Jogjakarta, Borobudur, & Prambanan

Posted June 2012

Jogjakarta, or Yogyakarta depending who you ask, is a bustling city of 400,000 residents. The city is renowned as the cultural center of Java, due not only to the presence of the two ancient temples of Borobudur and Prambanan, but also due to the flourishing arts scene and strong emphasis on education. Students from all over Indonesia travel here to attend one of over two dozen universities. From gamelan to contemporary music, from batik to underground art, from puppet shows to theater, Jogjakarta offers visitors a broad variety of entertainment.

Kristin and I didn't spend enough time in Jogjakarta. It's impossible to see everything in just a few days, but we did enjoy some awesome food, visit beautiful ancient temples, take a crash course on the basics of batik at an art studio and gallery, and a bit of shopping. We even witnessed a military procession that seemed to appear out of nowhere on its way to the presidential palace, complete with a marching band

I'm always intrigued by different transport options. Jogjakarta's was the Becak, a large tricycle with a carriage in front for carrying passengers. These are great for short distance travel. I even gave a driver a much needed rest when something got lost in translation and he drove us the completely opposite direction of our destination.


Kristin and I awoke well before sunrise for the hour's drive to the village of Malelang. Located here is one of the ancient wonders of the world, the ancient temple (candi) Borobudur.

Borobudur is a shrine to the lord Buddha and a pilgrimage destination. It was designed as a single stupa, with a square base measuring nearly 120 meters on each side. Its nine platforms takes visitors on a journey through the three levels of Buddhist cosmotology; Kamadhatu (world of desire), Rupadhatu (world of forms), and Arupadhatu (world of formlessness). One enters through the east side, winds through corridors and up stairwells following nearly 1,500 different relief panels until reaching the upper platform. This upper platform is home to 72 small stupas, small bell-shaped enclosures each housing a statue of Buddha. These smaller stupas are patterned around the enclosed central stupa that reaches a height of 35 meters.

Little historical information is available regarding Borobudur. Archeologists and historians estimate the temple's construction to the early 9th century during the reign of the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty. Amazingly, the temple site was abandoned for centuries; the reason and timing of its abandonment are not clear, but is believed to have begun when the Mendang Kingdom relocated to east Java after a series of volcanic eruptions from the twin peaks of Mount Merapi and Mount Sumbing, flanking Borobudur. The emergence of Islam during the 14th century also contributed to its abandonment, though folk stories of the massive structure remained.

It wasn't until the British capture of Java in the early 19th century that Borobudur was rediscovered. Buried under jungle growth and volcanic ash, the massive structure was not fully unearthed for decades. During this time, Borobudur became a popular site for looters, who took sculptures, relief panels, statues, and images. Most notably, the Siam King Chulalongkorn literally took boatloads of artifacts, many of which are now on display in Bangkok Museum). 

Restoration efforts began at the turn of the century, culminating with the master restoration plan created by the Indonesian government and UNESCO in 1975. The eight-year project cost $7,000,000. Since then, tourists have been flocking to Borobudur from all over the country and the world; it is now the most visited destination in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, the crowds bring problems and further restoration is constantly required. Unlimited numbers of unguided tourists lead to vandalism, whether purposeful or accidental. Not to mention, a bombing by Muslim extremists in the mid-80's that badly damaged the site. Environmental factors are also constantly posing danger to Borobudur. Heavy rains, unstable soils, and the prevalence of earthquakes destabilize the structure. Volcanic activity from the nearby mountains, most notably the major eruption of Mount Merapi in 2010, also poses a major threat. Hopefully, conservation efforts can maintain this stunning site for future generations.


The temple of Mendut sits just three kilometers from Borobudur. When these two sites are aligned with a third temple named Pawon, they form a perfectly straight line on Java's Kedu Plain. Historians believe a ritual relationship must have existed between these ancient temples, but the limited information available makes it impossible to know for certain.

Mendut was built under the Saliendra Dynasty, prior to Borobudur. Like it's sister temples, it was abandoned for centuries until it was rediscovered in the mid-1800's. Minuscule when compared to Borobudur, Mendut is a single tower consisting of two chambers and reaching 26 meters in height.

The first chamber houses reliefs of gods flying to heaven, while the second larger chamber houses statues of three major divinities of Buddhism: Vairocana, Avalokitesvara, and Vajrapani that liberate visitors of the karma of the body, speech, and thought, respectively.

Mendut monastery, just adjacent to the temple, was established about a decade ago. A small lotus pond greets visitors at the entrance and a stupa-lined path leads between buildings before dropping down to an open walkway that terminates at a massive stupa fronted by Buddha. Unfortunately, we couldn't fully explore since we arrived during meditation time.


Candi Prambanan is one of Southeast Asia's largest Hindu temple complexes, dating back to the mid-9th century Mataram Kingdom. This period marks a transition in power from the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty that ruled Central Java previously, and Prambanan is often considered the Hindu's rebuttal to the nearby Buddhist temples of Borobudur and Candi Sewu.

The temple's original name was 'Shiva-laya', meaning 'the Realm of Shiva'. This was modified over the years and eventually became Prambanan, most likely derived from the term 'para brahman' meaning 'for the brahmins'. Brahmins are those who have attained the highest state of spiritual enlightenment.

The site is organized into three zones, starting with the outer zone demarcated by a large outer wall with four large gates. The middle zone is composed of 224 Pervara temples, arranged in four concentric squares. The inner zone is the holiest, elevated on a large stone platform and containing the 3 main Trimurti temples, 3 Vahana temples, 2 Apit temples, and 4 Kelir temples. 

Candi Prambanan was likely abandoned less than a century after its completion. This is likely due to a combination of seismic activity from nearby volcanoes and another shift of power in the region. The temple was all but destroyed in the 16th century during a major earthquake. The site remained known by the local population but not actively used for worship.

Rehabilitation efforts began in 1918 after the British had arrived in the area. Unfortunately, extensive looting prior to this proved to be a major challenge. The only structures that have been reconstructed were those with at least 75% remains: the 16 temples of the inner zone and 2 of the 224 Pervara temples.

Candi Sewu

Candi Sewu is often confused by visitors as a part of Candi Prambanan. The two temples are located on the same site and less than a kilometer apart, so one might find it odd that Candi Prambanan is a Hindu temple while the older Candi Sewu is a Buddhist temple. Candi Sewu is the second largest Buddhist temple in Indonesia, behind Borobudur. Construction likely begun in the late 8th century under the Medang Kingdom, but its completion under the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty that is likely congruent with the construction of Prambanan has led historians to believe there was a strong bond between the two religions during this time period.

Unfortunately, Candi Sewu has suffered much the same fate as neighboring Candi Prambanan Extensive looting during its abandonment has removed most of its statues and seismic activity has damaged its structure. Sewu was also much more effected by a 2006 earthquake, leaving it rather unstable and basically unsuitable for visitors. Most of its structures remain in ruins, with only the main temple and 3 of its perwara utama temples standing today. 

After making a quick trip by car to nearby Candi Sewu, Kristin and I returned to the gardens surrounding Candi Prambanan and enjoyed a nice picnic lunch in the shade of the trees before catching up with the rest of our group and heading back to Jogjakarta.

Copyright © 2022 :: Michael Horton
Copyright © 2022 :: Michael Horton