Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta’s Majestic Hindu Archaeological Site
Prambanan temple is not a priority for most foreign travellers to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, who are here to visit Borobudur – which probably explains why the ninth century Hindu temple becomes such a surprisingly memorable experience for so many.
Prambanan temple – or Candi Prambanan – was on my radar and I had planned that we’d visit while we were in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java in Indonesia. Borobudur was the reason we did the Indonesia trip and I only became aware of Prambanan once I started to do research.
Even then I didn’t do a great deal of reading. I think that’s why this complex of intricately decorated, majestic temples on the edge of Yogyakarta’s suburbs came as such a delightful discovery. Sometimes it’s better to not do much research so there are no expectations and that element of surprise remains.
Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta’s Majestic Hindu Archaeological Site
We made a beeline to the Prambanan temple complex from the airport, just a 10-minute drive away. Located on the border of the Yogyakarta Special Region and Central Java, we drove through Yogyakarta’s low-density, low-rise suburbs and lush farmland to get there.
Prambanan temple is set in shaded gardens with manicured lawns and well-tended hedges, a children’s playground, and souvenir market. It felt like we were visiting a public park rather than the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Indonesia’s largest Hindu temple and one of its most spiritually significant.
Living down the road from Angkor Archaeological Park, it’s hard not to compare. Angkor is reached by a narrow road through towering dense forest and for the last four of the 6.5km drive from the centre of Siem Reap there’s nothing along the shaded route apart from the occasional fruit seller and a few families of monkeys until you reach the moat of Angkor Wat, the Park’s best-known temple.
While the Prambanan site isn’t small, you can do a sweaty stroll from the entrance to each of the four temples, including the wonderful Buddhist Sewu temple, 800ms north of the Hindu Prambanan temples, at the far end of the site. It’s a hot and humid walk, no matter what time of year you visit, we were told, and after a few hours wandering about in the sun I was frying. When we were ready to return, we caught a little tourist ‘train’. In hindsight, we should have hired the bikes that are available.
Angkor Archaeological Park, by contrast, sprawls some 400 square kilometres, and is home to hundreds of temples, making it impossible to cover in a day or even half day, as we did Prambanan. These observations aren’t to diminish the size or splendour of Prambanan. It’s a magnificent archaeological sight. It’s just to explain why its majesty took me by surprise.
One of the things I loved about the experience of visiting Prambanan were prosaic – families pushing their kids in strollers, friends lazing about on the lawns, groups of school kids approaching us to practice their English – or sing me a song as one group of cuties did – and it was the banality of these everyday interactions that only served to contrast and heighten how special the site is.
Prambanan, dating to 865AD, is actually home to four temple complexes – Prambanan and three Buddhist temples, Candi Sewu being the most impressive as the second largest Buddhist temple in Java, (Borobudur, while not strictly a temple, but a stupa, is the largest), and in between two diminutive temples, Bubrah and Lumbung, which were being restored and inaccessible when we visited.
Our approach to the main complex of Prambanan was by a modern paved path, pictured above, that could have been in any botanic gardens or public park. The largest central tower grew in size as we drew near, and then, as we reached the gate, it took my breath away.
Surveying the whole site, it was as if I was seeing the towers of Angkor Wat without the temple’s lower levels. At first it seemed as if the base of the towers might have been hidden underground – like those at Mahendraparvata, buried beneath Mount Kulen. But they weren’t. The monuments were typical of Hindu architecture from the period.
If you’ve been to Cambodia, then archaeological sites that you might have seen that date to the same period include the towers and statues of Mahendraparvata (802-875) secreted within the jungle that are scattered across Phnom Kulen, and the Roluos group temples of Hariharalaya built under King Indravarman I (877-889), namely Preah Ko.
Prambanan’s size had been deceptive too. At first the towers appeared to be quite small, but when we climbed their steep steps the structures felt enormous. The lofty central temple dedicated to Shiva is 47 metres high (or 154 feet to our American readers), while the temples either side of it dedicated to Brahma and Vishnu at 33 metres high.
Prambanan was dedicated to the Trimurti, which for Hindus is the expression of their God as the creator (represented by Brahma), the preserver (by Vishnu) and the destroyer (by Shiva). Historians believe it was established as the Hindu answer to the Buddhist temple Borobudur, which we would visit the next day.
It’s thought that the construction of Prambanan might have been meant to celebrate the return to power in Central Java of the Hindu Sanjaya dynasty after Buddhist domination and signified a shift from Mahayana Buddhism to Shaivite Hinduism (a Hindu sect that worships Shiva or Siva). According to the Shivagrha inscription dated to 856 CE, Prambanan was built to honour Shiva and its original name was Shiva-grha, which meant the House of Shiva.
Over the years, the temple complex was expanded by different kings, with hundreds of temples added around the main temple. Like Angkor Wat, Prambanan served as the royal temple of the Kingdom of Mataram and was where most of the ceremonies and sacrifices were conducted.
There were originally some 240 temples and shrines on the whole Prambanan site. Today there are sixteen structures, including eight main temples and eight small shrines, in the main zone that you’ll visit, although there are 117, nearly all in ruins, in another zone.
The most impressive, the Shiva temple is the most stupendous, although you don’t really appreciate its size until you climb it. However, it’s not only the size that is impressive. The galleries are richly decorated with bas-reliefs that tell the story of the Ramayana epic. Had it not have been so hot I could have spent much longer appreciating their beauty.
Each structure is adorned with these incredibly beautiful and intricately detailed carvings – the Shiva and Brahma temples illustrate the Ramayana while the Vishnu temple features the Kresnayana – so if you took your time examining every detail on each temple you could easily spend the whole day here.
When you’re done with this area, there is another site where you should spend some time exploring and that’s the Sewu temple, or Candi Sewu, at the far end of the park, which is actually a Buddhist site.
The vast majority of visitors tend to focus their scrambles and selfies on Prambanan, so after a sweaty ten-minute stroll to the other end of the park you can expect to be quite alone or in the company of just a few other intrepid explorers.
The Sewu site is special, so don’t miss it, no matter how frazzled you might be feeling after a few hours climbing temples. Dating back to 792AD according to the inscriptions at the site, the Sewu temple complex was once home to some 249 buildings, though most are now in ruins
The site is still incredibly impressive, and, once again, it’s more remarkable when you’re up close and the monuments are more imposing. I also encourage you to climb the stairs of the most intact structures surrounding the main temple for fantastic shots over the whole site.
Our time at Candi Sewu felt a tad rushed although admittedly after a few hours in the sun we were eager to get out of the heat. I wished we’d had more time – or time to return – so I encourage you to pace yourself or allow a whole day.
Because, there’s still Borobudur…
How to Visit Prambanan Temple
Getting to Prambanan Temple
Prambanan is 17kms northeast of downtown Yogyakarta, or around a 40-minute drive. You can get there by taxi, hire a car at the airport (a 10-minute drive), or take a public bus from the downtown, airport or Tugu train station using TransJogja.
We visited Prambanan temple as part of a bespoke itinerary with locally-owned Pamitran Tours, which we highly recommend. Email Charlotte on email@example.com
Prambanan Ticket Prices
US$18 adults / US$9 children Prambanan only
US$32 adults / US$16 children Prambanan and Borobudur, valid for 2 days**
* these prices are for foreign tourists; check prices here if you’re a domestic tourist.
** the Borobudur sunrise is not included in this package. See our Borobudur post for details.
Prambanan Opening Hours
Prambanan opens from 6am-5pm. We highly recommend arriving as early as possible, as it’s cooler and the light is obviously better for photographs.
How long to spend at Prambanan
Allow at least half a day to explore Prambanan, but if you’re interested in history and archaeology, you can easily spend a day here.
We recommend exploring Prambanan temple in the morning, then stopping to eat something, relax and recharge in the shade, and visit the museum in the hottest part of the day, then explore Sewu temple in the afternoon.
Don’t miss the museum at the centre of the park where you can escape from the heat for a while. There’s a restaurant on site, as well as some food stalls at a souvenir market near the exit.
This post is part of a series of stories from Indonesia – from Bali, Yogyakarta and bewitching Borobudur – that we hope you’ll find inspirational and helpful in planning your Indonesia travel. Our trip was supported by Skyscanner, which provided flights, some transport and some accommodation. All reflections, opinions and recommendations are obviously our own.