The Virgin Mother of Prambanan

Prambanan, Central Java, Indonesia

September 22, 2010

I had always been a sucker for stories. I would even lap up legends. One such legend led me to hop over the other hemisphere to visit Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple complex comprised of the largest and finest Hindu monuments in Java.

The Spires of Prambanan

Love, betrayal, revenge: soap opera elements of today were the stuff of legends. Once upon a time in Java, there were two rival kingdoms. One was ruled by a wise king who had a son named Bandung Bondowoso, the other by a gigantic despot named Prabu Boko. They skirmished for territorial protection and expansion, respectively. Youth prevailed over sheer size; Bandung conquered Boko’s kingdom and slew its cruel king. But brawn turned to mush; Bandung was smitten by Boko’s daughter, Roro Jonggrang, and asked for her hand in marriage.

Prambanan in Central Java, Indonesia
Tree, Temple, and Tourist: Prambanan Temple Complex

Princess Roro, not as easily conquered as her slain father, countered her suitor’s proposal by imposing a seemingly impossible condition: Bandung should build a thousand temples in one night. Bandung craftily summoned nocturnal spirits to assist him in this time-pressured architectural project. But the princess also had a trick up her sleeve. After 999 temples had been erected well before dawn, she enlisted the help of the womenfolk: they pounded rice and lit bonfires. This prompted the confused cocks to crow. Consequently, the spirits also mistakenly thought it was the break of dawn and scurried back to the underworld, leaving the last temple unfinished.

There was a thin line between love and hate. Roro’s deception enraged Bandung; he cursed her, uttering these damning words: “There’s only one temple left. Let you be the one to complete it.” The princess was then petrified into a statue, now known as the Slender Virgin – implying how the mighty conqueror Bandung had failed miserably in conquering her. Her statue was enshrined in the central spire of Prambanan, presumably the thousandth temple. Centuries later, couples would still avoid the temple for fear of failed relationships. In my case, I failed in laying eyes on the stone virgin. Her shrine was cordoned off by a yellow ticker tape like a crime scene; the structure was still unstable from the damage brought about by the 2006 Java earthquake.

Shiva Shrine
Brahma Himself (or Themselves?)

That was the take of Javanese folklore, said to represent the power struggle between the Buddhist Sailendra kingdom and the Hindu Sanjaya kingdom. According to Hindu mythology, though, the statue was that of the Hindu goddess, Durga Mahisasuramardhini, one of Shiva’s consorts. Shiva’s spire was flanked by two smaller shrines. These three spires enshrined images of the Hindu trimurti: Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. The 47-meter Shiva shrine took center stage on a sandy courtyard. Stacks of rocks formed an unlikely perimeter fence, rubble of more than 200 smaller temples within the complex that had crumbled from countless earthquakes that continued to rock this geologically unstable land.

Prambanan Rocks
Promenading in Prambanan

Durga was far from a crafty virgin. She was Shiva’s wife and a veritable supernatural force, alongside male deities. Her shining moment in Hindu mythology was the slaying of a particularly malevolent demon in an epic battle. She was credited for the victory of good over evil. More than being Goddess Durga, she was also known as Mother Durga (I called her Divine Durga, the diva goddess), whose sons include Ganesha, the Hindu god with an elephant trunk.

Undeterred by the elusive virgin/mother, I explored the Vishnu and Brahma shrines, as well as the smaller one dedicated to Garuda, the Indonesian avian icon. I noticed water miraculously dripping out of the stone structures, drenching the carved Ramayana images despite the beating equatorial sun. In fact, there was a heavy downpour the previous night. The porous stone was waterlogged such that, hours later, rainwater was still seeping out.

“Sweating” Statue: Ramayana Bas-Relief
Spires in my Eyes

Among the carved images, the recurring depiction of cockatoos and the kalpataru, the Indonesian tree of life (or “God’s parasol,” according to Ramayana Kakawin – how cute!), stood out. The spires were dense with Hindu symbolisms and their distinctly Javanese interpretations. Whether we went by the Hindu legend or the Javanese take, this duality imbued Prambanan with the feminine fortitude of the Virgin/Mother. Her legend and myth, her stone statue and shrine were enduring testaments of Hindu presence in Java’s Buddhist past and Islamic present.

26 thoughts on “The Virgin Mother of Prambanan

  1. I always love your travel stories and photo’s. I am adding a few more destinations to my list since viewing and reading your stories. Light and love to you. I love the snow on word press it is so soothing.


    1. Nice “seeing” you in cyberspace again, Deanne! Your cyberfriends miss you. 🙂 Yep, Java is a culturally rich island. There’s something for every kind of traveler there.

  2. I’m always in love with your travel photos AJ! I like the way you interest me with your excellent writing and photo sharing. Definitely, the best blog I ever followed! The way you influence your readers to travel is like a virus… I do have the impulse to visit this featured place now!!!

    I hope I’m not mistaken but I’m so going to visit Java Indonesia in the future and hopefully I’ll stumble upon the same place you had visited.

    Cheers for such interesting post as always, Kababayan!

    1. Kababayan?! Wow I never thought you’re Pinay!!! I thought Malaysian or something. Haha how silly of me! Anyway, maraming salamat. Ours is a case of mutual admiration then. Your Nami Island photos are absolutely stunning. 🙂

    1. I heart stories like this and the legends about the Chocolate Hills. Telling these tales to kids could stimulate interest in historical places and natural landmarks, as I was. 🙂 Thanks for dropping in, Fetus.

    1. Thanks Nelieta! Enjoyed your blog too, but for some reason, I couldn’t post a comment on Blogspot from this PC. Just wanted to say that camels really do stink; it wasn’t just your camel. 🙂

  3. AJ, I knew this story since my childhood, it was one of our reading materials at preliminary school, yet u make the story short and interesting coz u involved also the Hinduism believe as a background not merely the legends of the temple. Just additional information: Garuda is the symbol of Indonesia as a country/nation as Eagle for USA; so for Indonesians, Garuda is representing our nation, that is why we put Garuda before the Indonesian airline/avian.
    As usual, I always love reading yr story….u r…very good in writing AJ. I salute u.

    1. Terima kasih, Neneng. It means so much that an Indonesian appreciates what I have written about their country.

      And thanks for the info. It’s just fitting then that the name of your national airline is Garuda. And I think the economy of Indonesia is also taking off like Garuda.

  4. This is a very interesting story and I’d like to learn more about it (with easier explanation), “a thin line between love and hate” in the Javanese folklore appealed to me and made me think a lot…

    1. Daghang salamat, Dennis! For me, stories and legends about the places I visit lend a distinctly local flavor to my travel experience. Another post coming up shortly! 🙂

  5. You know so much about the Hindu history and about the gods! I am impressed to see your interest in different cultures and such a deep knowledge:)

    1. Oh, I just learned about these things in my travels. It’s not deep knowledge by any standard; I’ve barely scratched the surface! Traveling has sparked my interest in history and culture.

    1. That’s because both are Hindu temples, and the spires are classic Hindu architecture. Frankly, Angkor Wat is more majestic, although Prambanan predates Angkor by about 4 centuries.

      Thanks for dropping in, Traveler. LOL

      – (The Transcendental) Tourist.

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