The city of Jogjakarta in Indonesia is famous for its enigmatic and spectacular temples– namely the Buddhist temple Borobudur, and the Prambanan Hindu temples. Surviving the test of time, these gorgeous temple tells its own story of the mix between two religions in the region during the 8th and 9th century.
During my visit to Jogjakarta, I spent a day exploring these two temples– and left in awe of its sheer magnificence, the stories surrounding it, and the love and dedication poured into building such structures so long ago.
The spectacular temple of Borobudur looms above fields of green and brown. It is the most famous temple in Jogja, Indonesia; and most people come from near and afar to climb its steep stone staircases, marvel at its thousands of reliefs and Buddha statues, and pray. It is believed that the temple was abandoned at the beginning of the 11th century and rediscovered in the 19th century. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Borobudur was our first stop. I was visiting with my friend Abby, and we hired a private taxi for the day to bring us to all the temples. We planned to head to Borobudur a little earlier to avoid the crowd. The ride took about an hour or so from the city center and we arrived at 9am. There were a couple of visitors around but thankfully the place was not yet packed.
Borobudur Archeological Park
The entrance to the temple grounds was filled with touts trying to sell everything from souvenirs to bracelets, hats, umbrellas and statues. They were rather pushy and persistant; so we politely declined and headed straight to the ticket booth.
After paying the RP230,000 (USD$20) fee, we entered the Borobudur Archeological Park. The park is huge, with the temple proper located somewhere in the middle; and museums, shops, rest areas and temple offices dotted around it. The grounds are considered sacred, so proper dressing is required. I was not prepared, and visited in shorts– but there is a booth providing sarongs to cover up at the entrance.
It is possible to get to the temple by foot– but we didn’t want to brave the long walk in the heat (and with an extra layer of sarong!), so we hired a bicycle.
The first sight of Borobudur took my breath away. I love visiting old temples– and this one is in a world of its own. It was surreal just admiring the beautiful reliefs on the walls and imagining how life had been all those centuries ago.
The base of Borobudur comprises of 5 levels of square terraces, decorated in reliefs sculpted in the stone. On top of these terraces are 3 circular platforms crowned by a main stupa. On these 3 circular platforms, there are more than 72 smaller stupas, each containing a Buddha statue. The levels of Borobudur illustrate the different phrases of the soul’s progression towards redemption and Nirvana; and also depicts the life of Buddha.
We made it a point to visit all the levels of Borobudur and took our time exploring the huge temple. Every corner, every level and every carving throughout the temple is different and we didn’t want to miss a thing. Heading to the temple early had its perks too– we hardly saw anyone around, and had all the space to explore on my own.
Walking up level to level, the view got more and more amazing. At the highest stupa, I stood there for a moment to admire the surrounding scenery– green paddy fields, coconut trees and quaint villages as far as the eye can see. Lots of people come here to see the sunrise and sun set and we really should have set some time for that. I’m sure it is gorgeous.
Around the Park
We spent about 3 hours or so walking about the main Borobudur temple. If you are interested in more temples, there are also two other Buddhist temples in the park– Mendut and Pawon. We didn’t visit them, as we had another temple to explore later in the day.
However, we dropped by the museums in the area– the Archeological Museum and the Samudraraksa Ship Museum. The Archeological Museum is worth a look-see as it displays pictures of hidden bas reliefs of the temple, some Borobudur stones and artifacts, as well as information about the architecture and restoration of the temple.
The Prambanan Temples
It took an hour or so back to Jogjakarta and to our second and final temple stop for the day– the Prambanan Temples. Built in the 9th century, Prambanan is the biggest complex of Hindu temples in Indonesia and considered one of the most beautiful in the world. This UNESCO World Heritage site is made up of a cluster of sharp towers with sculptures of beautiful Hindu art along its jagged edges. In the day, the intricate carvings on the temples can be clearly seen from a distance, giving the temples an ancient yet majestic feel.
The Prambanan Plain
The entrance fee to Prambanan is RP207,000 (US$16) and the main temple complex is situated near the entrance, so it is easily reachable by foot. There are other ‘candis’ found in the area, like the Sewu temple, the Ratu Boko temple and several other smaller Hindu and Buddhist temples. There’s a museum too. However, we decided to give it all a miss and only visit the main temple– the compound is too huge and we would have to walk around in hot afternoon weather! Abby and I bought ourselves a hat at one of the shops outside the complex to protect ourselves from the scorching sun.
Visiting the Prambanan Temples
Prambanan has three main shrines in its temple compound; the Creator Brahma, the Sustainer Vishnu and the Destroyer Shiva. The Shiva shrine is the central building and is the largest of all the shrines, at 47 meters high. This shrine is filled with galleries adorned with bas-reliefs telling the story of Ramayana, but unfortunately, is not opened to public.
Visitors are allowed to visit the other two main shrines belonging to Brahma and Vishnu; as well as the other three smaller shrines facing the three main ones, belonging to the bull Nandi for Shiva, the sacred swan Hamsa for Brahma, and Vishnu’s Eagle Garuda. Each shrine houses the statues of their respective owners.
The original structure of Prambanan consisted of hundreds of temples arranged in 4 rows surrounding the main cluster. There were originally a total of 240 temples altogether. However, many have been destroyed through time, made worse by the 2006 earthquake that hit the city. When I visited, some parts of the temple were still being restored, some areas were fenced off, and there were many broken stone blocks stacked up at the side of the site.
The Story of Prambanan
Prambanan has a very interesting legend often told by the Javanese people. The legend tells of Prince Bandung Bondowoso who proposed to Princess Rara Jonggrang, the daughter of King Boko. She was forced to agree to the marriage but posed an impossible condition; he must build her a thousand temples in one night.
The prince seeked the help of many spirits and demons conjured up from earth to help him throughout the night. They succeeded in building 999 temples, but when they were about to finish the final temple, the princess ordered her temple maids and women of the village to begin pounding rice to make the prince and spirits believe that the sun was about to rise. The spirits then fled back into the ground.
The angry prince was furious that the princess tricked him and in revenge he cursed Rara Jonggrang to stone. She became the last and most beautiful statue. According to legend, the unfinished 1000th temple is the Sewu temple that still stands in the compounds nearby.
Prambanan temple is also known as the Rara Jonggrang ‘Slender Virgin’ temple.
Prambanan at Night
Come night, the beautiful temple of Prambanan is lighted up against the night sky. It’s the perfect backdrop for the Ramayana Ballet, that is held at the open theatre in the temple complex.
Before watching the performance at 7.30pm, we had buffet dinner at the Prambanan Garden Restaurant that provides a splendid view of the temples at night, in a pretty outdoor garden environment. The restaurants serves Indonesian cuisine– the food is mediocre; but at a reasonable cost of RP75,000 (US$6) and fantastic views, it was worth it.
The Ramayana Ballet
Tickets to the Ramayana Ballet ranges from RP100,000 – RP250,000 (US$8-US$20). Abby and I decided to go for the first class tickets at RP175,000 (US$13); it has a good view of the stage, but the stone chair wasn’t very comfortable to sit on for 3 hours. I suggest going for the higher ranged tickets, which provides cushion seats.
The Ramayana Ballet tells the story of Ramayana that is carved and engraved in the walls of the Prambanan temple. It’s a beautiful display of Javanese dance, music and costumes. There are no narrations or dialogues involved; and I could only guess what was happening with the help of a sheet of paper that explained the four acts of the ballet.
The performance was interesting, with the extravagant costumes, interesting Javanese dance choreography and traditional music. However, I felt that the 3-hour performance was a little too long to hold my attention; I lost concentration after the first hour or so. Thankfully, the occasional burst of flames on stage and other effects managed to keep me entertained enough to jerk awake from time to time!
The show finished at about 10.30pm, and we were allowed on stage to take pictures with the performers. Though it was a long, tiring day exploring the temples and watching the performance– I had fun witnessing so much beauty, understanding the history a little more, and immersing myself in the local culture. It’s also another tick off my travel must-see list.