Our main reason for visiting Java and Yogyakarta was the incomparable Borobudur temple, as it has been high up on our bucket list for many years. We have been to Bali several times, but have never gotten around to visit one of Indonesia`s biggest islands Java.
As we reached the city of Yogyakarta (Yogya) we realized that this nice city is not only situated close to one of the world’s most magnificent Buddhist temples Borobudur but also a Hindu temple called Prambanan. So when the taxi driver asked us if we wanted to visit Prambanan on our way back to Yogya from Borobudur we thought, why not?
Oh, boy were we surprised by the Prambanan temple, it is spectacular! As we walked across the lush and green huge park that surrounds the temple and saw its dark grey and black spires rise towards the sky, I felt like Lara Croft entering the temple of Angkor Wat in the film Tomb Raider. It is actually a bit similar to Angkor Wat in my opinion.
What Is Prambanan?
Prambanan is the biggest and most complete remains of Java`s period of Hindu culture, built in the middle of the 9th century AD, around 50 years later than Borobudur. Little is known about its early history, but it is believed that it was built by king Rakai Pikatan to mark the return of a Hindu dynasty in Java after decades of Buddhism. Prambanan was completely in ruins for years until 1937 when the reconstruction started, and it is still far from complete.
As we walked around the outer compound, we saw many piles of rocks surrounding the reconstructed temples. All of these piles are the remains of 224 (!) temples in the outer compound. That is just amazing! So there is obviously a LOT of reconstruction left to do.
When we reached the highest central courtyard, we were amazed by how many temples the complex actually consists of and how well they have been preserved and rebuilt. The highest central courtyard consists of eight minor and eight main shrines (or candi) each with beautiful carvings, containing religious statues inside.
As we stood there in the middle of the courtyard admiring the amazing temples surrounding us, two Indonesian girls came up to us and volunteered to be our guides around the temple complex, for free! Yay!
They are studying English at the university and were on a field trip to practice their English talking to tourists and guiding them around the temples for free. Of course, we said yes. The two girls were really sweet and knowledgeable and explained everything about the temples and their stories, and they both spoke perfect English. It was great fun meeting, talking, and walking around the temple grounds together with these nice girls.
Even though Prambanan is a big tourist sight, it was peaceful and not too crowded when we visited. We could easily walk around the complex and take in its atmosphere. Prambanan is much more relaxed than Borobodur, here we were left alone and not hunted down by Indonesian wanting to take selfies with us.
The three biggest temples, called Trimurti (“three forms”), are dedicated to the three Hindu Gods:
- Shiva the Destroyer
- Vishnu the Keeper
- Brahma the Creator
Shiva Mahadeva Temple
The Candi Shiva Mahadeva temple, dedicated to Shiva, is not only the largest of the temples of Prambanan but also the finest. The main spire is incredibly 47 m high and its stones are beautifully carved.
The Shiva temple contains five chambers, four small chambers in every cardinal direction, and one bigger main chamber in the central part of the temple.
Its base is decorated with small lions flanked by kalpatura (trees of heaven), as well as stylized half-human and half-bird kinnara (heavenly beings). Aren`t they beautiful?
As we walked further up into the temple, vibrant scenes from the story of Ramayana are carved onto the inner wall of the gallery encircling the temple. Our guide told us the main parts of the story, how Lord Rama`s wife Sita is abducted and how the monkey god (Hanuman) and the white-monkey general (Sugriwa) find her and set her free.
You can watch a movie about the Ramayana story here.
While the carvings on the inner wall are impressive and interesting, the icing on the cake is inside the main chamber at the top of the eastern stairway which contains a four-armed statue of Shiva the Destroyer.
The notable thing about the Shiva statue is that the Hindu god stands on a gigantic lotus flower, which is a symbol of Buddhism. So the Shiva temple is a mix of Hindu and Buddhism, which is very rare and a bit odd.
Scientists believe that the reason for this is that Prambanan was built when the princess of the Buddhist Sailendras dynasty (ruling the south of Java) and the prince of the Hindu Sanjayas of Old Mataram (ruling the north of Java) were married, uniting the two dynasties into one. This may be one reason why the Prambanan temple complex has architectural elements of both Hindu and Buddhism.
This big temple also has three smaller cells, each containing a statue:
- An incarnation of Shiva as a divine teacher
- A fine image of the elephant-headed Ganesha, Shiva`s son
- Durga, Shiva`s consort, killing the demon buffalo
The other two main temples of Prambanan are the Vishnu temple on the north side of Shiva temple, and the Brahma temple on the south. Both of them contain only one large chamber with a statue inside. Brahma temple contains the statue of Brahma, and the Vishnu temple houses the statue of Vishnu. Brahma and Vishnu temple both measure 20 meters wide and 33 meters tall.
The Candi Vishnu temple is smaller than the impressive Shiva Mahadeva temple and sits just north of it, reaching 33 m in height. Of course, we had to walk the steep stairs up to the top plateau. And it was totally worth the climb as the temple is magnificent containing reliefs telling the story of Lord Krishna who is the hero of the Mahabharata story.
The most impressive part of this temple is, in my opinion, the statue of a four-armed Vishnu the Preserver in the inner chamber. It is so really big and beautifully carved.
This temple is the twin temple of Candi Vishnu, as they are exactly similar! It is situated just south of the big Candi Shiva Mahadeva temple, so the two twin temples make a nice symmetric scene.
Brahma temple is beautifully carved with the final scenes of the story of Ramayana (starting in the Candi Shiva Mahadeva temple).
When you enter this temple, look up and admire the spectacular “monster mouth” doorway, which is beautiful.
Brahma temple has the most impressive statues of them all, in my opinion, a four-headed statue of Brahma – the God of Creation. This is my favorite of all the Hindu god statues of Prambanan. Isn`t she beautiful?
In front of the big Shiva temple are three smaller temples dedicated to the vehicle (vahana) of the respective Gods:
- Nandi temple – Contains a statue of bull Nandi belonging to Shiva, as well as the statue of Chandra the god of the moon, and Surya the god of the sun. Chandra stands on his carriage pulled by 10 horses, and the statue of Surya is also standing on a carriage pulled by 7 horses.
- Hamsa/ Angsa temple – Contains no statue, but it probably once housed a statue of the sacred swan Hamsa for the god Brahma.
- Garuda temple – Neither this temple contains a statue. Probably this temple once contained the statue of kite Garuda belonging to god Vishnu. Garuda holds an important role for Indonesia, as it serves as the national symbol of Indonesia, and also as the name of the airline Garuda Indonesia.
We only visited the main Prambanan temple complex, but there are also small groups of temples in the outer area of Prambanan, like Plaosan Temples (3 km northeast of Prambanan), Kraton Ratu Boko (palace of King Boko) south of Prambanan, and a group west of Prambanan containing three temples.
There is also a popular ballet held at the outdoor theatre next to the Prambanan main complex which is supposed to be spectacular. The ballet tells the story of Ramayana that is carved onto the walls of the Prambanan temples. We wanted to see this ballet, but unfortunately, they cover the theatre up during the rainy season when we were there, so it is kind of indoor and you are not able to see the Prambanan temples as a backdrop.
So we decided to skip it. The performance is from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm, and the tickets cost between 50000 idr (4 us$) to 150000 idr (12 us$) for stone benches seats, or 300000 idr (24 us$) for VIP seas with padded chairs up the front.
We ended our visit at Prambanan at the market and restaurant area at the exit gate of the temple, where we enjoyed some crispy grilled chicken and fresh coconut. Delicious and the perfect way to end our Prambanan visit.
Prambanan turned out to be one of the highlights of our visit to Yogyakarta, and it totally surprised us. We really enjoyed our afternoon strolling around the temples and the lush and green garden surrounding them, taking in the atmosphere and the history. It kind of has the same feel to it as Angkor Wat, which is one of our favorite places to visit in Asia.
If you are planning to go to Yogyakarta to visit Borobudur temple, you should definitely head over to Prambanan too.
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Have you been to any temples that surprised you and turned out to be the highlight of your trip? Please leave a comment in the comment area below. If you enjoyed this, please share it on social media. Thanks! 🙂