Updated: Jun 3
Standing in the middle of the Prambanan temple complex is like standing inside an ancient Hindu model of the universe.
The layout and position of its hundreds of structures are all precisely designed to match how they saw the structure of the cosmos – three concentric zones with the largest and most important structures in the centre.
The amount of effort and craft that must have gone into building it is staggering – the tallest spire, that of the Shiva temple, soars 47 metres into the air, and the two towers flanking it are not much smaller.
There is so much to take in – every surface is carved and sculpted in incredible detail and full of meaning and religious significance.
This panel shows two kinnari – mystical half-woman, half-bird beings and celestial musicians – flanking a magical, wish-granting kalpataru tree.
Yet for all this effort, the massive temple complex where the most important religious and royal ceremonies of the Sanjaya dynasty were undertaken was only used for around a century, and then abandoned for a thousand years. As new kings wrestled control of the island and the power-base moved away from Yogyakarta the great dynasties that built their competing wonders in the shadow of Mt Merapi faded from Java’s history.
Prambanan fell to neglect and ruin, pushed by Java’s often violent geology. Volcanoes and earthquakes toppled its elegant spires, and stonework was scavenged for local buildings.
As their original purpose and significance became lost to time, locals made up their own folklore to explain the vast ruins.
The most famous is that of the “Slender Virgin” who gives the centre zone of the temple complex it’s other local name “Candi Rara Jonggrang”.
In one of the sacred chambers hidden inside the majestic Shiva temple is a statue of Durga, the supreme being’s consort and Hindu Goddess of War.
But locally she has been given a different identity - Loro Jonggrang - meaning "Slender Virgin".
According to legend, the idol is the petrified body of the daughter of King Ratu Boko. When a local prince, Bandung Bandawasa, asked for her hand in marriage the king replied that he could marry her only if he killed him in battle. When the prince proceeded to do just that, Loro Jonggrang was understandably unhappy about marrying her father’s killer, and set Bandung an impossible task.
She asked him to build her 1000 temples in one night, and if he did so she would be his. The clever prince enlisted an army of spirits to help him.
The supernatural workforce erected temples all over Prambanan at lightning speed, and the princess realized she was in danger of losing her wager. In desperation she came up with a plan to thwart them – and pounded on a rice block, which woke up all the local roosters and made them crow. Hearing the noise, the spirit army thought it was dawn and fled, leaving just 999 temples complete.
In his fury, Prince Bandung cursed Loro Jonggrang, turning her body to stone, and through the intervention of Shiva, the petrified body became the statue that still stands in his temple at Prambanan.
Over the centuries this version of Prambanan’s origins became increasingly popular with local Javanese, and Loro Jonggrang’s small chamber was flooded with pilgrims and offerings while others lay empty and their deities neglected.
The first European to witness the wonders of Prambanan was Lieutenant Colonel Colin Mackenzie in 1811, during England’s short-lived and ill-fated rule of the islands known as the Dutch East Indies.
MacKenzie was searching Java for ancient wonders on behalf of Sir Stanford Raffles the Lieutenant Governor of Java. Although it largely in ruins, Raffle’s breathless description in his iconic book “The History of Java” in 1817 brought Prambanan to the attention of the world:
"In the whole course of my life I have never met with such stupendous and finished specimens of human labour, and of the science and taste of ages long since forgot, crowded together in small a compass as in this little spot."
However, nothing was done to restore the great temple complex’s crumbling glory until 1918 – and restoration has been going on pretty much continuously since.
The Candi Shiva was laboriously pieced back together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and it stood complete again, towering into the heavens, by 1953.
In 1991, the entire site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it represents “not only an architectural and cultural treasure, but also a standing proof of past religious peaceful cohabitation”.
See UNESCO's official page on Prambanan HERE
However Java’s tempestuous geology would once again bring destruction to Prambanan and undo much of the hard work of a century of restoration.
In 2006 a large earthquake that occurred near the city of Yogyakarta almost brought Prambanan toppling down again. Although none of the elegant spires fell, there was major damage to the intricately carved outsides and large chunks of carved debris littered the ground.
The damage took 9 years to repair and Prambanan was fully reopened to the public in 2015, although one piece of fallen masonry has been left where it fell to commemorate the quake.
Given the massive size of the temple complex, the Indonesian government has decided to only rebuild shrines if at least 75% of their original masonry is available.
Unfortunately so much has been destroyed or stolen that the hundreds of smaller temples surrounding the central complex at Prambanan may never restored.
Still, today the main complex of candi stand majestically, and the ancient temple complex is far from an abandoned and forgotten relic. Hundreds of thousands of visitors wonder at its elegance and almost surreal beauty each year, and it has also reclaimed its religious significance.
In November 2019 a sacred Hindu ceremony called the Abhiṣeka was held on the site for the first time in over 1100 years since Prambanan began construction in the year 856. It was meant to purify and re-consecrate the temple grounds and marked the return of this sacred architectural treasure to the centre of Hindu religious activity.
Once again, sacred ceremonies echo through the chambers of Prambanan, hailing its exquisite beauty, and the ancient stone lives.