Keen not be bettered by the Joneses – in this case the Sailendra Dynasty with their extravagant Buddhist temple, Borobudur – Rakai Pikatan, king of Central Java’s Medang Kingdom, began planning his own grand design, what would be (and remains today) Indonesia’s largest Hindu temple: Candi Prambanan.
Construction of Candi Prambanan commenced in 850 CE. The temple was designed with a central pagoda reaching 47 metres in height, making it a good ten metres taller than rival Borobudur.
Successive kings added hundreds of smaller stupas to the complex. Candi Prambanan contained 240 temples in all, 224 of which were small stupas arranged in a concentric mandala pattern around the central pagoda.
The central pagoda and surrounding stupas were reduced to rubble in the 16th Century when the site was struck by a powerful earthquake. The site was long out of use by this time however. It was abandoned sometime around 930 CE, when Sri Isyana Vikramadhammatunggadeva moved the capital to East Java, following an eruption of nearby Mount Merapi.
The temples weren’t re-discovered until 1811 when the much lauded Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles stumbled upon them (of course local communities were aware of the temple’s existence the whole time).
Candi Prambanan isn’t the only temple on the Prambanan Plains. There are dozens of temples here, several of which, including those of the Buddhist temple complex, Sewu, are so close to Candi Prambanan they are fenced together in the one compound.
Built in the 8th Century CE – and thus preceding Candi Prambanan – the Sewu temple complex includes 249 temple structures. It is the 2nd largest Buddhist temple in Indonesia (the largest is Borobudur).
The entrance to Sewu is protected by two fearsome and well-preserved Dvarapala statues (Dvarapalas are guardian entities, usually portrayed as strong, aggressive, sometimes demonic warrior figures).
Candi Plaosan was built by Sri Kahulunnan, the daughter of Buddhist King Samaratungga, who married Hindu Rakai Pikatan – constructor of Candi Prambanan.
Candi Plaosan contains 174 structures, most of which (at the time of my visit) were just piles of rubble, having been destroyed by various earthquakes over the centuries. A restoration program is underway.
Inside one of Candi Plaosan’s temples are two seated Bodhisattva statues. Between the two a large bronze Buddha statue would once have stood; unfortunately it was plundered long ago by some Indian Jones type character.
The Prambanan Plains abound with ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples. Take a drive around and you’ll spot temples hither, thither, and yon. All have been devastated by earthquakes. A few have been re-assembled, but most remain as piles of rubble. Explore to your heart’s content. The more interest you show as a tourist, the more likely these temples are to receive funding for their own restoration programs.
Practical information and how to reach Prambanan:
There are plenty of public buses running between Yogyakarta and Prambanan. Trip time is 30 minutes to one hour depending on traffic. If you plan on visiting temples that are further afield, such as Candi Plaosan, then consider joining an organised tour. More transport info here.
Read more on the Prambanan Temple Compounds in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.