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In the 9th century, Central Java was dominated by two great powers and religions – the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty and the Hindu Sanjaya Dynasty.

In the same fertile valley, close to the holy city of Yogyakarta, both built competing sacred wonders of the world  - the largest temples of their kind in Indonesia, practically side by side.

The Sailendras built their magnificent Buddhist temple complex at Borobudur – the largest in the world – and just 50 years later their neighbours and rivals the Sanjayas began construction of an equally huge and magnificent temple complex dedicated to their Hindu deities.

Built and carved from immense blocks of volcanic stone, the largest and most beautiful Hindu temple in Indonesia was constructed overlooking the holy Opak River and within sight of sacred Mount Merapi.

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Its name is Prambanan, although less known and visited than competing Borobudur, it is arguably the more amazing – its ethereally slender and graceful spires soar towards the heavens at seemingly impossible angles and even today it is a place of awe and wonder.

Prambanan has endured wars, the fall of dynasties, earthquakes, volcanoes, looting and centuries of neglect, but today still stands as one of the most beautiful and intricate temple complexes anywhere in the world, and a masterpiece of Hindu architecture.

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It is believed construction at Parambanan began around 850 CE by King Rakai Pikatan, and was expanded extensively by later kings. By the time construction peaked, Pramabanan was home to hundreds of carved stone structures and was the largest Hindu temple complex in Indonesia and one of the largest in the world.

Since it was built just 19 km (12 miles) from Borobudur, it is also generally believed Prambanan was built by the Sanjaya Dynasty as a direct statement and challenge to their political and religious rivals the Sailendras. However, the two great powers appeared to live in harmony and never attacked or damaged each other’s grand monuments.

The temple complex was built to venerate and pay tribute to the great trio of Hindu divinities known as the Trimurti; Shiva the destroyer of the Universe, Vishnu the keeper of the Universe and Brahma the creator of the Universe.

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Architectural model of the original Prambanan temple complex created by Gunkarta Gunawan Kartapranata for the exhibition "Safeguarding a Common Heritage of Humanity", an Exhibition of Prambanan and Sewu Temple, Bentara Budaya Jakarta, 15-24 January 2010.

(image used under Wikicommons/Creative Commons fair usage CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The ground plan of the Prambanan complex is intricately designed and follows the Hindu system of Vastu Shastra, which literally translates as the "science of architecture". The hundreds of buildings are laid out according to a mandala - a geometric pattern that represents a microcosm of the universe, in three huge concentric squares.

The outermost, known as Bhurloka, represents the underworld and was a large open space surrounded by walls 390 m long. This was a place for mortals - ordinary people and animals - and a population of hundreds of Brahman temple priests and their disciples would have once lived here, right outside their most holy place of worship. Since their dwellings were made of wood, no trace of this settlement remains, nor are there any remains of the original wall that enclosed it.

The middle square of the Prambanan complex, Bhuvarloka, represents the ‘middle world’ - the place for those who have left their worldly possessions behind and seek to find enlightenment. It once comprised of 224 small identical shrines arranged in rows.


Each of the “pewara”, or “ladies-in-waiting”, was 6 meters wide and 14 meters high, but unfortunately almost all are them now lie in ruins, victims of neglect, natural disasters and human looting. Apart from a couple that have been restored, they all now lie as a field of rubble surrounding the main temples.

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The inner sanctum and holiest section of the vast complex is the Svarloka – a raised platform over 100 m square which is home to the largest and most spectacular temples, or “candi” as Indonesians refer to them, at Prambanan. From a distance it resembled a small city, with a towering core of central spires surrounded by hundreds of subsidiary structures.

In the centre, soaring above all others, is the Candi Shiva Mahadeva. It rises 47m tall and is covered in ornate carvings. In the Hindu mystical tradition it is divided into three sections vertically, representing the foot, body and head of the great deity.

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Cross section of Shiva temple, created by Gunawan Kartapranata.

This image is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Inside, up steep steps, are five chambers which would have been the most holy sanctums of Prambanan. Each would have once contained large statues of key deities as well as offerings and other temple treasures.


Almost all of the smaller items have disappeared over the centuries, but several magnificent statues remain intact.

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In one room stands a magnificent 3-metre-tall, four-armed statue of the temple’s supreme deity, Shiva the Destroyer of Worlds.


One of the supreme beings who creates, protects and transforms the universe, Shiva is the supreme being and most powerful figure in Shaivism - one of the major traditions within Hinduism and the style embraced in Java in the 9th century.


In a neighbouring chamber inside the grand Shiva temple is a statue of Ganesha, Shiva’s son.

Elephant-headed Ganesha is one of the most popular and revered deities in the Hindu religion, and is celebrated as the patron of arts and sciences and the diva of intellect and wisdom.

Since large elephants clear a way through dense forest and create paths, Ganesha is also revered as the “remover of obstacles” and worshiped and given offerings before any new project is started.

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Prambanan’s most amazing artistic creations are not inside the sacred chambers of the main temples, but carved into the walls of the walkway that runs around them.


A long series of bas-relief panels, like an ancient comic book, wraps around the stone walls telling the epic story of The Ramayana.

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This legendary Hindu epic is the tale of two star-crossed lovers – Prince Rama and his beloved wife Sita. When Sita is kidnapped by a demon, Rama must move heaven and earth to get her back, eventually enlisting the monkey god Hanuman and his monkey army to rescue his true love.

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Carved across 62 panels flowing around the inside of the walkway around the main temple, the carvings are exquisitely detailed and full of the suggestion of movement, action and divine romance.

To see them in the right order, visitors must circle the temple walkway in a clockwise direction. This conforms with pradaksina, the ritual performed by pilgrims to sacred sites, who move in a clockwise direction while keeping the sanctuary to their right.

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Flanking the elegant tower of the Shiva temple are two slightly smaller but still impressive temples dedicated to the other two members of the Hindu “Trimurti” of gods – Brahma and Vishnu.

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Arguably the most striking statue in Prambanan is that of Brahma the Creator. According to Hindu cosmology, in the beginning of the universe Brahma sprang from a golden egg and then created good and evil, light and dark. He also created the four types of being: gods, demons, ancestors, and humans. The statue’s four faces represent this creation.

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Despite its grandeur and the immense labour and resources that went into its creation, the  Sanjaya Dynasty abandoned Prambanan within just 100 years of its completion, around 950 CE.

The exact reason for this is unclear – but it seems the power structure of Java shifted from the centre of the island eastwards as new monarchs seized control of the island, and the magnificent temple complex lost it’s appeal and significance as a place for royal and religious ceremonies.

A massive volcanic eruption of Merapi in the 10th century and countless earthquakes may also have significantly damaged it and driven population centres away from the area.

Whatever the reason, Prambanan lay neglected for centuries and became swallowed by dense jungle  – but not totally forgotten…