31: Java’s Prambanan temple complex


While the Sailendra Dynasty (785 CE -> 850 CE) lasted less than a century, their creative energy for construction was so great that they also built other religious monuments besides Borobudur on Central Java’s fertile plain. The most notable are Tjandi Ngawen and Tjandi Mendut. These two stone temples are in the same style as Borobudur, although not so grand. As an indication of their connection, the locations of the 3 temples form a straight line, although no one knows what this means.


The Sanjaya Dynasty continues the Temple-building Frenzy

The Sailendra Dynasty was not the only kingdom to build exquisite temples in Central Java at this time. Possibly a vassal state of the Sumatran based Srivijaya Empire, the Sailendra Dynasty were peaceful invaders. The Sanjaya family, who they replaced, was not destroyed. They simply moved to the sidelines. With the ascendancy of the Sailendra Dynasty, the Sanjaya family bowed out to become a vassal state on their perimeter. With the decline of the Sumatran dynasty in the middle of the 9th century, the Sanjaya family reasserted control over the valley and the Sailendra court moved to Sumatra.

Legend has it that a Sanjaya prince married a Sailendra princess to become king. Because of the paucity of historical information, it is not clear if this was a military takeover or if he was merely stepping in to fill a power vacuum. Religious construction normally comes to a halt during times of military stress. However, the temple building frenzy continued unabated under this renewed Hindu kingdom of Mataram for another 30 years. As such, we prefer the second, more peaceful, explanation.

Although the Sailendra dynasty embraced Mahayana Buddhism, the Hindu worship of Shiva and Vishnu was not eliminated or even suppressed during their reign. Similarly, the other way around. Showing typical Javanese tolerance, the Sanjaya dynasty created more Buddhist temples, Candi Sari and Candi Plaoson. Close by on the same plateau they also went on to build more Hindu temples called the Prambanan complex. These temples were dedicated to Shiva, Hindu literature and aesthetics. There was no decline in quality. They continued to create the first class art of Java. Over 10 of these magnificent temples were created on Java’s central plain during this century.

Following is a map of the temples (red dots) that were created in Central Java during the last centuries of the first millenium.

Notice the close proximity of most of these temples to the ancient city of Yogyakarta. Further, 3 of the temples are bunched around Borobudur to the northwest of the city, while 6 are located just to the east. The citizens of the Sailendra dynasty were the primary builders of the westward temples, while the Sanjaya dynasty constructed the eastward temples. This exquisie architecture was constructed many centuries before both Angkor Wat and the great cathedrals of Europe. This accomplishment is even more amazing considering the brevity of the time in which they were built.

One other item of note: the triangles indicate the many volcanos in the region. This geological feature was to exert a profound effect upon the vitality of the Sanjaya dynasty and, by extension, the creative energy of the Central Javanese population.

Central Java’s Temple Park

Javanese architects, builders and sculptors created an enormous temple park in the decades following the completion of Borobudur. Within less than the circumference of one kilometer (8 tenths of a mile), there are not one, but 2 major temple complexes and 2 smaller temple complexes. One of the major complexes is Hindu and the other is Buddhist. They are located at opposite ends of the small park. Each of the 4 complexes has a large temple/shrine in the center. Organized in a rectangular pattern, innumerable smaller shrines surround the main shrine.

A unified park with pathways surrounds the many temples. Further it is comfortable walking distance between the shrines. There is even a deer park on the perimeter that symbolizes the place that Buddha gave his first lecture after attaining enlightenment (possibly a modern addition). Due to these factors, the visitor gets the distinct impression that those who designed the park meant to draw pilgrims of either Buddhist or Hindu persuasion. Because of the proximity, the traveler might even experience or worship at both temples. As such, the temple park is a testament to the inclusive belief system of the Javanese. Not Buddhist or Hindu, but both.

These temple shrines are very different than Buddhist stupas. Stupas are meant to house the remains of Buddha for Theravadists, Buddhist sutras for Mahayanists, or emptiness for the Tantrists of Borobudur. Stupas probably derived from monuments that held the bones of ancestors. In contrast, shrines are meant to honor a god. As contrasted with Buddhist stupas, many shrines have interior space that includes sculpture in the round of the temple deity. This is true of both the Buddhist and Hindu temple complexes at the park.

The Prambanan Temple Complex & Lara Janggrang

Based upon a rich and complex mythology, the Hindu temples soar skyward. In contrast, the relatively squat profile of Borobudur symbolizes the moral didacticism of Buddhism. The vegetal style of the temple shrines is similar to those at Angkor. The most impressive of the temple complexes is called Prambanan. Let’s take a brief tour of this Hindu masterpiece.

The visitor to Prambanan is greeted with the sight of not a single monument, but of multiple spires shooting up into the sky. Instead of only one temple, there are 3 main structures surrounded by a multitude of stone shrines in various states of restoration.


Located dead center, the tallest temple/shrine is devoted to Shiva. Because of its prominence, many call this the Shiva Temple Complex. The large shrine on the left is devoted to Vishnu, and the one on the right to Brahma. Along with Shiva, these 3 Hindu Gods are called the Trimurti as a group. The 3 gods represent different aspects of the one reality. According to traditional Hindu mythology, they are respectively the Destroyer, Preserver, and Creator Gods.

Due to its enormity and intricacy, the center shrine is the most striking of the individual tjandis. It even has its own name – Lara Janggrang. Built about 900 CE, it is a colossal work meant to represent mythological Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain of Hinduism. Shown below, the architecture is reminiscent of the temples of Angkor with its vegetal lotus structure.

To give you some size perspective here is someone at one of the entryways.

Moving closer, we appreciate the vegetal look of the shrines. The tjandis almost look porous, especially compared with Borobudur, which seemed to be a solid block of stone. We notice the immense amount of rubble scattered everywhere, presumably remnants of over 100 smaller shrines that have yet to be reconstructed.

The main temple to Shiva is so tall (47 meters, over 140 feet) that visitors must wear hard hats to protect them from the potential of falling debris. Notice the makara railings to the right of the person in the photograph.

As at Borobudur, a balustrade on the lower level creates a corridor with walls containing panels on both sides. In contrast to Borobudur, the walls are not tall enough to prevent one from seeing out. Plus there is only one level that contains the bas-reliefs as compared with Borobudur's five. The Prambanan temple complex invests more artistic energy in the height and number of temples and less in the number of friezes.

The many panels include sculptural representations in stone of many Hindu stories. Including guess what? You guessed it - the Ramayana. Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and Java. This traditional Hindu novel permeates and continues to permeate the cultures of Southeast Asia. This timeless story was the primary vehicle by which Hindu religious philosophy was communicated to the Southeast Asian populace.

As another indication of its importance, the complete tale of the Ramayana is etched into the high bas-relief along the rectangular balustrades – not just scattered scenes, but the entire narrative. The panels are engraved with successive stone friezes including Rama, Sita, Hanuman the monkey king, and Ravana the demon king.




In the center of each tower there is a greater than life size (9 feet tall) sculpture of the deity to whom the particular tjandi is devoted. Here is Shiva as the mahaguru, the great guru.

The Shiva shrine also includes a separate room in the back to house a sculpture of his consort, Durga. It is of equal magnificence. The mythological scene shows Durga drawing a demon from a cow that she has conquered. This narrative is not from Hindu mythology, but is instead a Javanese story. This is yet another indication of how the Javanese didn't slavishly copy the Hindu religion , but made it their own. This focus on the goddess is an indication of the influence of Tantra.

Besides the friezes and the internal statuary of the gods, there are many mythological scenes and creatures that adorn the temple.


These representations include the ubiquitous Kala/Makara representations that is seen at both Borobudur and the Dieng Plateau. Recall that it symbolizes the fact that time swallows everything, even as we cultivate vitality. This is a powerful symbol indeed.

Kala represents Time and is frequently shown with jaws wide atop entryways.


Here it is shown vomiting scrolls.


Evidently, in the original shrines, there were fountains spouting water from the mouths of the makaras, again emphasizing fecundity as a symbolic feature of the half animal-half fish like creature.

There are multiple temple spires of lesser, but still grand, size surrounding the big three. One of these presumably houses the cremated remains of the raja/king who created the masterpiece. In similar fashion to the Dieng Plateau, the symbolism presumably equates the king and his dynasty with the gods.

The Sewu Buddhist Temple Complex

The enormous Sewu Buddhist complex is a brief walk from Prambanan. It was created during the same time period. In-between there is a Buddhist shrine still under reconstruction. Scholars think it was devoted to Tara, the tantric goddess of Buddhism. Gigantic statues guard the Sewu temple complex.


The Buddhist temple complex is similar in design to the previous Hindu temple complex. A primary shrine is surrounded by multiple smaller shrines, all in various stages of reconstruction. Note that the spires have the shape of a Buddhist stupa, solid and gradually moving towards a peak. In contrast, the towers on the Hindu shrines are bulbous, vegetal, and somewhat diaphanous.

Instead of Hindu gods, the shrine presumably housed Buddhas, all of which have been stolen or removed. On the way back, there is a Buddhist deer park – a simulation of the location where the Buddha gave his first lecture after becoming enlightened.

An abrupt end due to volcanic eruptions?

  This efflorescence of temple building in Java came to an abrupt halt in about 930 CE. Although there are no written accounts, most historians believe that the cessation was due to the eruption of some local volcanoes. In support of this theory, one of the temples was covered with 3 feet of ash and was well preserved - showing no signs of decay or looting. The shrine seems to have been suddenly abandoned, like the buildings of Pompeii. Other evidence suggests that the population suddenly dropped, probably moving to the coast. From 732 CE to 930 CE, nearly 200 years, this culture on Java’s central plain created multiple architectural religious masterpieces and then suddenly disappeared from history.

The Khmer temples of Angkor belonged to the same architectural tradition as these Hindu temples, rather than the Buddhist stupas of Borobudur. The Khmer and Javanese kingdoms were contemporary with each other. They probably even shared some of the same craftsman, especially after the fall of these Javanese kingdoms in the early 900s due to volcanic activity.

Like the Khmer of Angkor, the Javanese must have thought that their kingdom was destined to last forever - aligned as they were with the gods. Unfortunately for them, the Universe had other plans. As always, life is much more transitory than we anticipate.

A Khmer Prince returns from his education in Java

In the brief 100 years of the Sailendra dynasty of the Srivijaya Empire, the devarajas/kings created a series of monuments on Java’s central plain. During this period a young Khmer prince had been sent to Java either as a royal hostage to guarantee cooperation or for upbringing and education abroad. Either is likely as the Khmer tradition acknowledges Javanese overlordship in the later part of the 8th century.

There had already been a long history of connection between Cambodia and Java. The Javanese even considered themselves descendants of the Funanese of Cambodia. As a casual indication of their relationship, Sailendra means ‘Lord of the Mountain’ and Funan means ‘Mountain Kingdom’. Even though both kingdoms are located in the valley, there titles suggest their affinity with the mountains – the abode of the gods.

This Cambodian prince was exposed to the Javanese concept of the devaraja, which was associated with pyramid building, such as Borobudur. These god kings created their own Mount Meru. Inspired by the great Javanese culture, this young Cambodian prince escaped or just returned home to Cambodia with grandiose ideas. This was in 790 CE, when Borobudur was only midway through its 50 years of construction. Jayavarman II was the name of this Java educated Khmer Prince who returned to Cambodia and founded the Khmer Empire that eventually created Angkor Wat.

Let’s reflect on what we’ve uncovered.

The Khmer of Cambodia founded an Indianized kingdom. This kingdom was a blend of Hindu culture with an indigenous stone cutting culture, which had already been around for thousands of years. However, the Khmer were part of the greater Southeast Asian cultural web. As such, the Sailendra dynasty of the Java-based Srivijaya Empire exerted a significant influenced upon them. Strangely enough, this dynasty traced its roots to the first Khmer kingdom of Funan - from which Angkor is derived. In other words, the Javanese temple complexes and the Khmer temple complexes, rather than isolated occurrences, are intimately linked.


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