Candi Bubrah & Lumbung: Overlooked and Underrated

39 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

The reconstructed Candi Bubrah

Wildflowers can be interesting and pretty. But if there is an orchid sitting next to them, people’s attention would almost certainly be fixated on the latter due to the extravagant colors and shapes of its blooms.

The same thing can be said about two ancient temples situated just a short walk away from Prambanan. Built around the ninth century CE when this part of Java was the capital of the powerful Medang kingdom (also known as Ancient Mataram), Candi Bubrah and Lumbung were Buddhist shrines constructed during the rule of Medang’s Hindu kings, a telltale sign of a relatively peaceful coexistence between both religions that is believed to be the norm on the island at that time. Even more interesting is the location on which they were erected: exactly in the middle between Shivagrha, the largest Hindu temple compound ever built in Maritime Southeast Asia, and Manjusrigrha, an even older Buddhist temple designed in a concentric layout that predates the mighty Borobudur. Both are now known as Candi Prambanan and Candi Sewu, respectively.

In Javanese, bubrah means completely collapsed. That is probably why the locals called the northern of the two temples Candi Bubrah because only the base of the structure was still discernible upon its rediscovery. Not much is known about it since no inscriptions mentioning this temple have been found, which is also the case with Candi Lumbung. Why this temple compound directly south of Candi Bubrah was named after lumbung, the local name for a rice granary, is a mystery. Unlike its northern counterpart which is basically one big structure, Candi Lumbung consists of one main temple and 16 smaller structures encircling the former. Although it is impossible to completely reconstruct the history of both, what is clear is their Buddhist origins, thanks to the surviving architectural elements as well as statues that are related to Buddhism.

In 2016, the government decided to begin a restoration project at Candi Bubrah, and a year later what was once in ruins was reconstructed to look almost like its original appearance. When I returned to Prambanan last year, I was pleasantly surprised to see a beautiful ancient Buddhist temple standing in place of what was for many years an incongruous pile of stones. Buddha statues adorning the outer niches of the structure, beautifully-carved makara guarding the stairs to the sanctum, and a curious depiction of a lion standing atop an elephant – among other decorative elements – were for a long time overlooked by those visiting the Prambanan temple compound, including me, thinking that there was nothing to see at Candi Bubrah.

A few steps to the south, through a grass-covered pathway, lies Candi Lumbung, which, at the time of my last visit, was almost deserted despite the huge crowd exiting the main courtyard of Prambanan a few hundred meters away. While many of the 16 perwara temples were in good condition, the central shrine still looked as if its upper structure was chopped off. Carved around the façade were images of bodhisattvas, human beings who are on their way to attain Buddhahood.

Leaving these two ancient temples made me wonder. Had they been built further away from Prambanan, would people today have paid more attention to them? Like wildflowers sitting at a distance from much flashier orchids.

A closer look at Candi Bubrah

Niches with a Buddha statue in each of them

One of the statues that were returned to their original places

What was once almost completely collapsed now soars high

The makara of Candi Bubrah

A lion underneath a naga (left); a lion atop an elephant

An intricately-carved makara at the upper level of the temple

Not your usual water spout

The Candi Lumbung compound, directly to the south of Candi Bubrah

The central structure of Candi Lumbung

There must have been a statue inside this niche in the past

Some had lost their faces

Others incredibly survived the ravages of time

Petrified birds

The main sanctum and some of the perwara structures

On the left is the base of a perwara temple that has yet to be reconstructed

A millennia-old watcher and its modern, bulbous counterpart

This style of pinnacle is characteristically Buddhist

A headless statue found in the vicinity of Candi Lumbung

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

39 thoughts on “Candi Bubrah & Lumbung: Overlooked and Underrated”

  1. These are very beautiful photos, Bama. The government did a great job with restoring the site and I love the intricate details of the carving, including the placement of the statues.

    You made an interesting point about wildflowers and orchids. It’s why I always believe in trying to see not just the well known destinations but to also try to find the off the beaten path destinations that often overlooked for the flashier places.

    I also had to chuckle too because your post also highlights what we might take for granted. Something like these two destinations would really stand out over here in Canada. But I can imagine it’s something more abundant in Indonesia.

    Thats why I believe in and always encourage people to travel – it really opens our eyes up to the wildflowers and the orchids of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ab! It’s really heartening to see more and more ancient temples in Indonesia being restored. In addition to that, there have been new discoveries of centuries-old structures that had been buried for a long time. I guess it’s an exciting time to be an archaeologist. 😄

      I agree with you about visiting lesser-known places as well as the famous ones because the former are often no less interesting than the latter.

      Ha! Well, Canada doesn’t have ancient temples like these, but it certainly is home to among the most majestic landscapes on the planet.

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  2. I like the orchid analogy. Your pictures capture the details of the temple – the old and new. It’s fascinating to simply go over these historical wonders. I wonder if there were records of these temples and maybe they have been lost over time. Or is it more of an oral history and over time they too are lost or forgotten?

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    • I’d like to believe that there must have been at least one written record about Candi Bubrah & Lumbung since they were situated between two very important temples — this must have been a prime location back in the days! But so far nothing has been found. Maybe it had been destroyed a long time ago, or maybe it’s still buried somewhere in that area. We don’t know.

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    • When I was reading online sources, I was actually quite surprised to know that in India the makara is usually depicted as a crocodile with a trunk, which as you can see looks quite different from the Javanese version. One thing that remains the same is the trunk.

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  3. I also love your orchid analogy Bama. It is so often true especially with Instagrammable spots taking over. It seems that they did a great job of reconstructing Candi Bubrah. The lion on top of an elephant is an unusual statue, at least to me. Do you know its significance? I like how you pointed out what survived and what didn’t. Some works like the birds and apsara (if I’m using the word correctly) are still in such good condition. Away from the sun and rain I guess. Thanks for taking us to this little known site. Maggie

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    • I have yet to find the meaning of that particular sculpture. But what I know is Javanese people love symbolism — implicitly presenting a message or conveying a value through something that at first may appear totally unrelated. From what I read, those figures at Candi Lumbung are bodhisattvas, human beings who are on their way to attain Buddhahood. Apsaras, on the other hand, are celestial beings that are often translated in English as nymphs or fairies.

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      • I just found more information about that sculpture. Called the gajasimha, apparently it’s quite a common decorative element at Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples in South Asia. However, it seems like there are multiple interpretations of it. Most of them agree that it symbolizes victory. But details vary greatly about who’s the victor and over what.

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  4. What beautiful photos you have here of the temple structure and details! I loved visiting Bali and seeing the temples there. I think it’s fantastic that they are being reconstructed for people to enjoy and also appreciate them. I find it incredible that they were built so long ago with such precision and what would have taken so much time. We are so used to things happening quickly these days that I think we sometimes forget how things used to be done.

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    • Bali does have historical connections with Java which is probably why these images of Candi Bubrah & Lumbung remind you of the temples you saw in the former. You make a good point here about how today we often want things to be instant, which is why we get things that function and serve their purposes but are not necessarily pretty and long-lasting.

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  5. It was strange that we completely missed these two temples when you took me to Prambanan and Candi Sewu back in 2015. I do remember passing Candi Lumbung briefly but have no recollection whatsoever of Bubrah. The complete reconstruction of the latter is seriously impressive – piecing it back together like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle must have been a huge challenge. I like how you can generally tell the difference between the original and the new stonework. As usual, your photos capture the architectural details and carvings/sculptures so well. Another thing that I appreciated about Bubrah and Lumbung was the fact that we had them entirely to ourselves!

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    • I think it was because for a long time I had this notion that both temples were inconsequential, especially since they’re located right between Prambanan and Sewu. After seeing what they have done to Candi Bubrah, I really hope similar reconstruction projects can be carried out to other temples in Central and East Java, like Candi Penataran. It’s crazy to think that Candi Bubrah, Lumbung, and even Sewu only receive a trickle of the huge crowds Prambanan sees on a daily basis.

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  6. The reconstruction of Candi Bubrah seems to have been an utter success. Perhaps more people will be drawn to it now that it’s no longer a pile of rubble. Certainly the work of bloggers such as yourself will help highlight its existence, beauty and significance. I must say I shudder every time I come across an article titled: ‘Is so and so place worth visiting’. It strikes me as a somewhat superficial way of viewing travel. Some of the best places I’ve explored are the places where people have told me not to bother. I love the statue of the lion on top of an elephant, it is one that stands out for me as well.

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    • I certainly hope so, Leighton. It’s really encouraging to see Candi Bubrah no longer in a ruined state — I wonder if the main sanctum of Candi Lumbung will also eventually be reconstructed. Whenever I read a review saying a place is not worth visiting, I always take it with a grain of salt. I usually try to dig deeper and read more about it before deciding whether I want to see it or not. And when I do, more often than not I end up having a rather positive experience. That statue really is unique, and to make things more interesting, its actual meaning is still somewhat a subject of debate among scholars.

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  7. It’s great to hear that the government undertook a major restoration project at Candi Bubrah to return it to its former glory. It is funny how it works in terms of where the crowds tend to flock. In some ways maybe it’s better that those two ancient temples aren’t as popular, which can make for a more enjoyable visit.

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    • The reconstruction of Candi Bubrah really gives me hope that in the future similar projects will be carried out to other ancient temples on the island. However, it really depends whether the government see the latter as a priority or not (which I think they should).

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  8. It’s a really great thing that the government decided to restore the pile of rumble that once was Candi Bubrah, and coming frome someone who has never seen an actually buddhist temple (I think), it looks like they did a great job at keeping its traditional structure and overall aspect – but I may be completely wrong! Hopefully this helps drain the crowds from the more popular sights and encourage them to go a bit off the beaten path!

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    • You should go to Southeast Asia one day! There are a lot of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples in this part of the world. You’re not wrong to say the government did a good job in restoring Candi Bubrah. And yes, conservation work like this can certainly help promote lesser-known places so they can see more visitors in the future.

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  9. These photos caught my attention with this history I saw these amazing orchids. We visited there years ago and this brings memories back.
    I found your site and let’s follow each other. Thanks Anita

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Love your wildflower/orchid analogy with these temples. I always notice the large square and rectangular stones your temples are made of, and today I zoomed in to see how they are set. They seem to be dry stacked with no mortar in most of the photos although I thought I could see thin mortar in a few walls and some steps. Is this true? Did they just stack these stones up on each other with no sort of adhesive or binding material? Either way, very impressive structures and they seem to have been beautifully reconstructed.

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    • Actually when they were built, no adhesives were used during the construction. The key is rather in the locking mechanism between conjoining stones. Each of them has at least one protruding end which fits perfectly with the one next to it. All of these were stacked with a circumference that gets smaller the higher the structure goes. On top of it, a pinnacle was put in place which acted like a bolt to ‘lock’ everything below. However, all of these was clearly not strong enough to withstand Java’s earthquakes.

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  11. I love your pictures of Candi Bubrah! I definitely agree with you about the analogy of the wildflowers and the orchids. That is exactly how I feel when I visit places in Mexico. I find hidden gems in the most unexpected places, even though they are not popular among tourists or even locals (unfortunately, the demand for certain destinations and attractions are determined by tourists); I make it a point to photograph those hidden gems and write about them anyways. There’s always someone who will appreciate their beauty and history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly, Liz! Of course when I go to Mexico I want to see Chichen Itza and the pyramids of Teotihuacan. But I also want to see some lesser-known sites knowing that they are often no less intriguing that their more famous cousins. For me, the key is how much time I have since Mexico is so far away from where I live and I can only typically take a few days from my annual leave to travel abroad.

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  12. From a fellow addict to ancient cultures and history – thanks for the great pics and posts, Bama. It has been a few years since I was in those parts and this brings it back.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And thanks for reading, Ani. I did notice that you’ve been to Java, although I’m not sure which part of the island you went to. You visited Borobudur and Prambanan, I believe.

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  13. This was a lovely break from my life here in Portugal, Bama. I always marvel at how archaeologists can rebuild these monuments. It must be luck building a 3 dimensional puzzle without the picture. I know that they must have a good idea of where the stones fit, because of other existing monuments, but each one must also have its own unique bits to make it challenging.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And finding out where each stone fits probably takes more time than what we imagine. Archaeologists must be among the most patient people in the world! However, it’s good that new technologies are being used to make excavation and reconstruction works more efficient.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Hello Bama, an excellent set of photos and descriptions per usual. What filled my mind as I was reading was the theme of this post you mentioned in your opening sentence: something special being overshadowed by something amazing (the wildflower and orchid comparison is a clever use of this phenomenon). It is hard for us, as humans, not to be overwhelmed by something majestic and inadvertently ignore something just as special -. Still, if we can step out of this type of thinking, we can stumble onto something which can give us an even greater experience. I have found this in visiting National Parks – where the famous one is flooded with visitors to see a famous sight, but if you go to a smaller National Park, there are few people, and while the scene is more miniature in scope, it is just as magnificent. And to appreciate the magnificence in a quiet, peaceful aura… it is something else.

    The magnificent temples and sights are something to see (and should be seen), but to get away from the masses and find those hidden gems as you have with Candi Bubrah can be such a different, incredible experience. Cheers to more safe and fascinating travels for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very well said, Randall. I like how you mentioned about your vastly different experience visiting National Parks. While the big ones are usually very popular for good reasons, the others that are often overlooked offer something many people may not realize they need: tranquility and peacefulness. But then, I know some people who actually prefer more crowded places as they find the quieter ones rather spooky.

      Cheers to more inspiring trips for you too!

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  15. Perfect analogy. Bama. These seem like particularly special wildflowers! The structures missing their shikaras remind me so much of the ruined temples in Kashmir. We are off next week to Madhya Pradesh and I’m most excited about visiting a set of temples deep in (once) dacoit infested hinterland that have been resurrected from rubble quite like these. Shall send you postcards:)

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    • Do you remember the name of that temple in Kashmir? Would love to read about it. Is it Bateshwar you’re going to next week? I remember reading a blog post about it which seems to fit your description. Look forward to your photos from this place, Madhu! I suppose it’s not yet on most tourists’ itineraries?

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      • You’re right Bama, it is Bateshwar! 85 of the 200 or so temples have been re-erected in the face of huge odds. And no, it isn’t on the standard tourist circuit. The temple in Kashmir is the Martand Sun Temple. We couldn’t get to it on our last visit, but we did go the Avantipura temple.

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