Prambanan: The One that Keeps Calling

59 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

A beautiful, sunny day at Prambanan temple compound

Do you have a special place that, for whatever reason, keeps calling you to return even though you’ve been there many times?

I do. Those who have been following my blog for years wouldn’t be surprised if I tell you that such a place for me personally happens to be an ancient Hindu temple – Indonesia’s ninth century Prambanan temples, to be precise.

The first time I went to this place, just a few kilometers to the east of the city of Yogyakarta (or Jogja for short) at the heart of Java, was about three decades ago. On a school holiday, my mother and I went to visit her siblings who then took us to see Prambanan. The only photo I still have from that trip shows us holding parasols while posing with the temples in the background. None of us are smiling; I guess that day turned out to be too hot for everyone to handle.

My second brush with this thousand-year-old temple compound, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1991, happened on a school trip several years later. This time my father entrusted me with bringing his pocket film camera which, if I remember correctly, was able to capture dozens of photos. After the trip, once the film roll had been processed, one particular image depicting the core temples of Prambanan caught my dad’s attention the most. “Where are the people?” he asked. I recall taking that shot exactly because at that moment I was able to capture the architectural beauty of the compound without having anyone in the frame. But it was a strange concept for him who always thought taking photos was solely meant for capturing images of people.

The third time I visited Prambanan was also on a school trip, but during high school. I still remember how fascinated some of my classmates were upon seeing the impressive and intricately decorated spires of Prambanan’s central structures for the very first time. One of them even wondered why modern people couldn’t build something so spectacular anymore.

It took a decade for me to return to Prambanan for my fourth visit. This time, it was just a few months after the deadly eruptions of Mount Merapi at the end of 2010. The venerated volcano which marks the northern boundary of the province of Yogyakarta has been very much a part of the local people’s life since time immemorial. This fiery mountain is both culturally and spiritually important, especially for the Javanese living in this part of the island. Some historians even suggest that Merapi’s eruptions in the past might have contributed to the eventual move of the capital of the Medang kingdom (also known as the Ancient Mataram kingdom) – the very political entity responsible for the constructions of Java’s greatest monuments – from the center of the island to the east.

In 2015, during our months-long Spice Odyssey, James and I paid a visit to Jogja, including Prambanan, to learn more about the history of the Medang kingdom and the subsequent events in relation to the bigger picture of the history of Maritime Southeast Asia. Although it was not his first time in Jogja, it was his maiden visit to Prambanan, while for me it was my fifth. In my series of posts about the history of Java’s magnificent man-made structures we saw during the odyssey, including one about Prambanan, I tried to elaborate a bit further about who built them and why they undertook such ambitious projects on a scale the archipelago had never seen before. But if you’re more drawn into folklore, James’s account on Prambanan is a fascinating read about a powerful prince, a witty princess, mighty jinn, crowing roosters, and why this tale is still very much referred to in conversations of present-day Indonesians.

This view never gets old

The smaller temples surrounding the main courtyard are reconstructed at a rate of two structures per year

Candi Nandi sitting directly opposite of Candi Siwa (Shiva)

A closer look at Candi Nandi’s decorative reliefs

This type of relief panel is unique to Prambanan

This one depicts a lion and peacocks

Different animals in another panel

I didn’t have to wait for too long to return to Prambanan, as two years after the Spice Odyssey I found myself setting foot again in the temple compound’s courtyard on a company outing. This time I didn’t bring my camera which allowed me to observe how tourists behave when they’re visiting places like this ancient site. In general, the people who joined the outing were divided into two groups. The first is those who followed the official guide who explained the history of the temple compound, as well as how experts reconstructed each structure as close as possible to its original look using techniques as stipulated in UNESCO’s guidelines. The second group is everyone else who wasn’t interested at all in the history of this place and chose to take as many selfies as they could, relegating the temples to merely a backdrop. Well, people are free to do whatever they want as long as no ancient structure is harmed and the rules are respected.

My seventh, and most recent, trip to Prambanan happened in June last year, this time with my mother tagging along. Different from my other visits in the past, this one occurred during the pandemic, although fortunately by that time the situation was very much under control with no sharp increase of daily Covid cases. What was also different was this time visitors were only allowed to wander around the base of the structures. Entry to their main sanctums and the upper galleries were prohibited, a limitation put in place to avoid overcrowding. I was, of course, disappointed, but only slightly since I knew at one point in the future, I will find myself going back to this place, answering its endless call to me to return again and again.

Visiting Prambanan this time was meant to be the beginning of a half-day temple-hopping excursion across this area. As the biggest Hindu temple compound ever constructed on Java, it is no surprise to find smaller shrines in its vicinity. Some are still in a ruined state, but the others have fortunately been restored to how they looked in the distant past. And that’s where we were headed next, just a short walk away from Prambanan’s central courtyard.

Candi Siwa (center) and Candi Brahma (left) in the central courtyard

Candi Siwa houses the most elaborate carvings in the entire complex

This is often dubbed the “Prambanan motif”

Kinnari and kinnara flanking wish-fulfilling trees ( also known as Kalpataru or Kalpawreksa/Kalpavriksha)

Candi Brahma to the south of Candi Siwa

The southern Candi Apit with its kala sculpture done in the style of the late Central Javanese period

Menacing eyes from the past

A look at the central courtyard from the north side

While we’re amazed by Prambanan, the temple builders would have been wonderstruck by a hoverboard

A stage was being set for a musical performance near the temple compound

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

59 thoughts on “Prambanan: The One that Keeps Calling”

    • And thanks for reading, Steve. It’s nice to know that you’ve been to Prambanan as well since in general I find this temple compound rather overlooked by those visiting Southeast Asia.

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  1. What a beautiful place! Reminds me a bit of Angkor. Ill have to visit Indonesia’s temples one day. Can you believe I haven’t been to Indonesia “properly” yet? Only Bintan Island! Lol.

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    • And Prambanan was built a few centuries before Angkor Wat! You really should go back and see more of Indonesia, Anna. I suggest Java and Bali for your next trip. 🙂

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      • Maybe Java… too many Australians in Bali! When I travel I want to avoid my fellow countrymen! 🤣🤣

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      • Lol! I met an Australian last year during a business trip to Singapore, and that was exactly what he told me. The thing is, most Aussies in Bali usually flock to the south, and only a tiny fraction of them explore other parts of the island (which is bigger than what most people think). But it’s your call. 😆

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      • I’d still have to be with them on the plane over. That’s enough to turn me off ever flying to Bali. A plane full of drunk dirty rednecks. No thanks! 🤣🤣😂

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  2. It’s very cool you have a decades-long relationship with such beautiful and ancient place. I’ve never heard of Pramnadan before but the architectural style seems familiar. It is so beautiful and the spires really are something else. I agree with your classmates’ that they don’t quite build things the way they did in the past.

    I love that you did a months-long Spice Odyssey. I have a thing for spices too, especially the lesser known ones. Always interesting to learn more about their history and what a fun way to create your travels around.

    And I agree about the two kinds of tourists. I think mobile devices are great but they’ve taken so much away from the enjoyment of our surroundings when we’re experiencing a world through a screen.

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    • If you go to Bali, even the newer temples don’t have the same level of intricacy when it comes to stone carvings, which is quite sad. But I guess the real issue here is the cost. It’s easier, faster, and cheaper to create something that is more plain in appearance.

      Oh Ab, we can definitely talk a lot about spices! It’s funny how until not too long ago in the past I couldn’t really taste the different spices in a dish. But recently when I went to a new restaurant here in Jakarta serving mainly Indonesian traditional cuisine, my palate was able to discern quite a lot of spices in one of the dishes.

      I usually put my mobile phone away when I travel and only use it occasionally when I need to check something — the-opening-hours-and-weather-forecast kind of thing.

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      • I agree with you about the economies of scale. We have the same issue here. Development is rapid but you have to wonder the legacy we’re leaving behind for future generations. They won’t stand the test of time in the ways these older structures do.

        I discovered a Malaysian / Indonesian restaurant in our area on Friday. Ordered a Mei Goreng for dinner. It was so good. Nice to try food with different types and combos of spices!

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      • Oh that’s great! Mie goreng is indeed one of the most common things one can find at Indonesian restaurants abroad since the ingredients are easy to find (unlike some of the more traditional dishes) and it’s relatively easy and fast to make.

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  3. This is a fascinating story of your many visits to the magnificently carved Prambanan temple. How disappointing that entrance into the sanctums wasn’t allowed on your last visit. But I guess it is necessary to strike a balance between public visits and preserving this ancient treasure. By the way, I love the term Spice Odyssey, Bowie would’ve been proud.

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    • It always gives me mixed feelings to see parts of an ancient structure closed off for the public. On the one hand, I want to know what’s in there and see it with my own eyes. But on the other hand, I know such measures are usually taken to preserve the structure itself. Ha! My friend was actually inspired by Stanley Kubrick when he came up with that name.

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  4. What a remarkable temple complex. I’ve never even heard of Prambanan, and as someone above said, it seems to rank up there with Angkor. It’s a beautiful complex with stunning artwork. I love the story of your dad and the camera. My dad also would never have taken a photo of a landscape or building unless one of us was also in the picture. I guess film was precious so two birds with one stone. Selfie takers have really gotten out of control at most sites, something which I am showing less and less patience for. Looking forward to the next set of temples. Maggie

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    • You make a good point about film, Maggie. I can’t imagine people doing selfies if all we’ve got is the analog camera! Part of the reason why I’m always so keen on sharing stories about Indonesia’s ancient temples is because they are often overshadowed by those from Angkor. I hope one day you’ll get to see them in person!

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      • Java is the world’s most densely-populated island. But somehow, despite having more people than the entire population of Russia in a land that is about the same size with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia combined, you can still find lush forests, vast tea plantations, and of course, ancient temples like Prambanan on the island. If you’re thinking of going one day, you can drop me an email. I can help you with recommendations.

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  5. They should issue a frequent visitor card for you. After the 9th visit, I think you know about this place as much as the official guides do. Is there any particular temple that you like most? Or they are all the same to you. The kala sculpture looks really cheerful here, unlike the fearful faces that I’ve seen in Bali. By the way, I wish you a great and healthy 2023, Bama 🙂

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    • Ha! A frequent visitor card which gives a special pass to all parts of the temple compound would be really nice. 🙂 Ooh, that’s a tough question. If I have to choose, I think Candi Siwa (the tallest structure) would be my favorite. That’s a very good observation of the kala! I remember wondering about the same thing as I noticed that those in East Java usually look more menacing than the older ones found in Central Java. And yet, in Bali (at temples that are much younger than their East Javanese counterparts) they appear even more ‘frightening’. Wishing you a great year ahead as well, Len!

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  6. Wow, I can see why Prambanan is the place where you want to return again and again, it’s really majestic! I like how well preserved the structures are, especially the carvings. Are these the original structures built in the 9th-century? I hope I get to visit Prambanan one day!

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    • Upon its rediscovery, Prambanan was very much in a very damaged state with the tall towers already reduced to rubble. However, there were enough original stones for the reconstruction work to begin in the early 20th century. When an original part of a structure was missing, they would use a replacement made from the same type of material but with a different color and without the carvings. The idea is modern-day visitors should be able to tell what is old and what is new. I hope you’ll be able to see this magnificent temple compound one day in person, Liz!

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  7. I can see why the Prembanan temples have become a special place for you. It sounds like you’ve made a lot of memories there. The temples look very interesting and intricate with all those relief panels. I like how you didn’t bring your camera with you for one of your visits. I’ve often wondered whether I spend too much time taking pictures, which might prevent me from fully appreciating where I am.

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    • I always try to strike a balance between taking photos and enjoying the moment. The way I see it is photographs will help me remember a place for many years to come. When I went to Europe in 2007, I only took a few pictures and now I kind of regret it.

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  8. Bama, years ago we spent a month on Java and some of this time was in Jogja, where we had the chance to visit Prambanan. I can’t claim to understand even a tiny bit of the Hindu symbolism, but the enjoyable thing about these temples for us is the artwork that stands on its own. Thanks for a great trip down memory lane. ~James

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    • That’s very true, James. Even if one is not familiar with Hinduism, places like Prambanan are still worth seeing, for the artwork created by those who lived long before our time and has withstood the elements are truly something to marvel at. Glad this brings back your memory of Jogja!

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  9. Yes, what a great post! For me, it is a mountain peak in the Skokomish Wilderness in the state of Washington :-). Your photos are excellent, and it looks to be similar to Angkor Wat. What I love about your storytelling was how you captured the architectural beauty of the compound without having any people in the frame, and your Dad thought that to be a strange concept 🙂 It brings back memories of when I started discovering how my Dad and I have such vast differences (I love living by oceans/water while he likes the high desert). I could understand why this place holds such a charm for you, and it is great to have a place to always visit and get lost in old memories while creating new ones.

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    • Thanks Randall. That corner of the US as well as parts of the neighboring Canadian province of British Columbia seriously have some of the most stunning landscape on this planet. It’s so nice that you’ve been to Mount Skokomish Wilderness many times. I think the similarity between Prambanan and Angkor Wat is mainly due to the grayish color of both ancient temples despite the different materials with which they were built. After I bought my first digital camera and showed my parents the photos I took with it, I think they got it that their son has a different way of using it. 🙂

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  10. I love how you intertwined your various experiences at Prambanan with factual notes, Bama. I also love the link to James’ telling of the folktale – I am a sucker for stories with jinn in them. 😆 May you have many happy returns to this special place.

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    • Oh it’s so hilarious that you have a penchant for stories with jinn in it! 😆 I can definitely see myself returning to Prambanan in the future — and hopefully by that time the sanctums will be reopened.

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  11. It’s easy to see why you’d go back over and over again to these magnificent temples. The detail work, like the relief panels, is amazing, but the thing I liked most is how the structures just rise up out of the grass. I’m sure I have places that I have revisited time and again, but somehow they just don’t seem as exotic as this!

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    • For me, there’s something photogenic about Prambanan, although it’s relatively less famous than the bigger and slightly older Buddhist temple of Borobudur. I guess many of us do have such places where we seem to keep returning, for whatever reasons.

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  12. hcyip says:

    These structures are very magnificent and I can understand why you went back there repeatedly. Indonesians in Java are lucky to be able to visit Prambanan on school trips, ha. The structures are massive and so much bigger than Angkor.

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    • I really wish there were more ancient temples still standing on neighboring Sumatra since it was where the powerful Srivijaya empire once ruled from. But since they were mostly built using bricks, only a few managed to survive the elements.

      What I’m really curious about is the fact that after the era of Borobudur and Prambanan, no other temple on the island had ever been built in such a massive scale anymore.

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      • hcyip says:

        It sounds similar to Angkor Wat in that no similarly large structures were built after it by the Cambodians. I think the empire that built Angkor Wat declined due to war and economic issues, and the succeeding states weren’t as powerful and wealthy. I don’t know if it’s similar with those who built Borobodur and Prambanan, such as perhaps they were conquered (or converted) by Muslims and no longer wanted to build these temples?

        I have heard about Srivijaya and their maritime prowess. It is sad that few of their buildings have survived.

        Talking about all this makes me realize Indonesian history is quite fascinating, and I wish there were more books and writers who focused on this.

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      • The spread of Islam did contribute to the eventual decline of Hinduism on Java, although that brings me to another question. Why weren’t there any Islamic structures on the island built in the scale of those found in places like Delhi or Samarkand? Maybe pragmatism prevailed.

        For quite some time, Indonesia has been described as the biggest invisible thing on the planet. Despite its size and long history, like you said, there are not that many books on the country out there.

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      • hcyip says:

        That’s also an interesting question about Islamic structures in Indonesia. I assume though that there are a number of attractive or unique mosques in Indonesia, especially Java?

        I think there’s definitely a lot of room for Indonesia to become better known globally, especially for travel and culture. You are certainly doing your bit to boost awareness of your country with your great blog posts and photos.

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      • Yes, there are quite a few old mosques on the island with apparent Hindu influences in their architecture, which I really like. But none of them were built on a scale like Prambanan or Borobudur. The bigger mosques in Java, however, are usually modern creations.

        What’s heartening is it seems now more and more people are aware that there is a big country called Indonesia. I remember decades ago people only knew Bali, not realizing that it’s just a small part of the entire archipelago.

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      • hcyip says:

        That’s fascinating that even the mosques have Hindu influences. It’s not something that I guess would be tolerated in South Asia given the deep animosity there between those religions.

        Indonesia certainly deserves to be more well-known as a large, diverse and important nation, and when it comes to travel and culture, for much more than just Bali. For myself, I hope to learn more about Sumatra and Borneo (where the new capital will be, which I’ve seen several articles about).

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      • Since you mentioned about the new capital, I always tell people that I’ll believe it when I see it. To me, this megaproject just seems too ambitious.

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      • hcyip says:

        I find the whole thing really incredible especially in terms of the proposed new location.

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  13. What a magnificent building! Just like your classmate I always wonder why people don’t build such spectacular things anymore – it would look so much nicer than regular office buildings! It’s also great that you got to visit this place so many times, and I find that going back regularly to certain places never gets old, and you always have a different experience than the previous! Thanks for sharing them with us!

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    • That’s exactly why I appreciate modern buildings with touches of traditional aesthetics, like Taipei 101. Unfortunately, today in many places skyscrapers are mostly just uninspiring glass boxes.

      I’m sure many of us have those few places where we always find ourselves returning to, deliberately or not, because like you said: certain places never get old.

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  14. Bama, thanks for the shout-out to my own post! It’s great that you never lost your sense of wonder or your interest in Prambanan and its history even after so many visits. Back in the mid-90’s when I first went to Jogja and Borobudur on a family trip with friends from Singapore, the adults decided to skip Prambanan because they weren’t interested. They really missed out! Thankfully my travels with you have brought me there twice, and I’d love to go back a third time early in the morning before the crowds show up. Hopefully the ban on visiting the temple interiors will be lifted soon so we can take a closer look at Candi Brahma.

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    • From what I read recently, it looks like they’re still trying to figure out ways to reopen the temple interiors while at the same time limiting the number of people who can enter them. Let’s just hope that when this and going up to the upper levels of Borobudur are possible again, they won’t charge exorbitant prices!

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    • I haven’t found a definitive answer to that, but at least it took decades to complete according to an inscription. I can see why you keep returning to those islands! I really want to go there myself, not only for the nature, but also for the culture.

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    • Much appreciated, Diana. I guess the lack of tourists at both temples during my visit was a good thing.

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    • Both Angkor Wat and Prambanan really are the largest ancient Hindu temple compounds in Southeast Asia. If only there was a direct flight between Siem Reap and Yogyakarta!

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  15. How fortunate you are to have been able to re-visit this amazing temple so many times Bama. I bet it holds enough secrets for several more visits. Have no idea when my travel destiny will lead me to it. Planning on 2024 September for now…Inshallah🤞

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    • Fingers crossed when you eventually visit Indonesia you can go inside Prambanan and access the upper levels of Borobudur — both are currently closed to the public. I will surely mark my calendar, Madhu, so during your stopover in Jakarta James and I can take you around.

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