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.