Two great temples of tolerance
Yogyakarta temples, Java, Indonesia
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The main Indonesian island of Java has seen a lot of change over the centuries – different colonisers, different politics, different religions. Each brings with it a new direction and a shift in the culture. However, history shows us there is something so adaptable about the Javanese. No matter how things change, the soul of the island stays strong.
I’m always fascinated by the religion in Indonesia. For the world’s populous Muslim country, it is impressively tolerant of other faiths. For instance, the country’s constitution recognises six official religions. (If you’re curious, they are Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.) It probably has a lot to do with all these changes that have occurred over the years and the impact they have left on the society.
For a tourist, there is probably no better place to see the history of the shifting religions in Java than around Yogyakarta. The city’s population reflects that of broader Java with about 90 per cent of people identifying as Muslim. Yet about an hour’s drive in one direction, you’ll find the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Less than an hour’s drive in another direction, you’ll find one of the largest Hindu temples in Southeast Asia.
I’ve written before about the Buddhist temple, Borobudur, and how impressive it is. It is one of the highlights of a visit to the area and worthy of its status as a World Heritage Site.
Today I want to tell you about Prambanan, the Hindu temple complex that I think is also unmissable.
Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Prambanan Temple was built from about 850AD, less than 100 years after Borobudur temple. It just so happened that during this short period of time, a Buddhist dynasty in Java was replaced by a Hindu dynasty. To show the shift in power, a new temple for the new religion was needed and that’s how Prambanan came to exist. (That Borobudur wasn’t destroyed is interesting and perhaps speaks to the history of tolerance on the island that I’ve referred to.)
Prambanan is a large complex that originally had 240 temples. Most of these were relatively small and were around the edges. In the centre is the main attraction – the three large temples dedicated to the gods Shiva the destroyer, Vishnu the keeper and Brahma the creator… and the three slightly shorter temples for the ‘vehicles’ of those gods, Nandi, Garuda and Hamsa, respectively.
Coming in through the main entrance, you walk through an area where the dozens of smaller temples would once have been. Most of these are in ruins – damaged by time, natural disasters, and looting. The Indonesian authorities made a decision to only rebuild structures that had at least 75 per cent of the original materials available. It’s safe to assume that most of these smaller ones will never be rebuilt because the stones they were once formed of have been taken away over hundreds of years by locals to build other things.
But the main central temples are now in quite good condition, although there’s often restoration work going on (Brahma’s temple is closed when I visit).
I head first for the largest of the structures, the temple for Shiva, 47 metres high. There’s a staircase that takes you up to the central room with a statue of the deity. Although this may be the most important part of the structure, it’s also the least interesting for a visitor in some ways. It’s around the edges of the temple, on the different levels, that you’ll find what I consider to be the real gem – artworks that you could spend most of your time absorbing.
The walls are decorated with stone bas-reliefs. Many of them have the symbols common in Hindi architecture. But you’ll also see images that tell the story of the epic Ramayana. In the story, a young prince has to go on a mission to save his wife from a demon king. The Ramayana is often retold in performances across Asia and there’s a very famous production I’ve seen that takes place in front of Prambanan Temple.
Each of the other temples in this central compound has its own collection of decorative exterior art, carefully created more than a thousand years ago and almost inexplicably preserved (or restored) since then. Seen from a distance, Prambanan is impressive with its asparagus-like towers rising up together. But it’s when you’re up close, sweating centimetres away from the reliefs, that you can appreciate how much devotion was poured into the site.
Discovery of Prambanan Temple
There’s one interesting similarity between Borobudur and Prambanan that I want to mention before I finish up. Both of them were abandoned at some point and left to decay and be consumed by their surroundings. Although locals, centuries later, knew both sites were there, they were treated with a degree of caution and detachment. Borobudur became covered by jungle and its rediscovery was quite dramatic.
The same goes for Prambanan to some extent. Although it wasn’t hidden by trees in the same way, it was ‘lost’ to the world as well. The British ‘rediscovered’ the site at the start of the 1800s when it was just a pile of ruins but it wasn’t until about 100 years later, in 1918, that the Dutch started a serious reconstruction effort.
Both temples built to show the power of a religion. Both left untouched by conflict or political change. Both lost because of abandonment. Both ‘rediscovered’ and restored. Both held up as shining symbols of religious history in Java. Both worth visiting on a trip to Yogyakarta. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.