Prambanan! The first of the two exquisite sites of ancient architecture and religious art near Yogyakarta, the other being Borobodur. I googled images of these sites constantly when I was at my work desk, looking forward to coming here. They both looked unreal: magnificent and almost transcendentally beautiful.
Well, they weren’t transcendental, but they were wonderful. Let me tell you about Prambanan.
The unusually good thing about a site as big as Prambanan is that it’s just outside a major city, so it’s easily accessible by public bus for less than 50p. (You know me: I wasn’t about to get a tour for a tenner if I could help it).
We were accompanied on our journey by about a dozen army officers — one of whom, to my amusement, even had a camo phone case. The bus conductor held up two or four fingers to each bus stop attendant as we passed. I thought that this might be the number of white people or tourists aboard — it correlated — but Matt thinks that’s untrue.
I absolutely loved seeing all the symbols and statues that I understand so well and appreciate so much. It was like hearing an album you loved years ago or reading an old beloved book.
Our guide led us into the main Shaivite temple (dedicated to Shiva) and then around it, telling us the story of the Ramayana which is exquisitely engraved on the outside.
Our guide’s English was not fantastic and he spoke very fast, saliva gathering in the corners of his mouth, so we found it quite tricky to understand him. But we smiled and nodded and took pictures of the panels we liked and thanked him for bringing a torch so that we could better photograph the four deities that stood in each room. Hindus and Buddhists believe that you should always walk around a temple clockwise rather than anti-clockwise, so as to increase the amount of good karma in the world, and I’m glad to say we did so.
We saw statues of Shiva, Vishnu, Rama, Durga, and Ganesh, and it felt like I was greeting old friends.
He also taught me something new: that the bottom of Vishnu’s temple is lined by engravings of garuda or eagle because that’s his mount. Shiva’s was lined by his mount: a bull or Nandi. Brahma’s mount is a goose.
We marvelled at the intricacy and emotion of the Ramayana engravings — how we could feel the emotion of the story emanating from these millennium-old stones. And we photographed the weird and wonderful devils that face outward from the temple, warning off intruders.
(I take pride in the fact that I instantly identified anything lewd. The yoni (vagina symbol); the lingum (phallic symbol); the massive balls of Shiva’s nandi (bull), and the smaller bull figures outside many of the temples; and the cheeky engravings on the Vaishnavite temple, dedicated to Vishnu. Our guide, adorably, excused the first example by saying “Sorry, is little bit porno!”)
But because Indonesia is not, by and large, a Hindu country, the focus was more on getting good pictures rather than being reverential or even entirely understanding what was going on. Our guide said a lot of things that he had learnt by rote and they didn’t all seem accurate. It felt hollow compared to the hushed, reverential silence of a holy place.
It was a little like the Taj Mahal — heart-stoppingly beautiful, but strangely empty. There was a toy train that guided visitors around the centre, and a small pen full of deer. It’s difficult to find any peace or spirituality in any place with a toy train beeping in the background.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t still find it utterly fascinating, and exceptionally beautiful — and my reaction was doubled by the fact that it was Hindu. But it was tinged with the sadness that it wasn’t all it could have been.
But all was not lost. The final thing we did after having visited the main temple complex was to go to a much more deserted one: Candi Sewu (south temple), which was much less well restored, and much emptier.
Whilst this place also didn’t feel religious, it did feel atmospheric: amazingly, deliciously so.
The Buddisnt statues had been put together haphazardly or not at all. Headless Buddhas sat tranquilly atop piles of rocks. The central temple loomed above us, covered in scaffolding, the entrances pitch-black (we were too intimidated to enter). And we were almost entirely alone, as the sun began to set and enormous black rainclouds drifted above and took a breath.