Exploring Prambanan’s Towering Temples

We woke up at 4 a.m. to leave Bogor before rush hour. Our taxi picked us at 5 a.m. and we reached Jakarta Airport within an hour.  After 4 long days in Indonesia, our trip had finally begun. Given the distances and time constraints, we opted for a private tour (Backyard Travel) of Java  — over a period of 5 days. In July, during peak tourist season, it’s difficult to get bookings and we were incredibly lucky to close everything before our travel date.

Our trip planner, Novi, insisted we take travel and medical insurance (with evacuation) for the trip. Indonesia lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire making it susceptible to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. We were fortunate to have an uneventful and wonderful (absolutely safe) trip. But, after we returned to Seoul, there were earthquakes in Lombok. Had we continued our trip to the island, we too would have probably been caught up in the events that followed.

Borobudur Silver Workshop

Our guide, Eko, picked us from Adi Sucipto International Airport in Yogyakarta. It was noon and we were quite hungry. Eko introduced us to Supree — our driver for the trip. Our first stop was Borobudur Silver Workshop (in Yogyakarta). Visitors can observe how local artisans transform silver into intricate jewellery. The display centre has a fantastic collection of silver jewellery on sale.

The Borobudur Silver Factory is run by a local businessman who apparently diversified into different verticals. A small cafe (between the workshop and display area) doubled as our lunch stop for the day. We asked Eko and Supree to join us for lunch.

We rarely travel with private tours, but when we do, we prefer to travel with our guides (& drivers) as co-travellers and companions. Eko reluctantly joined us for lunch (whilst Supree ate separately) and it was a charade we played before every lunch. On the penultimate day of our trip, Eko explained: we didn’t eat the same meal and that made it awkward for him/them to join us. I never asked him to join us for another meal after that.

Museum Batik Yogyakarta

We had a surprise visit to the Batik Museum. A young girl, who worked at the Museum, gave us a tour of the place. Visitors aren’t allowed to click pictures inside the main museum. It was hot day, but that didn’t deter our young guide from answering our questions and giving us a crash course on the ‘teckniq of Batik’. Historically, Batik was only worn by royalty (Jogjakarta Kings) and only earthy brown hues were used. Brown symbolised the earth: it’s where we come from and will eventually return. Indonesia’s eclectic foreign influence, blended with local techniques, gave birth to patterns inspired from India, China, Japan, and the Netherlands. Harley-Davidson had sponsored a rock concert on the outer lawns of the Prambanan Temple and a special Batik banner was commissioned at the local museum.

Journey to Prambanan

It takes about 40 minutes to reach Prambanan from Yogyakarta. En route, we had time to chat with our guide who had a fantastic understanding of local and national history. He laughed and said that locals always knew about Prambanan, but they never wanted to disturb the hidden temples. Local folklore prevented any exploration mission before Sir Thomas Raffles (the British ruler of Java) set out to uncover the hidden archaeological gem in 1814. We spoke about the Hindu-Buddha period, Mataram-Islamic era, the Portuguese, British rule of Java, and eventually the Dutch colonists. I struggled with my notes, the dates, and gave up eventually.

Overview of Prambanan Temple Complex

It is believed, the Prambanan Temple complex was built by Rakai Pikatan, a Hindu Prince, from the Sanjaya Dynasty (rulers of Mataram), in the 9th Century. Prince Rakai was married into the Sailendra Dynasty — the ruling Buddhist Kingdom in Yogyakarta. It also explains the presence of Buddhist Temples at the far end of temple complex. The Mataram Kings kept expanding the temple complex (over 250 temples) before abandoning them in the 10th Century — when the seat of power shifted to east Java.

The Prambanan Temple Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and conservation efforts are carried out to restore the ruins of fallen temples. Sadly, the temples aren’t functional today. There doesn’t seem to be a strict dress code, but it might be thoughtful (as a discerning traveller) to carry a sarong (if you’re wearing shorts) or a scarf — as a sign of respect.

First Look

The evening sun turned the temples into magnificent silhouettes rising from the ground below. It is a splendid sight.

Train Ride

Our guide hurried us to the train stop. It would have been nice to walk to the far end of the complex, but he didn’t think we had time. We passed lush lawns, the Buddhist Temples of Candi Bubrah and Candi Lumbung (not in pictures), and a deer park — before reaching Candi Sewu.

Candi Sewu (The 1000th Temple)

The entrance of Candi Sewu is flanked by dwarpalas or guardians — on either side.

Walking amid the ruins of neatly stacked stones and discoloured stonewalled temples is an other-worldly experience. Narrow doorways serve as passageways to dark, mysterious chambers. The temples are constructed in a mandala (concentric circles) arrangement, but it’s hard to observe this arrangement at ground level.

Photo Point

Eko, our guide, was a devout muslim. Whenever he had an opportunity, he would take a break (with our consent) to pray. So, when he asked me if we follow any particular religion, I wasn’t sure how to answer his question. Honestly, I’ve struggled with faith for a long time. I’ve yo-yoed from blind belief to atheism. But, I also know that most believers want you to believe in ‘something’ even if it isn’t the ‘same thing’ they believe in. So, I said we were raised catholic, but don’t follow religion anymore. He smiled like everyone else who had asked us the same question before.

Candi Roro Jonggrang (Main Prambanan Temple Complex)

The main temple complex centres around a trinity of temples dedicated to the Hindu Gods:Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer), and Shiva (the destroyer/transformer). Also known as trimurti (trinity), these temples dwarf the smaller temples around them. The Shiva Temple is the largest and tallest of the three.

In addition to trimurti, there are 3 shrines — dedicated to the celestial vehicle (vahana) of each god, and smaller Apit (probably dedicated to the goddesses), Kelir, Patok, and Perwara shrines (outer periphery).

The Legend of Roro Jonggrang

According to local folklore, Princess Roro Jonggrang (or slender maiden) challenged her father’s killer, Prince Bandung Bondowoso, to build 1000 temples and a well before dawn — if he wished to marry her. Seeing her suitor nearly complete his task (with the help of spirits), she asked the villagers to burn rice (simulating dawn) to trick him into believing he had failed. Spurned by his lady love, Bondowoso turned her into the 1000th statue. The legend was probably narrated to explain the statue of Goddess, Durga, and the Buddhist Temple — Sewu (or 1000th temple).

Ruins

The temple complex was believed to be hit by a powerful earthquake and a volcanic eruption by Mount Merapi causing the ruling Kings to abandon it. In 2006, another earthquake caused serious damage to some of the smaller temples. Avoid standing on the stones (for pictures) because these stones can get damaged easily and are used to reconstruct the fallen temples.

Vahana Shrine

By late evening, the main temple complex was swarming with tourists. Each vahana (celestial vehicle) shrine has a sacred animal dedicated to the trimurti:Nandi (the bull) for Shiva; Hamsa (Swan) for Brahma; and Garuda (part kite and part man) for Vishnu.

Trimurti

The Garbgriha (main chamber) of each temple has a statue of the main deity. The lighting inside these chambers wasn’t ideal for photography. It was also hard to get a good picture with tour groups, tour guides, and countless bobbing heads and selfie addicts.

Ganesha – Shiva’s Son

Agastya – The Holy Sage

Temple structure

The temple architecture is spectacular and unique in style.

Bas-Reliefs

Scenes from the Ramayana are narrated through bas-reliefs on the lower levels of the temples.

Playing Hide-and-Seek with the Sun

Diffused Sunset

It had been a long day and tiredness was slowly creeping in. Eko said that we could wait for sunset, but it would be preferable to leave. We didn’t have much luck with sunset and after taking in the views, we chose to walk back to the main entrance. The wind carried with it the sounds of the rock show.

Local Kids

These kids must have either participated in a local performance or were part of a school trip.

Final Views

After sunset, there wasn’t much to see, and we walked back, passing the archery grounds, a zoo, and a boutique restaurant on the way. Supree was waiting to take us to our hotel in Borobudur. The journey should have taken an hour and a half, but we got lost in desolate, dimly lit village roads. Eko said we’d be all right and I tried to trust him. In my mind, I thought:if we could survive getting lost in a Mongolian Forest, this shouldn’t be hard. Well, he was right, and they found their way to our boutique hotel. It was nearing 8 p.m. and we had to eat our dinner and sleep — to wake up at 3 a.m. for sunrise.

20 responses to “Exploring Prambanan’s Towering Temples

  1. Extraordinary buildings! The logistics of the trip don’t sound much fun but it’s good to have a guide with local knowledge. I imagine it’s a sight that will stay with you forever. And you were lucky to avoid the awful disaster of Lombok. 🙂 🙂

    • Guided tours are recommended for covering large distances in Indonesia. Our guide was pretty amazing. It was good to have him with us. 🙂 Timing is such an important part of a trip. We were incredibly lucky!

  2. I find these Indonesian stone temples and ruins overwhelming. In fact, I had just read another long post by James on his visit to a different site, and with my unfamiliarity with Indonesian names and history, they all sort of become one great big stone ruin! 🙂 They are impressive, though.

    I can relate to your mealtime scenes with guide and driver. We, too, feel uncomfortable sometimes bring dropped for a meal at some nice place and having our tour leaders leave to go eat elsewhere. We have often gotten a “no” when we ask them to join us, and ultimately, I think it might be the best answer for both them and us. Still, I am always happy I asked.

    • I agree. These temples can look surprisingly similar and it’s hard to grasp intricate details. There are so many ruins scattered across Java and we thought of covering the best of the lot. I preferred sunrise at Borobudur (next post), but Prambanam was equally enchanting.
      So, it’s a common practice for travellers and guides to eat separately? We never knew that. I find it really strange. But, I guess it’s how the ‘tour’ industry works! 🙂

  3. An incredible adventure, and I am not surprised ~ you pick such great places to go. The photographs show such diversity – you guys covered a lot of ground, really a great benefit of having a good guide…and getting lost for a little while is always part of the fun 🙂

    • Thanks, Randall. 🙂 It was a really long day. But, I’m happy we could explore a lot and tap into the local history and culture. It was worth the effort! Our guide was amazing and it’s easy to get lost on the narrow village lanes. But they found their way! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Walking from Darkness towards Light in Borobudur | twobrownfeet·

  5. Wow, what a spectacular and fascinating place. Good thing you had a guide so you could have all that insider and local knowledge. What adventurers you two are! Just wonderful, though I’m glad you didn’t end up going to Lombok. xx
    P.S I’m struggling with my faith these days too, at least in the Catholic sense I was raised in.
    Weather’s turned cold again today. Hope it’s nice where you are. 🙂

    • We’re just a normal/ordinary couple, Miriam. lol. Travel makes us a little interesting. 🙂 I go to church/mass whenever I visit my parents. I think, it’s nice to know that mum prays for us while we’re travelling. It keeps us safe! I believe in her faith. Mine is questionable. Although, I still have my white rosary. The one I had as a kid. 🙂
      It’s sunny and windy in Seoul! Couldn’t have asked for a better climate.

      • I still have my rosary too, even though I don’t use it often. I think if mum was alive I’d still be going to mass, with her at least. Not sure what that says about my faith though.
        Sunny sounds good. It’s grey here again today. xx

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