There are many ways to learn about history – reading history books, studying about the subject, watching videos and documentaries – but there is only one way to experience history, and that is by being in places where history was made and being a history buff, I often find myself in places where history was created.
After having spent a long peaceful morning in Borobudur and coming face to face with the hallmark of Buddhist history in central Java, I am now at the second most important place in the island, the Prambanan temple. Interestingly, this temple complex was also lost in wilderness and covered in volcanic dust for centuries much like its counterpart Borobudur and took decades to restore. And just like Borobudur, it is also a World Heritage Site not many know about. Thanks to my research though, I do know a little bit about the place.
The Prambanan temple complex is said to have been built in the 9th century to mark the return of the Hindu kings of the Sanjaya dynasty. The dynasty, which had come to power after almost a century of Buddhist Shailendra dynasty’s rule, built the temples to establish their power and position in the country, and also as a reply to the Borobudur temple built by their predecessors. Constructed about 50 years after the Borobudur temple, the Prambanan temple complex did succeed in doing so, for it consisted of not one or two but two hundred and forty temples. It is another thing that out of those only a handful of them remain intact now.
The first thing I notice about the complex is its vastness. The temples spires that rise like mountain peaks from bright green earth below are strikingly similar to other Hindu temples I have seen, especially the other World Heritage sites back home. In that sense, the temples, and the complex do not look new to me.
But there is another reason why the soaring towers look familiar – I have seen them before.
My first stop in the Yogyakarya, locally known as Jogja, was the Ramayana Ballet the night before. I had booked the tickets of the ballet through my host in the town and had attended the evening show soon after landing in the city. The ballet, that is a rendition of Ramayana, happens to be one of the primary attractions of the city and came highly recommended by my host, Yogi.
Based on a local Indonesian version of the epic, with many interesting twists and turns to the Ramayana I have grown with, the dance-drama had turned out to be better than I had expected. The performances were nuanced, the choreography was superb, and the music was soothing. But the best part of the ballet was the location: it was held in the forecourt courtyard of the Prambanan temple, with the temple towers glistening majestically in the background. Maybe that is why they looked so familiar now.
As I walk ahead through the manicured lawns closer to the complex, I realize the scale of the place is much larger than it seemed at night. Temples are much higher than any other temple I have seen before. They are carved out of black volcanic rocks and have much sharper spires and much more intricate exteriors than their Indian counterparts, and even though most temples’ deities are still intact, barring a little damage here and there, the temples have no priests or scope of worship. The design and layout of the temples however, remain strikingly similar to the Hindu temples in India – built on a high platform with one central chamber and a circumambulation path along its periphery. Each of them has a smaller temple in front dedicated to the deities’ respective ‘vahanas’ too.
Three temples occupy the central position in the complex. The middle one belongs to Shiva and is 43 meter high, the two others on the side, belong to Vishnu and Brahma and rise up to 33 meters each. Shiva’s temple is not only central and tallest, but also the largest with additional chambers for Durga, Ganesha, and Agastya. Shiva, it seems, was the presiding deity of the Sanjaya dynasty. I wonder if the dynasty had any alliance with the Indian subcontinent.
At the time of their construction, these temples were built to stand apart from the Buddhist temples of the time, especially Borobudur, but today, ironically, they look more similar than different. The façade of the temples, the platforms on which they have been built and the stories they tell seem similar to what I have seen in Borobudur a few hours before. Like the platforms of the Borobudur temple, the platforms here are also rich in relief panels most of which depict scenes from the Ramayana. That perhaps could be the reason for the ballet to be staged here.
What stands out in the complex, apart from the exquisite architecture and craftsmanship however, is the rubble of those, which are no longer standing. Hundreds of smaller temples seem to have crumbled and fallen precisely inside their own boundary walls.
“The volcanic activity in the region had damaged the entire complex and nothing but a few structures remained. And then, soon after a British Surveyor discovered the temples in the 19th century, the locals started taking the rocks away to build their own homes. It took years for the authorities to protect the monument and start restoration; by then a lot of the original rocks were already taken away. Since the UNESCO guidelines say that not more than 70% of new material can be used to restore the monuments, all they could do was to collect the rocks and put it in their places. It is in fact a miracle that these few temples are still standing.” My guide tells me as we walk around the sprawling complex.
Looking at the imposing towers of the surviving temples standing tall and strong, it indeed looks like a miracle. But then, isn’t history often full of miracles?