Wonders of Java: The Amazing Prambanan
Not far from Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, is the second largest Hindu temple in the world, Prambanan (the first place belongs to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the richness and quality of Prambanan’s bas-reliefs is quite comparable to Angkor Wat).
Despite the fact that Borobudur is a Buddhist temple and Prambanan is a Hindu one, they have a lot in common. And it’s not just their size. Both were built sometime in the 9th century very close to each other (map 1). Both were abandoned in the mid-10th century (probably because of a massive volcanic eruption), covered with volcanic ash and overgrown with jungle. Prambanan, like Borobudur, remained in obscurity until the 19th century, when it was discovered by the British and the Dutch. Both temples, after serious restoration work was completed in the 1990s, were designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
Other similarities between these temples are not so obvious to the uninitiated, which is where we belong. Not being experts in Eastern religions, we looked at these creations of human hands not as religious buildings, but as ingenious works of art that have survived the centuries.
The reason for the construction of a huge Hindu temple shortly after and just a stone’s throw from the giant Buddhist temple of Borobudur is not entirely clear. According to one version, there was a change of ruling dynasty from Buddhist to Hindu and the first king of the new dynasty, Rakai Pikatan, decided to mark his ascent to the throne by building an imposing temple. Another version has it that Rakai Pikatan married a princess from the Sailendra Buddhist dynasty who built Borobudur, and a bi-religious government came about which needed to be reinforced by the construction of a Hindu temple. In favor of the latter hypothesis is the presence near Prambanan of several smaller temples combining both Buddhist and Hindu features.
While Borobudur, from a distance, resembles a slightly raised huge pyramid, the Prambanan temple complex looks like a group of mountains with pointed tops staring up into the sky. These mountains are of different sizes but roughly the same shape, set by the largest temple, Shiva. To get a general idea of a large site like Prambanan, the best thing is to look at it from above (photos 3-4).
If Borobudur is dedicated to Buddhism and its only “hero” Buddha, then Prambanan is about Hinduism and its “trimutri” (“trinity”) – combining into a single whole the three main deities of the Hindu pantheon: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector and Shiva the Destroyer.
The structure of the Prambanan temple complex is shown in diagram 1. It consists of two squares, one nested within the other, with the inner square courtyard containing all the main buildings. First of all this is the main temple, 47 m high, devoted to Shiva (No. 1 on the diagram), flanked by twin temples of 33 m each, devoted to Vishnu (No. 2) and Brahma (No. 3). The whole structure is clearly seen in photos 3-4 and 5-7.
Photo 6. The side view of the temple. You can see the remains of the destroyed small temples “pervar” – the letter “A” on the scheme.
Opposite the three main temples are three smaller temples (see diagram 1 above) devoted to the “means of transportation” of the main gods ( vahana ). Vahana in Sanskrit means “to sit, to ride on something,” and in Indian mythology it is a creature used by the gods as a means of transportation.
Accordingly, Prambanan has a temple of “Nandi” (Shiva’s bull, #4, right in photo 8), “Garuda” (Vishnu’s eagle, #5, center in photo and “Gamsa” (Brahma’s swan, #6). Two more symmetrical temples at the edges are dedicated to Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth, No. 7) and Saraswati (the goddess of wisdom and beauty, No. 8). In the gap between the inner and outer square walls are 224 small temples – “watchmen”, which are called “perwaras” (marked with the letter “A” in diagram 1, seen in photo 6). Almost all of them are now destroyed.
The temple of Shiva is not only the largest in the whole temple complex, but also the best decorated (photo 10-11).
Just as the stone “book” of Borobudur is a complete set of information on Buddhism, Prambanan is a similar “book” on Hinduism. However, the series of wall reliefs in Prambanan is not as extensive as in Borobudur, with a total of 42 compositions.
To view the bas-reliefs, one must not only walk around the building, but also climb the terraces (galleries), which are also elaborately decorated with stone carvings. In photo 10(2) you can see the Lokapals, the divine guardians of the directions in Hinduism (there are 8 Lokapals for eight directions (including the main and intermediate directions), but we only photographed two).
The main subject of the bas-reliefs located on the inside of the galleries is the Indian epic Ramayana, which is completely retold in stone (photos 12-15). One of its stories (told on the bas-reliefs from the temples of Shiva and Brahma) was told in Bali: the evil Ravana kidnaps Sita, the wife of the god Rama, and then she is rescued with the help of the monkey god Hanuman. No wonder there are so many monkeys on the bas-reliefs.
A very popular subject on the walls of Prambanan (Photos 16-17) – a small lion sitting in a niche flanked by magical trees kalpatura, which grant wishes (well, just a “wonder tree” Chukovsky). Beneath them sit love birds with female heads kinnara . This relief is repeated so often that it earned the name “Prambanana panel”.
Photo 16-17. “Prambanan panel” – pussy lions in niches surrounded by magical but very useful creatures.
While the Borobudur pyramid has no interior rooms, the Prambanan tower temples have sanctuaries. There are four of them in the temple of Shiva. In the central sanctuary, on a pedestal in the shape of a lotus flower, there is a three-meter tall statue of the multi-armed Shiva (photo 18). In the local direction of Hinduism, Shiva was regarded as the supreme god – creator, preserver and destroyer, protector of righteousness, conqueror of demons, giver of all goods and ruler of all things, to whom all other gods obey. In the other three rooms are statues of the wise elder Agastya (incarnation of Shiva the great teacher, photo 19)…
…as well as the son of Shiva, the elephant god Ganesha (photo 20) and Shiva’s girlfriend, the beautiful Durga (photo 21). In the myths, Durga appears as a warrior goddess who fights demons and defends the gods and world order. However, this is not the only interpretation.
There is a popular folk legend associated with Durga that identifies this statue with the petrified beauty Roro Jonggrang (or “slender maiden”), after whom the entire temple is sometimes named. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if some guidebooks refer to Prambanan as the temple of Roro (sometimes: Loro) Jongrang.
Roro Jongrang was a young princess who very much wanted to marry a prince she did not like. To dissuade him, she agreed to marry him on the condition that he build a thousand temples in one night. To her misfortune, the young man was acquainted with unclean powers and summoned demons to his aid, which almost accomplished the task at hand. Seeing the impending trouble, the princess asked the village women to set fire to the rice straw, simulating the beginning of dawn. The demons were forced to flee without finishing the job. A would-be groom, figuring out the deception, turned the girl into a stone statue, and now she stands inside a temple of Shiva (in fact, there is a statue of Durga, Shiva’s companion, but medieval peasants didn’t know that, and invented a beautiful story).
The Brahma Temple (Photos 22-27) contains the final episodes of the Ramayana, and the entrance to the temple is decorated as a monster’s mouth (photo 24). There is a statue of Brahma inside the temple (photo 25), and on the walls one can see pictures of Brahman sages interpreting the sacred texts (photos 26-27).
Standing in the shadow of Prambanan and Borobodur, the ruins often go unnoticed, but their history is far more mysterious and enigmatic than one might imagine.
Not far from the architectural complex Prambanan, which is located in Indonesia, is a little-known monument, not very popular among tourists, the history of which is shrouded in mystery, because even its real name no one knows – it got its name from a local legend. In fact, there are many such ruins, but Ratu Boko should be given special attention.
History of Ratu Boko
Opinions of historians about Ratu Boko vary widely. It is thoroughly known that the complex appeared around the eighth to the tenth century, but that is probably all that can be said about Ratu Boko. It cannot be called a temple, a palace, or a monastery, because there is no official version of what it really is. Some are of the opinion that Ratu Boko was a royal palace; others believe that the site served as a hospital in ancient times.
Obviously, the main material used to build the structure was wood. But since this material is very ephemeral, there are no roofs, columns or floors left from the original appearance of the building – only the stone foundation. Scientists painstakingly assembled the “mosaic” of the structure from the ruins scattered by the wind all over the plateau, but still some part of them has not been restored. The complex consists of several sites surrounded by walls with a protective function. In some places the site is surrounded by dry ditches. In general, the appearance of Ratu Boko makes it impossible to understand what this building was intended for. We and historians are left to speculate about it, but at the moment no speculation can be confirmed.
The archaeologists believe that each site of Ratu Boko had its own specific purpose. This version somewhat tips the scales with the theory that the complex was a therapeutic institution or monastery rather than a palace. But the royal castle could also have housed a crematorium and an ablution hall, but in hospitals such a facility would have been more necessary. One thing is certain: the construction of Ratu Boko did not follow any religious trend, unlike the temples of Prambanan and Borobodur, which are two opposing religions – Buddhism and Hinduism.
Prambanan has an “official” legend, which tells of a confrontation between two warring kingdoms, Penging and Boko. The ruler of the Boko kingdom, a cruel tyrant, was the father of a beautiful girl named Roro Jongrang, whom the son of the king of Penging, Bandung Bondovoso, fell madly in love with. When Prabu Boko decided to expand his territories at the expense of his neighbors, he met his death in the first battle for land, and Bandung, who defeated him, offered his hand and heart to Roro. The girl was proud but very clever: she gave her consent, but made two conditions. Thanks to her supernatural abilities, Bandowoso was able to fulfill the first – to dig a bottomless bath, and to fulfill the second – to build a thousand temples in a night – he attracted spirits. However, the girl was also cunning, she managed to deceive the spirits and they flew away without finishing the thousand temples. For this, the enraged Bandung turned her into a stone statue, and thus the girl completed the last temple and topped the main sanctuary of the complex. And Ratu Boko is believed to be the palace where Prabhu Boko lived with his daughter. But this is only a legend, and there is no evidence that anyone lived in the room at all.
A visit to Ratu Boko is scheduled at the very end of the sightseeing trip, so few people make it to this historic site. The trip includes a simple meal and drink for those who want to wait until sunset: the plateau on which Ratu Boko sits offers a lovely view of the sunset-colored valley.