Jogja Joget: Prambanan and Borobudur

While Jogja Joget was mostly about modern and contemporary art, we did not want to miss the chance to see both the Prambanan Temple and the Borobudur, having come all the way to Jogja. These temple complexes have influenced many artworks in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and are architectural wonders in themselves, so we had to include them in our itinerary. To get more out of your trip, do get a guide at both temples. We hired a guide for Prambanan near the ticketing area and a guide for Borobudur through the Manohara Hotel reception.

The Prambanan Temple

Our guide at the Prambanan Temple was animated and gave us analogies that had our art-history alarms going off like crazy (the God of Fortune is manifested as a Hindu deity in the temples?!). He was probably trying to make the temple more relatable to the general public but being actually interested in knowing about the art and not just ticking off a tourist checklist, we were hoping for a little more information.

Nonetheless, looking past other bizarre references to Hitler and animals having lovers’ quarrels, he gave us some interesting bits of information, such as how the whole temple was built with only three types of stones: I, L and S shaped stones. He also helpfully pointed out the differences in layout between the Prambanan Temple (Hindu) and the Borobudur (Buddhist).

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Our guide explaining the different layouts of the two temples

Time for Prambanan 101. Built around the 8th to 10th century, and also known as the Candi Loro Jonggrang, this temple complex is dedicated to Trimurti, the manifestation of the Hindu trinity in Brahma (the Creator), Shiva (the Destroyer) and Vishnu (the Preserver). There are three main temple complexes with Shiva taking the tallest one in the middle. Opposite each temple, the mount of each god are housed in smaller shrines. However, only Nandi, the bull, belonging to Shiva remains. In addition, more than 200 smaller temples surround the main temples complexes in four concentric squares. The scale of such a construction feat is mind boggling, especially for an age without machinery to do the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, most of these smaller temples were destroyed in an earthquake and the original stones have been carried off to be part of other buildings. While there have been some restorations, most of these shrines will sadly remain in ruins.

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Layout of the Prambanan Temple – courtesy of our guide
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At the foreground, you can see ruins of the smaller temples.

Before we continue, it is time for Ramayana 101: in the epic poem, Rama (also the seventh avatar of Vishnu) manages to lift and wield a bow, thus fulfilling the requirement set by a king in order to marry his daughter Sita. After the marriage, some court politics ensue and Rama is exiled. During this time, the demon Ravana sets a trap involving a golden deer and kidnaps Sita. With the help of friends from the Ape Kingdom, Rama vanquishes Ravana and rescues Sita.

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Fascinating reliefs

Of course, this is a gross simplification of one of the greatest epic poems in the world spanning over 24,000 verses, but it will do for now. The reason for mentioning Ramayana is the spellbinding reliefs along the temple walls. Carved along these walls is the Ramayana story as well as scenes from everyday life, animals, celestial beings and other deity figures. Running short of time, we could only see some of the temple reliefs. If you have more time, a leisurely stroll along the reliefs is highly recommended. After your visit to the temple complex, do not miss out on the Ramayana ballet (covered in our travelog).

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Aren’t they cute?

Closer to home, we have another set of Trimurti in contemporary Singapore art. In 1988, three young artists decided to put up an exhibition/performance around the idea of Trimurti, with each of them taking on one of the roles (Creator, Destroyer and Preserver) within the trinity. While it is very different from the architectural wonder of the Prambanan, the groundbreaking combination of performances, installations and art makes the Trimurti exhibition a historically significant one within Singapore’s art history.

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The Destruction performance by S Chandrasekaran as part of the Trimurti exhibition in Singapore, 1988.


After ending the day with the Ramayana ballet at the Prambanan, we headed back to the Manohara Hotel for a quick forty winks before waking up at 4am to do a sunrise tour of the Borobudur. One of the advantages of staying at the Manohara is its proximity to the temple. Hardly any additional travelling time is needed (more time left for sleeping) as you can reach the temple with a five-minute walk. As it was still early and before sunrise, our guide gave us a short tour of some of the amazing reliefs on the temple walls as we slowly ascended the complex.

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Before sunrise, Borobudur.

Time for Borobudur 101. Construction of this temple began around 760 and took about 70 years. Built on a natural hill, there are nine different levels to this temple – six lower square platforms and three upper circular platforms. The journey which the devotee took around and up the levels is analogous to the journey of enlightenment. Relief scenes on the stone walls include the previous lives of Buddha as well as everyday scenes. To correctly view the reliefs in sequential order, one has to walk around the first gallery four times (inner and outer wall, lower and upper sections) and next three galleries twice each (inner and outer wall). In total, one would have to walk around the monument ten times, covering about 5km. The stories get more abstract with the ascension, signifying a journey from the world of illusion and desire towards enlightenment. At the upper circular platforms, there are 72 stupas within each sit a life-sized Buddha statue and at the monument’s peak, a huge stupa 16m in diameter.

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Layout of Borobudur – courtesy of our guide from Prambanan
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Sunrise at Borobudur

We did not walk 5km, so we arrived at the peak slightly unenlightened and a little high on fatigue from the previous night. But the amazing view that greeted us definitely woke us up. Squeezing in among the groups of tourists, we found a spot and waited for the sunrise against Mount Merapi (another important mountain in Indonesian culture, art and history). While waiting, our guide told us about the best angles to take pictures and took over our iPhones at times when we fumbled with finding that sweet spot.

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Sunrise at Borobudur

After the sunrise and a frenzied round of photo taking (while trying to avoid tourists posing with wide smiles beside serene-faced Buddhas), we decided, at the behest of our guide, to circumambulate the central stupa. Given the choice of 3, 7, or 9 times, we picked 3 in consideration of our poor legs which still had the arduous job of carrying our Indonesian food inundated bodies to many other art places. Not speaking to each other or stopping along the way, we completed the task and continued with our tour around the reliefs.

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Intricate reliefs along the temple walls

So much more could be said about the symbolism and richness of the reliefs, and the inexplicable tranquility that envelopes this temple but nothing beats heading there yourself for a first-hand experience.  We lingered for a while more, looking back from time to time at the monument on our way back, before an amazing breakfast welcomed these three refreshed pilgrims back to the Manohara Hotel.

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Written by: L

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