A Close Look at the Prambanan Hindu Temples

This is the second round of the ArtSmart Blogging Roundtable, and this time the topic is religious architecture. It took me a long time to choose what to write about because I adore religious buildings of all kinds. The majestic cathedrals of Europe, the delicate calligraphy of Islamic architecture, the dazzling colors and details of Eastern Europe’s synagogues, the simple beauty of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan, and others provide so many possibilities, but my mind kept coming back to one place I will never forget. I had always wanted to visit Prambanan since studying it in my Southeast Asian Art History class, but when I went there in 2002, I was blown away.

Prambanan temples

Credit: afternoon, flikr

First, a tiny bit of background:

Prambanan is located near the city Jogjakarta on the island of Java, Indonesia, in the shadow of the volcano Mount Merapi. It is a wonderful representation of Hindu temple architecture, with temples covered in beautifully carved figures. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Like other Hindu temple compounds (and its neighbor, the Buddhist monument Borobudur), the center of the compound is the most important part, and all the other structures fan out in a geometric pattern. Prambanan’s center includes temples devoted to the 3 great Hindu gods, Brahma (God the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer), and Shiva (the destroyer). The tallest temple is the Shiva temple, and on either side are the Vishnu and Bramha temples. Around these three central temples are the temples devoted to the animal carnations: a bull for Shiva, an elephant for Brahma, and a swan for Vishnu. In all there were 224 temples, but many of them lie in ruins, as you can see above.

Inside one of the temples. Credit: afternoon, flikr


Credit: Marmontel, flikr

And a bit of really interesting history:

The temples echo an ancient royal court that once existed here.  Construction began around the year 850, but the compound was abandoned soon after, in the 930s, when the court moved to another part of the island.

Like other ancient wonders around the world, Prambanan was completely forgotten for hundreds of years; then there was an earthquake in the 16th century, which caused most of the temples to collapse.  In 1811, it was discovered by a British man, a mere 900 years after it had been abandoned.  At that time, the Dutch colonists and Javanese locals took many sculptures and other pieces to use as decoration or construction material for their homes!  Because of the massive looting that continued for the next 100 years, it has been difficult to reconstruct it, so the site contains numerous pieces of the former structures just lying around in piles.  Unfortunately, what remains of the temple compound was badly damaged again in the 2006 earthquake, reminding us that ancient sites are always at the mercy of nature.

What is most impressive is the decoration. It is everywhere, covering just about every inch of the temples:


Credit: Soham Pablo, flikr

Creatures with their mouths hanging open guard the temples:


The skill of the 9th century artisans is obvious.

Prambanan figures

Credit: paularps, flikr

All around the temples are friezes that narrate the Ramayana (the famous story of the 3rd century king Rama).

Credit: Soham Pablo, flikr

As I wandered the grounds, I kept thinking about the civilization that existed in this part of Java more than 1100 years ago.


Credit: Soham Pablo, flikr

Credit: Soham Pablo, flikr

For me, the combination of Prambanan’s size, history, and intricately carved details made for an experience I will always remember. Sadly, I lost most of my photographs from that day, but I hope to take new ones when I return someday!

Here are the links to this month’s other ArtSmart posts:

San Pietro in Spoleto from Kelly at Travellious

Modernisme in the Church from Ashley at No Onions Extra Pickles

Florence Baptistery: Through the “Gates of Paradise” from Jeff at Eurotravelogue

Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel from Erin at Sense of Place


  • I love this post. Great Travel Blogger!

  • Jeff Titelius says:

    What a fantastic article and fabulous photography my friend. Too bad about the earthquake but thankfully we have what survived. Nicely done.

  • ehalvey says:

    Great viewpoint of something that’s non-western! I’ve always been fascinated by the temples in India and Southeast Asia. It’s mind-boggling that they would put all the time and effort into constructing the complex only to abandon it shortly after.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks, Erin! I’ve always been fascinated by them, too. Mind-boggling is a word I would use for the whole thing. They are so huge, so intricately decorated, so amazing…it’s hard to imagine what kind of incredible civilization was there (especially on an island!).

  • I have to admit I am not a big fan of architecture and what I have learned came from traveling. However, the architecture of this temple is beautiful and its great that people enjoy and study these things. I am sure your background in art has exposed you to a lot of different types of architecture.

    • Jenna says:

      You’re right, my background in art makes me love architecture a lot. I love that you are honest that you are not a big fan of architecture although I’m sure that you must have seen some architecture in Europe that you liked.

  • Lisa says:

    I love architecture and Indonesia is a beautiful place to explore temples. Beautiful photos!

  • Alexandra says:

    Is this the first ArtSmart roundtable? it’s the first i’ve noticed on twitter. Good topic. I’m part of an Italy blogging roundtable started by @italylogue; looks like you guys have a similar idea going – and good bloggers too. Hi Jeff and Ashley! And now I have discovered Travellious and finally am looking at Erin’s blog!!

    • Jenna says:

      Hi Alexandra, I’m so glad you stopped by! This is the second month of the roundtable. Here is a link to the first: http://thisismyhappiness.com/?p=3204 (My post was about Botticelli’s Annunciation and Lippi’s Madonna w/ Child in the Uffizi).
      I have read some of your posts from the Italy blogging roundtable. I believe that the inspiration for the ArtSmart roundtable was partly from the nice work you all have done in your roundtable.
      If you’d like to participate, we’d be honored to have you. Next month’s topic is sculpture in public settings/outdoor sculpture.

  • Angela says:

    Beautiful photos, all these temples make me miss SE Asia so much, although I’m not really a religious person 😛

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks, Angela. I am not much of a religious person either, but the temples of SE Asia are really something, aren’t they?

  • Wow–I love this post. It looks amazing there. Can’t wait to check this out in person. Thanks for linking me to this!

  • Prambanan is one of many top tourism attractions in Jogja, Indonesia. It’s a really beautiful “gift” from 9th century for Indonesia.

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