Prambanan: Towers to the Gods

Just an hour to the northeast of Yogyakarta, on the Indonesian isle of Java, lies the remarkable Hindu temple complex of Prambanan.

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Built in the 9th century under the direction of a Hindu prince, Prambanan became the royal temple of the Kingdom of Mataram for the next 200 years. But the temple was abandoned when the dynasty moved its headquarters to the eastern part of Java, and the towers fell into ruin during a tremendous earthquake six centuries later. The complex has undergone restoration efforts in fits and starts since 1918, but given how much of the temples’ stonework has been stolen or used for other projects over the years, the current version is likely to remain as is for the near future.

Prambanan was built to honor the Trimurti, the triple deity that is both separately and at once Shiva/Brahma/Vishnu. So the temple area features a giant central tower dedicated to Shiva (the destroyer), which is flanked on either side by towers dedicated to Brahma (the creator) and Vishnu (the preserver).

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Slightly smaller towers beyond the main three provide spaces honoring each of the the vehicles of the Trimurti: Nandi, Shiva’s bull; Garuda, Vishnu’s bird; and Angsa, Brahma’s swan. There were once nearly 250 temples at Prambanan, but multiple earthquakes have left most of these in ruins. Still, Prambanan remains the largest Hindu temple complex in all of Southeast Asia.

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The tower dedicated to Shiva is 154 feet tall and 112 feet wide.

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Stairs on each of the four sides lead lead up to four windowless central chambers, each of which holds a large statue. My favorite of these was the one that houses Ganesha, Shiva’s elephant-headed son.

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All of the towers here are remarkable …

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… and you can walk up to — and inside — most of them.

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When you walk up the stairs of the larger temples, you’ll find a walkway around the central tower.

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These walkways lead to views out over the surrounding park …

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… to arched gateways …

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… and out over the plaza to the other towers in the complex:

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Prambanan is famous for its relief carvings, especially the series of what are now called “Prambanan panels.” These consist of lions standing in niches …IMG_4308.jpg

… flanked on either side by panels that feature two animals underneath a kalpavriksha tree (this tree is significant for its power to grant wishes).

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The animals under the tree come in a wide variety …

… including kinnara, which are creatures that are half-human, half-bird:

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Sadly, looters have robbed some of the niches of their lion statues:

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The major reliefs at Prambanan tell stories from Hindu epics, including the Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana. So there are monkeys (perhaps Hanuman himself) consorting with gods …

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… and a variety of demons.

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There are great creatures here, including this scary-faced monster …

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… and this garuda (at least I’m assuming that’s what it is)…

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… and this holding-things-up guy:

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Prambanan is extremely hot in the middle of the day — my mother, cousin and I were melting.

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But we enjoyed taking in the scene, both the people …

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… and the wide open spaces.

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As you can see, much of the complex just beyond the main Prambanan temples now lies in orderly rubble piles.

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The most recent major earthquake in this area took place in 2006, and they spent nine years afterwards restoring the central temples for visitors. But there are still many more stone foundations on the grounds than actual towers.

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To get away from the heat, you can walk just a few hundred meters away from the central temple complex to the small archaeological museum. Here, you can see statuary that they have rescued from the ruins …

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… and a traditional gamelan ensemble …

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…though in my case, I caught the players on their break (and snoring loudly):

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The museum itself is small, interesting, and not air conditioned — for that, you need to go to the “audio-visual” (this seems to be their translation of “movie”). While my mom and cousin explored the museum, I walked up to the smaller temple complexes that lie just to the north of Prambanan. The first of these, Candi Lumbung, lies entirely in ruins. Just beyond that is the central tower of Candi Bubrah, a Buddhist temple built in the 9th century:

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My favorite part of this temple was the carving at the end of the stair rail:

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A bit further to the north sits Candi Sewu, the second-largest Buddhist temple complex in all of Indonesia (the largest is Borobudur).

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This 8th-century complex once housed 249 separate temples, but all of them fell into ruins and became buried by volcanic ash from nearby Mt. Merapi over the course of the next thousand years. The Dutch began clearing the jungle vegetation from Candi Sewu in the early 1800s (here, in a fanciful depiction of that effort from an exhibition that’s currently at Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum) …

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… and rebuilding projects of the late 20th century got a number of the temples back up and standing. You can still see reconstruction work in progress:

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Many of the carvings and all of the Buddha heads here were looted by 1978, but you can still see some reliefs in the reconstructed buildings …
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… and a few Buddhas (headless, sadly) near the main entrance:

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The reconstructed buildings are pretty spectacular.

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You can walk up to the second level of the main temple and look out at the smaller temple buildings below.

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From this vantage point, you can also see more rubble piles and partially-reconstructed buildings …

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… and get a sense of the vast area that this temple complex once covered.

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What’s amazing here is that a giant Buddhist temple complex (Candi Sewu) and an enormous Hindu temple complex (Candi Prambanan) were built in such close proximity during roughly the same time period. Indonesia has long been known for the easy intermixing of religions — and even today, in the largest Isalamic country in the world by population, you’ll find Muslim visitors visiting both Buddhist sites like Candi Sewu and Borobudur and Hindu sites like Prambanan in happy droves.

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The Hinduism at Prambanan also sits comfortably alongside consumerism. You are forced to wend your way through dozens of gift stalls at the exit, and the scene inside the grounds is part temple, part Disney. We were greeted by this sight we we first walked in…

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… and then this monkey appeared:

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Prambanan also has cafes and restaurants, a deer park and a cassowary enclosure, a place where you can pretend to ride a bike up in the air and a place where you can hang up in a swing:

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The swings were actually a lot of fun — my mom declined to participate, but my cousin and I really enjoyed ourselves.

Prambanan even has a campground on site:

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When we visited, a troop of scouts was in residence for the weekend.

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The scouts were friendly and excited to practice their English with me (“What do you think of Java? How do you like Prambanan?”). But their plastic tents looked hot!

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If you can ignore the heat, though, it’s not a bad place to camp — you won’t get these kind of views anywhere else.

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One response to “Prambanan: Towers to the Gods

  1. Pingback: 10 Reasons to Visit Yogyakarta | Traveler Tina·

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