A gust of cool wind brings a respite to the early afternoon heat. I squint into the sun at the sign that should tell me I’ve reached my destination. Then a young Indonesian man asks me in the local language, which I answer with nothing but a clueless look, slightly slack-jawed.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Indonesian,” I tell him.
“Oh, where are you from?” he asks again.
“Ah! But you look like an Indonesian.”
I learn that it’s a conversation I’m going to get a lot here.
As for now, I’m trying to withstand the heat while trying not to get lost. The man was asking if I would like to ride his ojek (motorbike taxi) to Prambanan. I tell him I can walk but will appreciate it if he can tell me if I’m going the right way. A bit grudgingly, he tells me yes, though that will be a long walk on my part.
A few hour earlier this had seemed like a great idea. I had left Jakarta just before sunrise and flew across West Java to Yogyakarta. I quickly made my way to the ViaVia Guesthouse in the backpacker-friendly area of Prawirotaman, near the southern end of the city, then headed to the guesthouse’s sister restaurant five minutes’ walk away to have my breakfast, confirm my tours for the following day, and ask for directions on going to Prambanan by public bus.
Which brings me here.
As soon as I get down at the bus station, I am walking my way to the famed temples, located 17 kilometers from the city center, and right in the middle of a nice park. After half an hour dodging cars and motorbikes while crossing the highway, and shuffling along the sidewalks leading to the park, my sweat-drenched body is more than ready to relish the shade of the complex’s trees. I pay the entrance fee and am given a sarong to wear while inside the premises.
The temples are said to be the best remaining examples of the Hindu dynasties in Java, not only because they are the largest of their kind in the island, but also because of the meticulous details of the sculptures in the temples, especially in the Shiva temple.
The Prambanan complex was built in the 9th century during the reigns of Rakai Pikatan and Rakai Balitung. Standing at 47 meters, the builder of the temples probably wanted to display the victory of the Hindus in Java. Its early history has been lost in obscurity, though one theory says that it was built by Rakai Pikatan as a reminder of how Java was recovered by the Hindu kings from early conquerors.
The Prambanan was abandoned for several centuries after the Hindu kings left East Java. An earthquake in the 16th century accelerated the destruction of the temples, and it was only in 1937 that efforts to restore the structures were realized. The hard work paid off, with the temples along with the nearby Borobudur, getting into the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
The main complex contains three primary temples – those of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. Like most Hindu temples, these ones are facing the west, and each one has an accompanying temple facing the same direction.
I enter Shiva’s temple, the highest among the three and the one located in the center. I notice four rooms with a statue on each one. In one room, there’s Shiva; in another, there’s Shiva’s wife Durga; in the third there’s Shiva’s teacher Agastya; and in the fourth there’s Shiva’s son Ganesha.
According to a Javanese legend, Durga’s statue is actually the statue of a maiden named Roro Jonggrang, who was the object of affection of a certain Bandung Bondowoso. The feeling was not mutual, and so Jonggrang ordered Bondowoso to build a temple with 1,000 statues in the span of an evening. If Bondowoso succeeds, she’d get the girl. Driven by love, Bondowoso had almost completed the task, with only one statue remaining to work on, only for Jonggrang to convince the townsfolk to pound rice and set a large fire to make it look like it was already sunrise. Enraged, Bondowoso cursed Jonggrang to become the last statue.
I spend about two and a half hours strolling the temple complex and the nearby museum before deciding to return to the city. I board a return bus and ask the conductor, in my broken Bahasa, if it’s going to Yogya. I’m not sure if I said it correctly, but he nods without a hint of confusion or amusement.
Ha, just what I thought. I can pass for a local around here.