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Ancient graves resurface as El Nino drought lowers water levels in Gajah Mungkur Reservoir

Ancient graves reappear in Indonesia’s Gajah Mungkur Reservoir as El Nino causes water levels to drop, uncovering forgotten history and agricultural opportunities.



INDONESIA: The ongoing El Nino phenomenon during this year’s dry season has accelerated the shrinking of water in the Gajah Mungkur Reservoir (WGM) in Wonogiri, Central Java.

As a result, several ancient graves or burial sites in the vast 8,800-hectare reservoir area have reemerged.

The complex of graves visible in the midst of the reservoir falls within the jurisdiction of Wuryantoro Urban Village, Wuryantoro District, approximately 200 meters from the village road.

According to local elders in the vicinity of Jaban Village, who live not far from the green belt of WGM, these graves were once the closest part of the village settlement.

Soemardjono Fadjari, the Head of Wuryantoro District, explained that what is visible in the waters of WGM are the graves of individuals who were buried before the WGM development project. These graves now fall within the jurisdiction of Jaban Village, Wuryantoro Urban Village.

Photo: DetikTravel.

“Previously, there was information (before the existence of WGM) that these graves were in the Gumiwang Kidul area. Indeed, at that time, both houses and graves were affected by the WGM project,” he revealed.

During the current low-water period, there is a footpath accessible by motorcycles leading to the vicinity of the grave complex.

The artificial reservoir was created by submerging 51 villages across seven districts. Construction of WGM began in 1976 by damming the longest river in Java, the Bengawan Solo.

Monitoring conducted by Media Indonesia on Monday (11 Sep) in Jaban Village, Wuryantoro District, an area that partially became part of the largest reservoir in Southeast Asia, revealed the reappearance of several graves.

“This is like an annual phenomenon. During long dry seasons, the reservoir water recedes, and remnants of buildings and graves resurface,” explained Fadjari.

Dozens of gravestones have become visible, many of which are damaged, some only partially intact, but a few remain well-preserved despite being submerged for an extended period during the rainy season until early August.

Among the visible inscriptions, one reads, “Kasumawi Jumat Kliwon 16.7.71.” Some gravestones are adorned with Javanese script, and a few still display the year, with one inscription reading “1957.”

Fadjari further elaborated that aside from the Jaban area, the reappearance of grave complexes as the reservoir’s water level decreases has also occurred in Sumberejo Village.

However, access to this location is currently restricted due to the reservoir’s incomplete drainage. Even though it has been more than a month since their reappearance, no one has come to perform any rituals or visits.

“During times like this, there are no ceremonies or pilgrimages. Because it has been a long time, the local residents have already transmigrated to Lampung, Sitiung (West Sumatra),” stated Fadjari.

However, with the receding water levels, many local residents are making use of the exposed land for agriculture.

“Yes, the area around the location is also utilized by residents for farming. Based on our experience, when the water recedes and exposes the land, it remains dry for about four months. This is sufficient for planting rice during the dry season; the water just needs to be channeled,” added Waljono, a resident of Jaban Village.

Dennys Pradita, the Chairman of the Indonesian Historians Society (MSI) Chapter Wonogiri, confirmed that the location of these graves was once inhabited by villagers. In the 1970s, the residents were relocated to Sumatra due to the construction of WGM.

“The residents were relocated, but the graves remained in place. These graves were abandoned by the villagers at the end of the 1970s. So, they are not really ancient graves, dating back to around the 1970s,” he explained to detikJateng on Tuesday (12 Sep).

He also noted that the graves that have emerged in the waters of WGM during the current dry season are not limited to just one location.

This is because there were dozens of villages whose residents were relocated. Naturally, each village had its own graves.

Through research, these graves can be identified or traced based on the reservoir’s ebb and flow. Some are visible on the reservoir’s edges, while others are located in the middle of the reservoir.

“There are dozens of locations where these graves have resurfaced, and they become visible based on the lunar cycle and water levels. Back then, there were remnants of settlements, farmland, rivers, and public facilities. Dozens of villages were submerged,” he clarified.

Dennys also stated that besides Wuryantoro, the graves that have emerged as the reservoir’s water recedes can also be found in Eromoko, Baturetno, and Nguntoronadi District. In 1966, there was a flood in the Bengawan Solo River. Consequently, some residents relocated to other areas.

“Eventually, the construction of WGM caused many residents to move, and this was an old settlement. The development of WGM was partly due to the 1966 flood,” he added.

Regarding the white-colored tombstones (kijing), Dennys explained that in the southern part of Wonogiri, there is an abundance of limestone rock. During that era, limestone was often used for the construction of these tombstones.

“Usually, during the 1970s, tombstones were made from white stones, limestone. Nowadays, many are made using cement,” Dennys remarked.

WGM, which was constructed in 1978, began operations in 1980. At that time, approximately 41,000 residents from 45 villages across six districts in Wonogiri had to be relocated or underwent transmigration.

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