Prambanan sits precariously in central Java, Indonesia. Built around 850 A.D., Prambanan has a dramatic history of glory, abandonment, rediscovery, restoration, repeated collapse and repeated rebuilding from centuries of earthquakes, looting, the ravages of time and volcanic eruptions as recently as February.
It is a spectacular Hindu temple complex — one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Its central square and main temples have been re-assembled while most of the surrounding smaller temples lay in piles of stone on the ground. At the time of its completion, Prambanan included 240 temples in all.
“Discovery” of the temple is credited to C.A. Lons in 1733. However, Colin Mackenzie, a Scottish surveyor employed by Sir Stamford Raffles, came upon Prambanan in 1811 which prompted the first full survey of the site. Significant restoration and rebuilding didn’t begin until the 1920s. Obviously, a lot of work has gone into reconstructing the complex since then. It seems miraculous that many of Prambanan’s bas-relief narrative panels of sages and apsaras remain intact, somehow pieced together after centuries of decay and distress.
With that said, there is still a bit of risk inherent to any visit to Prambanan. Entering the temple of Shiva requires a hard hat just in case your timing coincides with the frequent grumbling of nearby Mount Merapi.
Prambanan’s three main temples hold sculptures of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. The Shiva temple contains a deep well at its center and during restoration a stone casket was found resting on charcoal and animal bones. The casket held coins, jewels and gold, perhaps meaning Prambanan was a royal mausoleum of the Mataram Kingdom.
Of the sculptures at Prambanan, Sir Stamford Raffles said, “In the whole course of my life I have never met with such stupendous and finished specimens of human labor, and of the science and taste of ages long since forgot, crowded together in so small a compass as in this little spot.”