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.

A.J. Poliquit