Hard Candi

Prambanan, Central Java, Indonesia

September 22, 2010

Rubble or restoration? That was the question.

One of the Thousand Temples in Candi Sewu

Ancient stone monuments could be brittle like hard candy. They had not always stood the test of time and the temperament of Mother Nature. At the time of their rediscovery, most had crumbled to the ground. Some archaeology purists would rather that they stayed that way – pristinely in ruins, such as Ta Prohm in Cambodia (although archaeological excavation by nature was a destructive process). If we all went by that belief, we would never behold the magnificence of, say, Angkor Wat and Borobudur. It would be quite a stretch to conjure up their original architecture from a pile of masonry and free-standing pillars.

I had just been awed by the almost-completed restoration of the Prambanan temples. Eight hundred meters on a well-paved, tree-lined path along sleepy green meadows later, an ancient candi (temple in Bahasa Indonesia, pronounced as “chandi”) came into view.

Meticulously Manicured Meadow

From the road, one might think it was a construction site, albeit an almost perfectly symmetrical one. Stacks of rocks neatly ringed the stone monuments braced by wooden scaffolding. A pair of pot-bellied dwarapala guardians beckoned me to the entrance. Hewn from solid rock, they seemed to be the only intact structures amongst the ruins.

Candi Sewu: Under Reconstruction
Dwarapala Guardian at Candi Sewu

Candi Sewu was an 8th-century Buddhist temple complex; the name literally meant “a thousand temples.” Only a handful were still standing, but the amount of stony remains was indicative of the actual number of temples that previously existed. Indonesia straddled the subduction zone between the Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates; as such, tremors were common in the country. The biggest one before my visit was the 2006 Java earthquake which fractured the main sanctuary, rendering it precariously unstable.

Along with Borobudur and Prambanan, Candi Sewu had been restored by anastylosis: the reconstruction and preservation of a ruined structure using as much of its original materials and construction methods. Anastylosis required the mind of a classical historian and archaeologist, the heart of a conservationist, the eye of an architect, and the hands of an artisan. Research involving archaeological records and cultural-religious symbolisms, plus the actual reconstruction – reassembling of individual blocks back to their original places (like puzzle pieces) using minimal modern intervention – could take years. The complete preservation of authentic materials may be a pie in the sky, but anastylosis attempted the largest possible slice of it.

Lunching under the Lintel: Workers at Candi Sewu
Construction Workers as Heritage Healers: Anastylosis in Candi Sewu

I was the lone visitor exploring the site that time. The only sound was the crunch of my footfall on sandy ground. Just as I was starting to feel unnerved by the frozen silence, I heard voices wafting through the breeze. Towards the rear of the temples, a crew of construction workers was enjoying their lunch break under an ancient lintel. I was relieved to have human company. I was also curious about their work, but language barrier rendered us deaf and mute, in a sense.

I wanted to ask if the current rehabilitation was for the earthquake damage four years before. I swayed my body for the non-verbal translation of “earthquake” and they all nodded an enthusiastic yes! I had more questions to ask, but my body couldn’t enact all the words. It was commendable that both the Indonesian government and UNESCO had joined hands for this project; but why hadn’t the restoration been completed after four years? What would be done with all the blocks of rocks stockpiled around the temples? Did the workers undergo special training in heritage restoration? What did they feel about rebuilding this centuries-old national treasure? Did they see it as sprucing up a cash cow or sustaining the soul of their nation? And where did they get their cool cone hats?

Alas, the questions remained unanswered. However, I saw how the Javanese people had reclaimed their lost heritage. That was the only answer.

Here lies history

Hewn and strewn

On jittery Java.

Here lives heritage

Steeled and healed

On glorious Garuda.

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28 thoughts on “Hard Candi

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  1. I love this post! The preservation of ancient structures is a debate that could be (and is) argued across the globe. Your writing is fantastic. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thank you, Phoenix. Do you know that Garuda is the Indonesian version of the Phoenix? It is also a mythical bird and Indonesia’s national symbol.

  2. Very informative article. Marvellous to see these Buddhist temples preserved for future generations to enjoy and learn about.
    And liked the verse.

    1. Well now that Jakarta is served by budget airline par excellence, Cebu Pacific, Indonesia will be in the radar of Pinoy travellers. 🙂 It’s so near yet so interestingly different. Go go go!

    1. Indonesia is a backpackers’ paradise. It’s relatively cheap and convenient in terms of travelling between cities. I’m sure you’ll have fun and make enriching discoveries at the same time! Looking forward to your Indonesian lakwatsa posts. 🙂

      1. I agree with claire. You and claire is really a good writer. I followed your blog for my improvement in writing. I am poor in English but determined to improve myself in writing. I learned a lot the way or your style in writing.:-). Thanks also AJ in visiting my site.

  3. I knew you would make a great poet! From the way you end this post with beautiful rhyming lines, I’m sensing a hard challenge if you ever join Jim’s travel poetry competition. Again, and as always, you write it wonderfully and the story about this place comes to picture through your sophisticated words…. I’m always a fan of your writing and it remains…..:) Thank you for sharing AJ!

    1. Oh Jorie, you have no idea how much I agonized to come up with that awkward little verse. I spent more time writing and editing those 6 measly lines than the entire article! I almost gave up but I wanted to take on Jim’s challenge. But it drained the hell outta me. Haha!

  4. I am quite intrigued by the architecture which closely resembles that of some temples in South of India. Is this the type of architecture for all the temples there. The mythical Garuda has its presence both in Hindu and Buddhist schools. I shall have to look up on this. Thanks AJ for spurring something like this. Forgot to mention, glad that you made this trip and posted this piece for us.

    Have a good week ahead.

    Joy always,
    Susan

    P. S: The title, hmmmm, quite didn’t capture the essence of the content of this riveting post.

    1. That’s a valid observation, Susan. Though Indonesia is the largest Muslim country now in terms of population, their traditional heritage is Hindu and Buddhist. Hence, the elements of classical Indian art are evident in their architecture, literature, lore, and what-not.

      Yes, Garuda appears both in Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. In fact, these 2 beliefs seemingly exist harmoniously in Indonesia. This archaeological park contains of both Hindu (Prambanan) and Buddhist (Candi Sewu) temples.

      As for the title, it’s actually tongue-in-cheek. It’s a wink and a nod to Hard Candy, a Madonna album I’ve always associated in name to Candi Sewu (go figure…haha). I know it’s a bit off-tangent, but that’s the advantage of not having an editor. Haha! It’s a personal blog, after all. I call the shots. 😉 I hope you give this to me, at least. 🙂

  5. Excellent post. It is so frustrating when you have all these questions and the body just doesn’t know or want to enact them out. Your poetry is brilliant. You may have agonised over it – but maybe you have a hidden talent that you just didn’t know until you took up Jim’s challenge!

    1. @Kerry-Ann: Thanks for cheerleading my foray to poetry. Haha. Truth be told, if I do have the hidden talent, it’s better off hidden. 😀

      @Nieleta: Thank you too! The restorations must cost an arm and a leg! I think UNESCO and some donor countries are sponsoring the restoration.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this, it reminds me of a place I visited in Wales (I know so far off the scale here you wouldn’t believe) but I had visited some ruins and when I got there I was given a headset and a tape recorder (going back some years now) and as I walked around the story recreating the days and times of the ruins was relayed. That is what you have done here plus given me some real food for though combined with some amazing pictures.

    1. Thanks SJ! Too bad I didn’t have the luxury of a pre-recorded audio to transport me to centuries past while exploring the ruins. Good thing my imagination came in handy. 🙂 Now that you mentioned it, I’d want to visit Wales!

  7. The pictures, as usual, are marvellous!

    They are busy building new structures and populating the land with concrete (which would be of no wonder to the future generations unless under extreme exceptions) whereas, the art and science gone into the making of these kind of old monuments, is priceless! Generally, they are respected and seriously rehabilitated when they gain attention on the international level for some reason. Else they wither stone by stone.

    1. Right Nehha, sometimes it takes international pressure for a developing country to preserve their ancient monuments. In fairness to Indonesia though, they have a determined advocate of heritage restoration in the person of Soekmono, a local archaeologist, who championed the rehabilitation of Borobudur and other ancient temples in Java.

      I wonder if these workers realize that they are extending the handiwork of their forefathers. They are restoring temples built by the hands of their ancestors from a millennium ago. It’s a romantic notion, I know, but it’s really quite an honor.

  8. sounds like anastylosis is expensive. i wonder if we could do that too here in a lot of ruins in the philippines…

    probably you could have done charades with those locals. lol.

    love the last lines.

    1. Oh well papel, our generals get gazillions, why not our heritage? I don’t think funding is our biggest problem. It’s indifference to our national heritage. And we need experts in art history, art restoration, and such.

      Yep, I did do a bit of charade with the locals. 😀

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