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The Hindu Masterpiece – Prambanan Temple

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The student that showed us around the temples and practicing her English

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.

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The three biggest temples, called Trimurti (“three forms”), are dedicated to the three Hindu Gods:

  • Shiva the Destroyer
  • Vishnu the Keeper
  • Brahma the Creator
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Map showing the temples of Prambanan

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.

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The 47 m high Shiva Temple

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.

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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?

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Vishnu Temple as seen from the top level of Shiva Temple

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.

Vishnu Temple

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.

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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.

Brahma Temple

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.

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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.

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The monster mouth doorway of Brahma temple

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.
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The Nandi temple
  • 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.

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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.

Travel Guides to Indonesia

We used Lonely Planet`s Indonesia book on our travels around Indonesia and Bali. It was great! Click on the pictures below to read more about each book on Amazon (affiliate links):



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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! 🙂 

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Written by Maria Wulff Hauglann

Maria is a Norwegian travel nerd who has explored more than thirty countries on four continents. She holds a master's degree in Computer Science, as well as an MBA. In 2014 while on a year-long trip across South East- Asia, Maria co-founded the travel blog Nerd Nomads to help others get out and explore the world. In 2018 she left her day job permanently for a life of full-time travel. See our about page for more about Maria.

25 Comments

  1. Everyone is crazy about Borobudur, but Prambanan is stunning! Prambanan has a different feeling. Thank you for sharing this great set of photos!

    Reply
    • Totally agree with you! You rarely hear much about Prambanan, but it definitely deserves more recognition.

      Of course that means it is still possible to explore it in relative peace, unlike Borobudur which really needs to be visited at the crack of dawn to avoid the busloads of visitors. We really enjoyed the tranquil, majestic vibe of Prambanan.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for enlightening us about the Prambanan temple complex. We had really wanted to add on a sidetrip to visit Borobudur when we were in Bali last year – but that just didn’t work out. Now we have 2 reasons to return to Indonesia and see Yogyakarta.

    Reply
    • Hi Guys!

      So happy you liked the blogpost! Borobudur is also great, but wandering around the peaceful Prambanan temple was equally amazing.

      Like you, we have had Yogyakarta on our list for a while. It’s a great little city, with some really nice restaurants, and such friendly people.

      We have more blogposts about both Borobudur and Yogyakarta coming soonish 🙂

      Reply
  3. Extraordinary photographs! The photos with the tiny people in them really show the size and scale of Prambanan temple. The sculpture is absolutely exquisite. Great post!

    Reply
  4. Loved this post with so much information and your photos are beautiful, as always. I love reading interesting things like this – it fuels my passion for traveling. I have not been to Indonesia – but the plan is to make it there! First, I have to tackle my trip to Asia coming up – Japan & China – never been there (and I have to re-read your Onsen experience post, so I don’t commit a faux pas!)

    Cheers,
    G.

    Reply
    • Wow, thanks G. for your kind words!! It really means a lot coming from such a great travel writer like you. I`m sure you will love China and Japan just as much as we do. Have an awesome trip, and enjoy Onsen!

      Reply
  5. We visited Prambanan last year and were absolutely blown away by it. We also visited it on the way back from our early morning visit to Borobodur (which was also spectacular) but there was something I really loved about Prambanan. We returned in the evening to watch the Ramayana Ballet with Prambanan illuminated in the background – it was a highlight of our trip!

    Reply
  6. Hi Maria. Loved your blog post.we are leaving for borobudur next week and will be staying at manohara. Wanted to ask if a Sunday will be good at exploring borobudur from dawn to dusk?

    Reply
    • Hi Aakriti,

      Thank you so much! Manohara Hotel is a good choice for visiting the Borobudur temple, as it is located on the temple grounds and there is only a five-minute walk from the hotel to the temple.

      Weekends, and especially Sundays can be pretty crowded. So I would try to avoid Saturday and Sunday if I were you. If you do go Sunday, however, head over to the temple early in the morning, preferably as early as 4:30 before the buses arrive.

      Have a great time in Borobudur!

      -Maria-

      Reply
  7. I had also visited Jogja for Borobudur when a reader of mine suggested I go to Prambanan and I can not thank him enough. How can you go to Jogja and not see this gem.

    Reply
  8. you have give another option when travel around yogyakarta. But do you stay around Prambanam for a night? Because I’m wondering whether should find a stay place or not.

    Reply
    • We stayed in Yogyakarta and took a day-trip to Prambanan Temple. Prambanan is only about a 40-minute drive outside of Yogyakarta city.

      Have a great trip to Prambanan temple!

      -Maria-

      Reply
  9. I am going to visit the temple today with my children. I will use your blog as a guiding tool. Thank you for sharing the introduction of this place.

    Reply
    • Wow, so cool that you will use our article about Prambanan as your guide! Thank you for commenting!

      Have a great day at the Prambanan Temple together with your kids!

      -Maria-

      Reply
  10. Very comprehensive reading material from a traveler that only spent a day in the temple. How did you collect all of these information? Did you enrich your article from the books and combine with your own actual observation? That is actually a diligent and hardwork to do! Thanks for sharing

    Reply
    • Hi Tri,

      Thank you so much!! Yes, it is a combination of lots of research and reading, but we also had two fantastic and very knowledgeable local guides from the University of Jakarta to show us around Prambanan Temple. The two girls showed us around the entire temple and explained everything about the temple and its history. They also told us the stories and meanings of all stone animals and stone carvings. They really were awesome!

      Thanks for commenting!

      All the best,
      Maria

      Reply
  11. Thank you for your informative article. Do you know how I can find out if and when any prayers or rituals take place at either the temple or Prambanam? A friend mentioned seeing a ceremonial offering made to the statue of Ganesha.

    Reply
    • Hi Anne,

      Thank you so much!

      The Borobudur Park (Borobudur and Prambanan Temple) has a nice webpage with an event calendar: http://borobudurpark.com/en/event/. Although it doesn´t seem that they put in prayers and rituals there. But you might contact your hotel, maybe they know or can find out?

      -Maria-

      Reply

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