Comprising the remains of some 244 temples, World Heritage–listed Prambanan is Indonesia’s largest Hindu site and one of Southeast Asia’s major attractions. The highlight is the central compound, where eight main and eight minor temples are assembled on a raised platform – an architectural crescendo of carved masonry and staircases, the high note of which is Candi Shiva Mahadeva. Prambanan sits within a large park dotted with lesser temples – a day is needed to do the site justice.
Elaborated over two centuries, building at Prambanan commenced in the middle of the 9th century – around 50 years after Borobudur. Little else is known about the early history of this temple complex, although it’s thought that it may have been built by Rakai Pikatan to commemorate the return of a Hindu dynasty to sole power in Java. The whole Prambanan Plain was abandoned when the Hindu-Javanese kings moved to East Java and, in the middle of the 16th century, a great earthquake toppled many of the temples. Prambanan remained in ruins for years, and its demise was accelerated by treasure hunters and locals searching for building materials. While efforts were made in 1885 to clear the site, it was not until 1937 that reconstruction was first attempted. Most temples have now been restored to some extent, and, like Borobudur, Prambanan was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1991.
Prambanan suffered extensive damage in the 2006 earthquake. Although the main temples survived, hundreds of stone blocks collapsed or were cracked (479 blocks in the Shiva temple alone). Today the main structures have been restored, but a lot of work remains to be done and parts of the complex remain off limits.
In the main courtyard, Candi Shiva Mahadeva, dedicated to Shiva, is not only the largest of the temples but also the finest. The main spire soars 47m and the temple is lavishly carved. The ‘medallions’ that decorate its base have a characteristic Prambanan motif – small lions in niches flanked by kalpatura (trees of heaven) and a menagerie of stylised half-human and half-bird kinnara (heavenly beings). The vibrant scenes carved onto the inner wall of the gallery encircling the temple are from the Ramayana – they tell how Lord Rama’s wife, Sita, is abducted and how Hanuman, the monkey god, and Sugriwa, the white-monkey general, eventually find and release her.
The temple’s interior comprises a main chamber at the top of the eastern stairway with a four-armed statue of Shiva the Destroyer. The statue is notable for the fact that this mightiest of Hindu gods stands on a huge lotus pedestal, a symbol of Buddhism. In the southern cell is the potbellied and bearded Agastya, an incarnation of Shiva as divine teacher; in the western cell is a superb image of the elephant-headed Ganesha, Shiva’s son and the god of knowledge. Ganesha’s right hand, usually holding his ivory tusk, was broken off in the earthquake. In the northern cell, Durga, Shiva’s consort, can be seen killing the demon buffalo. Some people believe that the Durga image is actually an image of the Slender Virgin, who, legend has it, was turned to stone by a man she refused to marry. She is still an object of pilgrimage and her name is often used for the temple group.
Candi Vishnu touches 33m and sits just north of Candi Shiva Mahadeva. The temple’s impressive reliefs tell the story of Lord Krishna, a hero of the Mahabharata epic, while a four-armed image of Vishnu the Preserver crowns the inner sanctum.
Candi Brahma is Candi Vishnu’s twin temple. South of Candi Shiva Mahadeva, it is carved with the final scenes of the Ramayana. The spectacular mouth doorway is noteworthy and the inner chamber contains a four-headed statue of Brahma, the god of creation.
The park surrounding Prambanan contains a number of lesser-known temples, including the Buddhist temple Candi Sewu. Dating from around AD 850, it comprises dozens of outer shrines, decorated with stupas. Originally it was surrounded by four rings of 240 smaller ‘guard’ temples, leading to its name ‘Thousand Temples’. Outside the compound stood four sanctuaries at the points of the compass, of which Candi Bubrah, now reduced to its stone foundation, is the most southern. The renovated main temple has finely carved niches around the inner gallery, which would once have held bronze statues. To reach Candi Sewu, hire a bike (20,000Rp) or take the toy train or golf cart (20,000Rp) that shuttle visitors back and forth from the exit of Prambanan’s main temple site; failing that, it’s a pleasant 20-minute walk from the main complex through semi-shaded parkland.