At Candi Prambanan near Yogyakarta in Central Java, Indonesia, you'll feel like the furthest reaches of Javanese history have just come tantalizingly within arms' reach.
The 224-temple complex, dominated by three lofty spires in the central temple compound representing the trimurti of the Hindu religion, comprise the largest temple complex in all of Java, bigger than even Borobudur a few hours to the north. The tallest spire rises more than 150 feet high over the surrounding countryside.
UNESCO has recognized Candi Prambanan as a World Heritage Site, and local authorities are currently working hard to rehabilitate the temple after a disastrous earthquake in 2006.
History of Candi Prambanan
Candi Prambanan owes its existence to the resurgence of a Hindu dynasty in Central Java, having been built in 856 CE by a Hindu prince who had married into the ruling Buddhist Sailendra monarchy (the dynasty that built Borobudur).
Recalling the previous glory of the Sanjaya Dynasty of his ancestors, Rakai Pikatan reintroduced Hinduism into his family's old haunts in Central Java and initiated a massive temple construction effort. Candi Prambanan was the cherry on top of the Sanjaya pie.
The Sanjayas didn't stay in the area for long, though - the ruler Mpu Sindok moved his court to East Java, marking the beginning of a long decline in Candi Prambanan's fortunes. Earthquakes and looting over the centuries dimmed Candi Prambanan's prognosis even further, arrested only by the first proper effort at restoration begun in 1930.
Exploring Candi Prambanan
For now (at least while renovations are ongoing) much of Prambanan is inaccessible to visitors; the local tourist authority is undertaking a valiant attempt at reassembling the temples, which were toppled by an earthquake in 2006.
Access isn't completely restricted: the central temple compound can be circled on foot, and the central temple of Vishnu can be entered by guests.
The three main temples in the central compound are named after the trimurti, or trinity, of the Hindu religion. (There are actually sixteen temples in the central temple complex, but most of them are off limits to visitors.) They are arranged in a line north to south, with the front of each temple facing east.
- The central temple is Shiva Temple, dedicated to Shiva the Destroyer. Relief sculptures around the perimeter tell the story of the Ramayana.
- North of Shiva Temple is Vishnu Temple, dedicated to Vishnu the Sustainer. Relief sculptures around its perimeter tell the story of Lord Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu.
- South of Shiva Temple is Brahma Temple, dedicated to Brahma the Creator. Relief sculptures around the perimeter tell the story of the Ramayana.
Shiva's temple is open to the public, accessible by a high flight of stone steps. Inside the main chamber, a statue of Shiva looks dispassionately down on intruders. Adjoining rooms contain statues of entities close to Shiva: his wife Durga, his teacher Agastya, and his elephant-headed son Ganesh.
Candi Prambanan and the Legend of Loro Jonggrang
If local folklore is to be believed, the statue of Durga is actually the petrified remains of a beautiful princess named Loro Jonggrang, turned to stone by a rebuffed lover named Bondowoso.
It's said that Jonggrang set a condition for marriage: her suitor should build her a temple with a thousand statues in a single night. Bondowoso sought the help of the spirit world to complete the task.
Bondowoso's spirit minions managed to finish 999 statues before Jonggrang, wise to the trickery, responded with a little trickery of her own: she begged the local villagers to set a fire to fool the spirits into thinking that the sun had risen. Bondowoso, in a snit, cursed the princess, turning her into the thousandth statue in the temple complex that we now know as Candi Prambanan.
The adjoining temples of Vishnu and Brahma have only a single chamber each, with one statue of each god within. The statue of Brahma inside his temple has four faces, symbolizing either the wind's directions or the four Vedas.
Prambanan Theatre at Candi Prambanan
If you want to see the Ramayana in real life and not just in stone, Candi Prambanan obliges you with nightly performances at the nearby Prambanan Theatre.
The Theatre offers performances of the Ramayana and other traditional theatrical arts of the region, hosting them at the 1,000-seat open space Ramayana concert hall from May to October, or at the 360-seat closed Trimurti theater from November to April.
The open air concert hall is the best venue to watch the Ramayana being performed, as visitors have Candi Prambanan itself as a backdrop - lit up at night, Candi Prambanan is a sight to behold. Over 250 performers are involved in the Ramayana production.
Evening performances begin at 7:30pm. Ticket prices start at about US$8 (IDR 75,000) for standard seats.
Getting to Candi Prambanan
Prambanan is close to Yogyakarta, which is serviced by Adisucipto International Airport (IATA: JOG, ICAO: WARJ). Inbound international flights usually come from Kuala Lumpur, serviced by Garuda Indonesia (compare prices).
Long-haul flights from the US mainland to Yogyakarta may be booked (although you should expect a layover in a hub airport in between). You can fly from Los Angeles (compare prices), San Francisco (compare prices), and New York (compare prices).
Outgoing international visitors are subject to an airport tax of 150,000 Rupiah, payable only in the local currency. For visitors leaving on domestic flights, the domestic departure tax costs Rp30,000.
Most hotels in Yogyakarta will be glad to arrange a trip to Prambanan for you. If you want to reach Candi Prambanan on your own power, you have several options:
Metered taxi: Taxis in Yogyakarta town will take you to Prambanan, covering the 17k distance in less than an hour. Best to bargain for a round trip (with him waiting for you to finish your tour), which may cost you between $10-$15.
Becak (rickshaw): For IDR 10,000, you can hire a becak to take you to Prambanan.