays and angry villagers, but it all began with this dream.
During it, Daniel heard a distant voice tell him to build a place of worship upon the hill that would welcome all religions. He woke dismissing the dream as a fluke, but began to take everything a little more seriously when he discovered that very hill in real life while visiting an errant employee.
Daniel travelled from Jakarta to Magelang (the site of the church) searching for an employee who had failed to turn up for work. He found the awol employee who, after begging for his job asked for one more day at home before inviting Daniel to nearby Rhema Hill to watch the sunrise before he headed home. Daniel was amazed when he instantly recognised the hill as that of his dream. He prayed and read his Bible all night and, after stumbling upon a passage which appeared to describe this hill perfectly, even down to the topography of the mountains that surrounded it, he decided it was God' will after all that he build this dove, a place of worship for all. He quickly bought his patch of land and started designing. Somewhat sadly, and probably down to his complete lack of architectural skills, Daniel's dove quickly morphed into a chicken - a turn of events which did nothing to deter him.
Trouble was to come when word got out that a Christian man was building a church in a Muslim neighbourhood - there were a flurry of complaints, resulting in an attempt to have his building licence revoked. It didn't work. Daniel repeatedly tried to calm the angry mob by telling them that his “church” was in fact a place for all religions, open to Christian and Muslim, Buddhist and athiests alike, and indeed anyone who wanted to pray there and find peace.
The complaints kept coming but Daniel kept building. Handmade bricks, sand and scrap metal were used to build the building's frame taking hundreds of man hours. The “crown” built to make the church appear more holy only went to emphasise its “chicken-ness” by now providing it with a rooster's crest.
Financial hardship stopped the build in its tracks in the early 2000s - these were the fallow years. The chicken fell into near ruin, the forest began to engulf it and graffiti was scrawled upon its walls. But a resurrection of sorts came later in 2015 when “the chicken church of Java” went viral after articles featuring it were published in the Huffington Post and Daily Mail. The church began receiving more than just the intermittent explorer, instead large groups of tourists began turning up to see Daniel's masterpiece for themselves. The small entrance fee charged meant there was now enough money to complete the build, and the “prayer house” was finally completed.
The chicken, it seemed, had finally found its flock.
Today it is the centre of the local community, playing host to all manner of worshippers and visitors and is meticulously maintained. I didn't know what to expect as I entered through a small side door but what I found was an a maze of tunnels and rooms, an eclectic mix of muslim prayer rooms (complete with prayer mats), Christian alters, religious iconography and some slightly questionable artwork such as a picture of Jesus surrounded by lions. Bare concrete walls and floors gave way to bright rooms decorated with elaborate tiles and mosaics. Flower designs were everywhere, hand made glass petals imprinted into the floors and walls. It was gloriously strange and instantly welcoming. The main hall was open and bright with a mini exhibit on the history of the church and Daniel, along with pictures of newly married couples posing in front of the chicken (it's apparently a popular place to have wedding photos done).
I climbed up to the very top, stopping for a photo from the giant beak I'd seen from below. Once outside on the “crown” I could see for miles across the forest and mountains, just making out the stupas of Borobudur in the distance. The sun was starting to heat up and the mist that hung low over the trees was starting to dissipate. I was the only one there taking it all in.
I've often wondered about the motivations that drive tourists to visit holy places in far off lands. Many of us go for the spectacle, these ancient, often grandly designed places imbued with cultural history and significance are often great to look at and explore, a living testament to the history of the place we have chosen to visit. But there is much to be said for paying a visit to the contemporary versions of these places. What they may lack in grand design and history, they make up for with their position as the still beating hearts of small communities.
I did eventually succumb and visited Borobudur a few days later. It was, predictably, a remarkable temple to easily rival Angkor and in hindsight I'm very glad I went.
But give me a chicken church any day.