Prambanan Temple: The Seat of Shiva

Folklore has it that the Javanese Hindu temple of Prambanan wasn’t built by Man but by demons. Once upon a time in Central Java there were two kings. And kings being kings, they wanted each other’s kingdoms. So they sent their armies into battle, and wars being wars there was only one victor: the evil Prabu Damar Moyo…

A Thousand Temples in Prambanan – The Legend of the Slender Virgin

Like any evil king, Prabu Damar Moyo had a trick up his sleeve: his evil son, Prince Bandung Bondoso, who could summon an army of demons in the blink of an eye. But like so many evil princes, Prince Bandung Bondoso was loveless. So he asked for the hand of Rara Jonggrang – the ‘slender virgin’ – whose father he had just killed in battle.

– “You may have my hand in marriage”, the virgin explained, “but only if you can build me a thousand temples before dawn.”

So the evil Prince Bandung Bondoso summoned his army of demons, and like any good army of demons they had already finished 999 with plenty of time to spare. But the slender virgin Rara Jonggrang had wit as well as beauty. Ordering her maid-servants to light a fire in the east and pound rice – a dawn task – the demons fled thinking that dawn had already arrived.

Unfortunately, there was no happy ending for the couple. In a fit of rage, the furious prince turned his future bride into the final, thousandth statue.

Prambanan’s real story is a little different.

The Hindu temple of Prambanan
The Hindu temple of Prambanan in Central Java, Indonesia.

 

Prambanan temple near to Yogyakarta on Java, Indonesia.

 

Prambanan Temple
The prominent Southern Indian architectural style of Prambanan Temple. Flecks of paint found by archeologists suggest the temple was originally highly coloured.

The History of Prambanan, Java’s Biggest Hindu Temple

Prambanan, Java’s biggest temple complex, was built soon after its huge Buddhist neighbour Borobudur was completed in the 9th century. Academics put it down to a power struggle: the powerful Hindu Kingdom of Mataram needed to reassert itself after almost a century of Buddhist domination.

It wasn’t to last long. By the 10th century the Hindu centre of power had shifted to East Java, and Prambanan was abandoned to the climate and tropical jungle. Mother Nature had a go at knocking it down in the 16th century with a massive earthquake, and it wasn’t until 1811 during brief British rule that the temple was rediscovered by a surveyor working for Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.

But the British were only on Java for five short years. And after Prambanan’s rediscovery, Dutch residents looted statues for garden ornaments, and locals used priceless foundation stones for building materials. It took another 100 years before the Dutch colonial administration finally began to restore this extraordinary complex, and the work continues to this day.

There are some things in Prambanan you really shouldn’t miss out on.

Must-Sees in Prambanan

Like its Buddhist sister Borobudur 30kms to the north-east, the main temple complex at Prambanan is shaped like a mandala with three distinct levels: the lowest realm being the land of animals, mortals and demons; the middle realm the home of holy people and priests; and the uppermost spires reserved for the Gods.

Prambanan is less busy than Borobudur – but make sure you arrive soon after dawn to make the most of the peace and quiet

Prambanan is dedicated to Lord Shiva – in Hindu mythology, the God of Destruction – and the tallest, most central of the six inner temples is his. Take a walk around Shiva’s candi (‘chandee’) – from left-to-right as all good Hindu pilgrims do – and read the story of the Ramayana embedded in its stone bas-reliefs. Shiva’s petrified wife Durga – the slender princess-turned-to-stone – stands in a chamber of her own in the north of the forecourt, while a statue of Shiva’s elephant-headed son Ganesh occupies the west with the wise sage Agastya to the south.

Map of the Prambanan area

Walk a little south to Candi Brahma – the temple dedicated to Brahma, the Creator – for the rest of the epic Ramayana tale. To the north is Candi Vishnu – the temple of Vishnu, the Preserver – and follow the story of Vishnu’s avatar Krishna, the Divine Lover – for some after-dinner inspiration.

Lastly – and bearing in mind all Gods need transport – there are three more candi close by, dedicated to the three Gods’ chosen vehicles: the bull Nandi for Shiva (the only statue that has survived); Brahma’s sacred swan Hamsa; and Garuda, Vishnu’s mythical bird.

Stone carvings
Intricate stone carvings throughout the temple recount the Hindu legend of the Ramayana epic.

 

A carved stone guard
A carved stone guard watches over the inner compound of Prambanan, Java’s 9th century Hindu temple.

Prambanan or Borobudur?

Prambanan’s Buddhist neighbour Borobudur steals a lot of the local limelight – both temples were officially designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1991, and it’s not easy to pick a favourite. Borobudur is a feat of engineering skill and architectural design.

Prambanan, with its towering spires looking like they’ve been picked up from southern India and dropped onto the plains of Java, somehow has a calmer air. It’s less busy than Borobudur – but make sure you arrive soon after dawn to make the most of the peace and quiet. (The temple opens at 6am and closes at 6pm, and the ticket desk shuts at 5.15pm.) June and July – the domestic holiday season – are the busiest times.

Some visitors try to squeeze in Prambanan and Borobudur in a day. Unless you’re on a very tight schedule, break it up. From Yogyakarta, Prambanan is 17 kilometers to the north-east – and Borobudur is an hour away by car on the opposite side of the city. If you have the time, and your thirst for temples hasn’t been quenched, try the nearby Candi Sewu instead – an outstanding Buddhist temple complex with Borobudur-style stupas a kilometer to the north.

And if you’re feeling adventurous, there are another seven Buddhist and Hindu temples within walking or driving distance – the Prambanan Plain is not short on culture…

As perhaps befitting a temple dedicated to the God of Destruction, Prambanan suffered significant damage during the devastating 2006 Yogyakarta Earthquake. But after some careful restoration, the complex is once again open for business.

There’s no keeping a good temple down.