The Prambanan temples sometimes feel like the unwanted relative at a party compared to the world recognised and spectacular Borobudur, but this UNESCO world heritage site is more than worth a visit based on its own merits.
Prambanan is often a tagged on option on many of the tours and sightseeing trips offered by the agencies in Yogyakarta, a half day option added to the end of an activity rich itinerary, which is a huge shame as many tourists just don’t give it the time it deserves to explore this 9th Century Hindu temple in its full and complete glory. In fact many people miss it off their lists altogether.
Thanks to my earlier visit to Borobudur a day earlier, I had gotten rid of the temple fatigue I had been feeling and was looking forward to visiting this monument and it did not disappoint. Even given the grandeur of Borobudur it is difficult to see how this grand complex of temples can be so overshadowed by anything at all. There are only a dozen or so main temples and shrines left of the original two hundred and forty, with much of the complex still in ruin. But Prambanan is far from a shadow of its former self. In any other country the ruined complex would be an iconic national treasure, on the scale of the Sphinx, Big Ben or even the Eiffel Tower.
In one respect that just shows how underappreciated the history and adventure rich Indonesia and Java in particular are undervalued by travellers. In another much more positive note, it meant that the entire complex wasn’t anywhere nearly as busy as Borobudur was.
It had coach loads of tourists of course, usually being bussed in and out in hour or two hour segments as part of their package deal, but being alone and by travelling independently to the site, I got to appreciate it all the more and got just a hint of the serenity and peace that would have surrounded these temples in their prime.
Arriving early at the site, I made my way through the pretty modern and impressive visitors centre after a brief browse around the exhibits and models, and strolled through the manicured gardens that made up what used to be the outer zone of the temple complex to get my first glimpse of the temples themselves, surrounded by numerous smaller shrines in various states of repair and restoration.
Apart from a short disruption of giggling schoolchildren trying to practice their English and take photographs with the huge westerner, I was left alone on my exploration of the site. No touts, no beggars, nothing. It was bliss!
It was the middle zone, with its collection of over two hundred smaller shrines and temples that held my attention at first. Many of these shrines – referred to as guardian temples – were in ruin or in the process of being restored and were therefore off limits, but by taking time to read the history as I explored what little of the section I could, it surprised me at just how many conflicting theories there were of what this part of the complex was used for. Everything from the simple and mundane, decorative pieces used for aesthetic reasons, to the more esoteric, where each layer was a representation of the caste system with as many strict rules imposed on their use. Archaeology is quite often guess work mixed in with theory and the occasional dramatic flair, until of course someone digs up the next piece of evidence that changes everything, but to have so little definitive knowledge of such a grand structure is staggering.
The central zone was always however going to be the most impressive. It would have been the holiest and most sacred part of the complex during Prambanans prime, and the temples reflected that. A myriad of jagged, saw toothed pinnacles reaching out from the sky toward the heavens, the eight remaining temples and their respective shrines were built to reflect various dieties in the Hindu belief system and reflected the cardinal points of north, south, east and west perfectly.
The temples themselves were impressive when viewed as a whole complex, but it was up close that Prambanan really let you see a part of her. The level of detail on each temple was more than worth the majority of the day I spent wandering around and just admiring the art, an indulgence that I enjoyed even more thanks to my brief stop at the visitors centre at the start of the day, where I learned of the legend attached to Prambanan by the Javanese, the legend of the slender virgin.
The Javanese princess Loro Jonggrang – the eponymous slender virgin – was to be taken as a bride to Prince Bandung after he defeated her father King Boko in battle. She reluctantly agreed, but set the prince a challenge first. She would only agree to marry him if he built one thousand temples before sunrise. The prince agreed, and called on spirits to help him. With the help of the spirits he quickly built nine hundred and ninety nine temples. Not wanting to marry the man who had killed her father, the princess called on her people to help save her and light a large fire to the east of the temples. Fooled into thinking it was dawn, the spirits that had been helping the prince fled before building the final temple and he failed in his task. Prince Bandung was furious when he discovered the deception, and curse princess Jonggrang and turned her into stone. Making her the final, and most beautiful of all the temples. The temples that eventually became known as Prambanan.
This is exactly why I love travel, discovering new cultures and learning about their history and legends. The architecture, archaeology and physical artwork of Prambanan were both fascinating and stunning in equal measure, but it was the local legend that brought the history to life.
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