At the boundary between Yogyakarta and Surakarta there are several temples which are scattered within a distance not more than 1 km. It is interesting to note that these temples belong to a sacred place of two religions: Hinduism and Buddhism.

Java, Central Java. Prambanan is a ninth century Hindu temple compound in Central Java, Indonesia, (Bjorn Grotting)
Java, Central Java. Prambanan is a ninth century Hindu temple compound in Central Java, Indonesia, (Bjorn Grotting)

The temples were constructed between the eighth century and the ninth century A.D. Prambanan, the name of the complex of these temples, is a beautiful and fertile region.

Prambanan Temple Complex

In ancient time, it was the place where the capital of a kingdom now known as “Keraton Boko” stood. But it is a pity that the ruins of the palace can not give any hint about the existence of the kingdom and those who had reigned there. A clearer hint is from Kalasan’s inscription which was written in “pra nagari” characters, dated from A.D. 778. This was clarified in the inscription of Raja Balitung from the year of A.D. 907. Raja Balitung’s inscription mentions the pedigree of the kings who reigned in that period. It was the period when the Sanjaya dynasty reigned. Their religion was Hinduism.

Simultaneously, during that very period, the dynasty of Sailendra, whose religion was Buddhism, was also blooming. This Sailendra dynasty had been closely related to the kingdom of Sriwijaya in Palembang. At that particular time, Buddhism reached its peak and left many grand monuments which still stand to the present time.

Prambanan temple, as it is known nowadays, is a name given to the complex of several sanctuaries of Siwa. In fact, it is more accurate to call it Siwa’s temple (Candi Siwa) according to the real character of the temples. Some of the sanctuaries in the complex have been restored, but most of them are in ruins.

The effort of restorating these Candi Siwa is still continuing and has produced a fantastic monumental masterpiece which we can enjoy. Visiting the complex of Candi Siwa at Prambanan will set our imaginations loose, and the impression is fantastic or amazing!

The Complex of Candi Siwa

There are 237 temples at the complex of Candi Siwa, either big or small. But the majority of them have deteriorated, what is left are only scattered stones.

A statue of Siwa
A statue of Siwa

This complex of the sanctuaries can be divided into 3 groups. The first group belongs to the small temples which have a resemblance in form and located near the gate. It’s called Candi Perwara. The second consists of the other temples which are smaller and have various positions and size. The third group, considered as the central buildings, has 3 temples that differ in form. The biggest temple is enclosed on either side by 2 smaller temples with the same form. Apparently, each temple is built to form the corresponding buildings. This would be clear if we see the statues in those temples.

The central temple at the complex of Prambanan is Candi Siwa, or widely known as the temple of Rorojonggrang. It is called Candi Siwa because in that temple we find a statue of Siwa which is big and has essential meaning, which signifies that Siwa is a God greatly glorified in the belief of Trimurti (Trimurti’s faith). Trimurti is the worship of a Trinity of gods: Siwa, Wisnu and Brahma.

The most important of Siwa’s statues is found in the biggest room of the central temple. In the other smaller rooms we see the statue Of Siwa as Mahaguru (Supreme master), the statue of Ganesha, a god with an elephant head symbolizing happiness, and the statute of Durga Mahisasuramardani, the spouse of Siwa as the ruler of Universe. Both the temple and the statue of Siwa have an important role.

It seems likely that during that period, the Hinduism followers belonged to the sect Siwa. The statue of Siwa was constructed as the greatest statue among the others. It is 3 metres high and is in a standing position as if meditating. The base of the statue is in the form of a lotus flower which could hold the water with flowers used to purify that statue. The used water and flower which are considered to possess sacred powers, are poured through a dragon’s mouth located at the side of the lower part. A vase is used to keep the sacred water which is much sought by the Hindus and the devotees because of its magic power.

The symbol of a skull and a sickle at the crown, the third eye on his forehead, and the four hands holding Siwa’s symbols: a rosary, a feather duster and a trident, attributed to this Siwa’s statue, show the existence of Siwa as Mahadewa (Supreme God). The description of Siwa as Mahadewa is also meant to describe that the king of Balitung was a reincarnated Siwa. So, when he died, a temple was built to commorate him as Siwa.

Durga Mahisasuramardani
Durga Mahisasuramardani

Besides the statue of Siwa, there is another interesting statue, i.e the statue of Durga Mahisasuramardani. known also as Rorojonggrang. This narne is derived from a folk legend of the people living around Prambanan. The Durga is designed standing on a cow, pulling out the soul of a defeated gigantic demon from the cow’s body. Durga is a symbol of death, that’s why Durga’s statue is also widely worshipped. This very statue is also meant as a description of the King Balitung’s wife.

If, at the start, we enter the Candi Siwa from the east side and keep on walking along the gallery of the temple, we will see the temple walls. This relief describes the story of Ramayana. If we want to read the relief, we should turn to the left side after entering from the east gate. There is 41 frames of Ramayana’s story in Candi Siwa. The story itself could be summarized as follow:

The God Wisnu is asked to descend to the world at the request of kings of this world. For his duty as a protector of the world, Wisnu is incarnated in Rama, a knight of Ayodya’s kingdom, and son of King Dasarata. Rama, who now is the incarnation of Wisnu, is requested by a Brahmin called Wiswamitra to kill giants who are regularly disturbing the Brahmins. Rama is successful in killing those annoying giants, including Tataka, a giantess. After eliminating those disturbers, in accordance with Wiswamitra’s suggestion, Rama joins a competition in which the winner will be awarded a beautiful princess. This princess, named Sinta, is a daughter of Wiswamitra’s friend, King Janaka. Rama wins the competition in pulling the sacred bow of King Janaka, so he has right to make Sinta his wife. Then Rama goes back to Ayodya. On the way to Ayodya, Rama is intercepted by Paracurama, but Rama defeats him. After his arrival in Ayodya, Rama will be crowned as a king, as a successor of his father. But Kekayi, the second wife of King Dasarata, asks her husband to fulfill his previously made promise to her. As the King promised, it’s her son, Bharata, who will be king. Also, Rama is to be banished into the forest, that’s the request of Kekayi. Rama fulfills Kekayi’s wishes sincerely and Bharata is crowned as the new king. Dasarata, who is left by Rama, is very sad, becomes sick and finally dies.

In his isolation in the forest, Rama is accompanied by his younger brother Laksamana, and Rama’s wife Sinta. There they come across a giantess named Cupanaka, who falls in love with Rama. But Rama spurns her as also does Laksamana. Cupanaka is furious and tells this matter to her brother, Rahwana, the king of giants. When Rahwana comes to Rama’s place, he sees Sinta and falls in love with her. With various tricks, Rahwana kidnaps Sinta successfully and flees to Alengka. Rama and Laksamana try to find her and kill Rahwana.

During their efforts to find Sinta, they meet two monkeys who are having a quarrel. Those two monkey’s brothers are Sugriwa and Subali, who are also known as Walin. The two monkey’s brothers are fighting for a throne and a princess called Tara. Rama succeeds in helping Sugriwa to defeat Subali and as the repayment for the service, Sugriwa helps Rama to find Sinta. Then Sugriwa helps Rama to find Sinta. Sugriwa sends a white monkey named Hanoman to find out where Sinta is. Hanoman finally knows that Sinta is in the garden of Rahwana’s palace. The white monkey talks to Sinta, and in order to prove that he has met with Sinta, Sinta gives him a ring to be delivered to Rama. Afterwards, Hanoman goes back to see Rama, Laksamana and Sugriwa. Then he tells them all of his experiences. Rama becomes very furious and decides to attack Alengka with the assistance of the whole monkey troops, the followers of Sugriwa.

The story of Rama’s attack to Alengka can be found at the temple of Brahma (Candi Brahma), which is located at the south of Candi Siwa and is the main temple. Candi Brahma has only one entrance, as well as one cella containing the statue of the god, Brahma. This Brahma statue is described with four heads. It’s beatiful but unfortunately it has been damaged. The continuation of the Ramayana story is inscribed at the wall of the temple’s inner chamber. It tells about the war of Rama and Laksamana, helped by the monkey troops, against Rahwana who kidnaps Sinta. Rahwana is helped by his brother, Kumbakarna, a gigantic demon. Kumbakarna is killed by hundreds of monkeys. Finally, Rama kills Rahwana with his bow and arrow. Thus Rama meets again with his wife. This story in fact describes the crushing of great evil which destroys life. The great evil is symbolized by King Rahwana. Rama, as incarnation of Vishnu, succeeds in maintaining the world’s peace.

The other temple nearby Candi Siwa is the temple of Wisnu (Candi Wisnu). Candi Wisnu is located at the north of Candi Siwa, and has the same size as Candi Brahma. The only chamber found in this temple contains the statue of the god Wisnu

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. Here, Wisnu is described as having four hands, with a club, an oyster and a cakra, which is specifically attributed to Wisnu.

The relief found at the wall of Candi Wisnu is the story of Kresnayana. The Kresnayana relief has 12 frames. In fact, Kresna is another reincarnation of the god Wisnu, after Rama. Kresna has a brother, called Balarama. They are to be killed by the demonic giantess, named Putana. But Kresna succeeds in killing Putana. The other relief describes the fight between Balarama and the demonic giant, Pralemba. Pralemba, who is every time killed by Balarama, is able to live again. At the end, Kresna tells his brother to cut off the head of Pralemba, so it can not be reunited and will never live anymore.

As an incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver of the world’s peace, Kresna has also to save the cattle of the shepherds from the annoyance of Arista, a giant. Kresna also saves the little shepherds who got into the mouth of a snake-dragon, since they thought it to be a cave. When the dragon’s mouth is closed in order to swallow those little shepherds, Kresna, who is among them, starts to enlarge his body. He enlarges it into such a huge being that the dragon’s mouth blows up and the shepherds are saved. In the last relief, we see two Brahmins doing a ritual sacrifice.

Java, Central Java, Prambanan. Candi Shiva Mahadeva, Loro Jonggrang, in the background. (Bjorn Grotting)
Java, Central Java, Prambanan. Candi Shiva Mahadeva, Loro Jonggrang, in the background. (Bjorn Grotting)

To complete the three big temples (Candi Siwa, Brahma, Wisnu), 3 more temples was built directly in front of them. Precisely in front of Candi Siwa, is Nandi’s temple (Candi Nandi), where we can find a chamber containing the statue of Nandi’s cow, the vehicle of Siwa. That’s why this temple is named after the statue of Nandi. Besides it, there is also the other statues, that is the statue of Chandra, the god of the moon. Chandra stands on his carriage pulled by 10 horses, and the statue of the god of the sun or Dewa Surya, also standing on a carriage pulled by 7 horses.

Facing Candi Brahma is the temple of the swan (Candi Angsa). In the chamber of this temple we can not find any statue. But it seems likely that there was once a statue of a swan, since this animal is the vehicle of Brahma, the god. And based on this assumption, the temple is named Candi Angsa.

The temple in front of Candi Wisnu is the temple of Garuda (Candi Gaiwda), although there is not any statue of Garuda in the room of this temple. What we see is only a smaller statue of Siwa, comparable to the one in the main temple. This Siwa’s statue is found under Candi Garuda. In fact, there should be a statue of Garuda in the cella, since it is the vehicle of Wisnu. This vehicle of Wisnu is a big bird which has similarities to a human being in some aspects and has a beak, two hands, spurred legs and a tail just like a common bird.

There are two rather big temples located at the north and south of the 6 previous temples. These two particular temples are called Candi Apit, because they enclose the temples that form the main part in the complex at both ends. Although there are chambers in Candi Apit, we can not find any statue in them. Up to the present time, the function of these two temples is not known.

The other temples are Candi Perwara. There are a great number of these temples, but most of them are still in ruins. Some that have been reconstructed look beautiful and magnificent. Just imagine, if all of them could be rebuilt in the future, how beautiful the complex of Candi Siwa-Prambanan would be!

Outside the complex of Candi Siwa, there are several temples belonging to the monument of Buddhism. The most important of them are: Candi Kalasan, Candi Sari, Candi Sewu, Candi Lumbung, Candi Plaosan and Candi Sojiwan. A strange thing about these temples is that they surround the Candi Siwa within the radius of not more than 1 km.

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Bjørn Grøtting

Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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