Sacred Monuments

Ancient Temples of Java

The great monuments of Java are either Hindu or Bhuddist, or more likely combinations of both. Most of the sites were built in Java's heroic age of temple constuction, which lasted from the 8th to the 10th centuries. For mysterious reasons, many of these sites were abandoned soon after they were built.

Most Javanese are Islamic. But they're generally not followers of the branches of Islam associated with the Near East. The Javanese have fused Islam with the island's traditional mysticism, much like the Sufis of northern India. It's certainly not fundamentalist. For instance, it's illegal to agitate for the establishment of an Islamic state, and believers are required to sign a document declaring that they won't.

Because of this native tolerance — at least for different spiritualities — many of the monuments of other religions were simply abandoned, rather than being defaced or destroyed. The greatest damage to the monuments have come in the last century, as expanding populations have moved into formerly deserted areas and pillaged ruins for building materials, or by art collectors, who have carted away sculptures for museums and private collections.

But the destruction has abated. The Indonesian government, working with archeologists, has moved to protect and preserve these monuments.

Prambanan Plain

Siva, the destroyer. . .

This highland plain was once densely populated, with a rich network of temples and other sacred sites. Even today, this area has the largest concentration of ancient sites in Indonesia — about 50 in all. But sometime after the 10th century, the Hindu royalty moved to east Java, abandoning the plain and many of its architectural treasures. An earthquake in the 16th century and waves of treasure hunters devestated many of the sites that weren't buried in volcanic ash.

The most dramatic and important is the Loro Jonggrang complex, dedicated to the Hindu god Siva. The centerpiece of the complex is the central Siva temple, which stands 152 feet tall. It resembles a gothic spire cut off at the base — massive and impressive, with an emphasis on vertical lines similar to European Gothic cathedrals. The gaze is drawn up and making the structure appear awesomely tall.

The temple stands on a platform shared by two other temples dedicated to the two other members of the Hindu trinity, Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the preserver. These two temples are not nearly as tall as the Siva temple, but they share an emphasis on verticality. All the temples are surrounded by a walkway with a low wall around it. The Siva and Brahma temple are carved with narrative relief panels showing tales from the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic.

But there's a lot more to explore on Pramandan. Candi Sambisari, discovered in 1966 when a farmer hoeing his field hit a stone that turned out to be the top of the largest temple to be found buried intact in Java. Candi Sari is a beautiful Buddhist sanctury alive with decorations showing dancing goddesses and assorted other divine beings. Candi Sewu is noted for its large, well preserved guardian statues. The buildings of Ratu Boko have gone, but an evocative system of terraces, stairways and pools remain, with dramatic views of the plain and its encircling peaks.


This is the world's largest Buddhist monument. Laid out like a pyramidal mandala, it's a cosmology framed and inscribed in stone, massive amounts of stone — 6,500 cubic yards of it.

Javanese living in nearby Yogyakarta were aware of its existence when Borobudur was"discovered" by Europeans in 1815. At that time most of the monument was visible, even if large portions of it were filled in with soil sustaining overgrown trees and other plants. Over the next century and a half there were many attempts at restoration, but things really didn't come together until 1975-1984 when UNESCO and the Indonesian government undertook a complete overhaul of the sanctuary. The foundation was stabilized and professional restorers cleaned all 1460 stone relief panels that line the walkway spiraling to the top of the monument.

Squat and square, the structure of Borobudur is impressive mostly because it's massively huge. The stone relief panels are the real glory of Borobudur. The panels depict the Buddhist path to enlightenment, from rollicking profanity to the ethereal reaches of enlightenment. Ascending one by one, pilgrims would walk around each of the eight cocentric terraces. The whole comes together to form a mountain. Mountain peaks, according to Buddhist thought, is the place where contact with divine truth may be made. Pilgrims would climb each level of the mountain, drawing them closer and closer to complete infusion by divine wisdom. Nirvana.

Nirvana is elusive. The stupa, or tower at the top, has been destroyed by lightening. An unfinished statue Buddha that was found in the stupa has been moved a hundred yards away from the temple. But Borobudur stands as one of the great spiritual monuments of the world. A definite must see on the island of Java.

Dieng Plateau

The plain is a misty (and mystical) volcanic caldera. In certain areas, vents in the earth emit toxic gases. The name of the plateau comes from the Old Javanese words"di-hyang," which means deified ancestors. The idea being that this is their home. And the total effect of the mists, the altitude, and the collection of ancient ruins gives you the feeling that something is present. And the hope that you have easy-going ancestors.

The remains of the oldest Hindu temples in Java have been found here. And there is no doubt that Dieng was considered sacred in pre-Hindu times. But that didn't stop at least 392 of the original 400 structures from disappearing since the beginning of the 19th century. Dieng has been ravished.

The Arjuna Group is the most impressive site still remaining. This a group of 5 blocky shrines, each dedicated to a different individual or group of Hindu deities. The whole complex, ironically, is dedicated to Siva, the destroyer.

Dieng is a great place for long walks to lonely places to ponder that which endures, and that which vanishes.

Mt. Luwu

Mt. Luwu is in the rustic part of central Java. It has several unusual temples on its slopes, all reachable by hiking from one to the other. The scenery is dramatic, and there are many hidden treasure spots to find along the way.

Sukuh Temple is a perhaps the strangest temple on the slope. Built in the 15th century, it's a post-Hindu, post-Buddhist, post-Islam construction that hearkens back to early prehistoric animist traditions. It actually looks more like a Mayan pyramid than anything Indonesian. Some say that the building's form is an homage to Mount Luwu. Others say that the builders were psychically in tune with the Mayan builders also active at the time. Whatever you want to believe is ok by me.

Before you reach the temple gates, you'll encounter a large stone fertility figures -- a lingam and a yoni. Women who wish to become pregant make offerings to these figures: An innocent enough activity, but one that has earned the temple a sort of ribald repuation. Inside the grounds you'll find several odd sculptures telling stories that nobody has been able to figure out. But it seems to have something to do with fertility and war and turtles. Whatever mix of inspiration and legend came together to make this temple, it works. A truly magical energy permeates this site

A little higher up the hill is Candi Ceto, where in the 70's politicos would come to meditate, believing the temple was the abode of supernatural powers. The temple is actually sort of run down and not as interesting, but it makes a nice story. At the very top of the mountain, you'll find a series of terraces that are visited by as many as 2000 Javanese every New Year. The terrace complexes are ancient - some as old as 2000 years. The ruins have not been completely surveyed, and in themselves are not very impressive. But the views and surrounding terrain are beautiful -- a good place to wander aimlessly and enjoy a few quiet moments.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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