Known for its grandeur and magnificent architecture, Prambanan is a massive Hindu temple complex (also known as Rara Jonggrang complex) situated 11 miles northeast of Yogyakarta in Indonesia. Built around 900 CE by the rulers of the Sanjaya dynasty who ruled the Mataram Kingdom of Java, this complex contains multiple temples dedicated to the gods, goddesses, and rishis (sages) of Hindu mythology.
According to an inscription found in Java, King Rakai Pikatan started the building around 850 CE, and Lokapala and Balitung Maha Sambu, the kings who succeeded him, were responsible for building the most of the temples in this complex. Many other kings who came after them also contributed to the complex. Eventually, there were a total of 224 temples in the complex. Not all of them have been restored.
The six main temples in this complex are dedicated to the Hindu Trimurti (Trinity) Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma and their respective Wahanas (vehicles) Nandi, Garuda and Angsa (Hamsa or Swan). The other temples include temples for the Goddess Saraswati and Rishi Agastya.
Borobudur, which is the other world-famous site in the Yogyakarta area, is located about 50 miles from Prambanan and was built about 50 years before Prambanan. The rulers of the Sanjaya dynasty, who were Shaivaits (followers of Shiva), were competing with the Buddhist Shylendra dynasty, the builder of Borobudur. Both the Prambanan and Borobudur temples were declared world heritage sites by UNESCO.
Each temple in the Prambanan complex has a garbhagriha (inner sanctum), which is built at a higher level above the ground and can be reached via the staircase. The main statue of the temple is housed in the inner sanctum. Outside the inner sanctum, there is a square shaped corridor with balustrades having bas-reliefs depicting the stories from the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Prambanan temple complex
This temple is dedicated to Shiva the destroyer, one of the Hindu Trinity. Because the rulers who commissioned the Prambanan temples were worshipers of Shiva, the Shiva Temple became the main temple of the complex.
The Dutch restored the temple the first time in the early 1900s. It is 47 meters high and the tallest temple in the complex.
The inner sanctum has four cellas (chambers), each of which faces a cardinal direction and houses a statue. The statue of Shiva is the main statue and is in the east-facing cella. The other three statues are, Shiva’s wife Durga the Mahisasuramardini in the north-facing cella, Shiva’s son Ganesha in the west-facing cella and Agastya in the south-facing cella.
At the entrance, it also houses the statues of Mahakala and Nandishwara considered as guardians. The bas-reliefs in this temple depict the stories from Ramayana, one of the great Hindu epics.
Unlike a typical Shiva temple in India, there is no Shiva Linga in this temple. Instead, the statue of Shiva stands on top of a square platform that has a small canal on the right. The square platform represents yoni (symbolizes the womb of Shiva’s wife). Shiva stands on a round pedestal carved with petals of the lotus flower on the outside. The lotus pedestal is mounted within the square space of the yoni.
Some experts believe that the statue of Shiva resembles King Balitung Maha Sambu. It was most likely built after his death to show that he was the reincarnation of Shiva.
Durga the Mahishasuramardini
The Sanskrit word Mahishasuramardini is a combination of three words: mahisha (buffalo), asura (demon) and mardini (slayer). The statue of Shiva’s wife was sculpted to portray her as the killer of evil Mahishasura, a demon who took the form of a buffalo. The Durga statue is in the north-facing chamber.
The statue of Agastya, one of the most revered rishis (sages) in Hinduism, stands in the south-facing chamber of the inner sanctum of the Shiva Temple. Agastya is portrayed as a stocky man with a long beard. On his left hand, he holds a kamandala, a water pot typically held by ascetics in Hinduism. On his right hand, which is folded across his chest, he holds the beads of a japamala (prayer beads). As with many other statues in Prambanan, the Agastya statue stands on a round pedestal carved on the outside with the petals of the lotus flower. An upright trishula (trident) stands on the right side of the statue.
Agastya is revered and worshiped in South India and Southeast Asia.
His name appears in all the four Vedas, many Puranas, and Ramayana and Mahabharata. He also authored some hymns in Rigveda, one of the four Vedas.
Even though Brahma is the creator and one of the Hindu Trinities in Hindu mythology, he is not worshiped like Shiva and Vishnu. Therefore, there are very few temples dedicated to him in the Indian Subcontinent as well as in Southeast Asia. The Brahma Temple in Prambanan is one of the prominent temples among them. The other well-known Brahma Temple is in Pushkar, Rajasthan, India. The Belur Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India, has a beautiful relief depicting Brahma.
There are several legends as to why Brahma is not worshiped. According to one legend, his consort Savitri, who was angered by Brahma’s extreme lust, cursed him not to be worshiped anywhere in the world except in Pushkar. In another legend, Shiva cursed Brahma because he lied to him and Vishnu about their creation.
The statue of Brahma as shown in the image stands in the inner chamber of this temple. The four faces symbolize the four cardinal directions and four Vedas.
Brahma had five heads in the beginning with the fifth one gazing upwards. According to one legend, Shiva cut off the fifth head when he realized Brahma became infatuated with a female goddess he created.
This temple is dedicated to Vishnu the protector. The bas-reliefs in this temple depict stories from Krishnayana. Note that Krishna is the eighth avatar of Vishnu. Check the Dashavatara page for a list and description of the ten standard avatars of Vishnu.
Vishnu is portrayed as having four arms, two of which are raised up and the other two are down. His upper right-hand holds the Sudarshana Chakra and the lower one holds the gada (Mace). His upper left-hand holds the shanka (Conch) and the lower one holds the padma (Lotus Flower). This is how Vishnu is typically portrayed in Hindu temples in India and Southeast Asia. Just like many other statues in Prambanan, Vishnu is standing on a lotus flower pedestal mounted on a square-shaped yoni.
Each of the Trimurti temples has a wahana temple in front of them.
The temple for Shiva’s vehicle Nandi is in front of the Shiva Temple. In the inner chamber of this temple, the statue of Nandi is in the middle, and the statues of Dewa Surya (Sun God) and Dewa Chandra (Moon God) are on the left and right sides of Nandi respectively. These three statues symbolize the constant watch of Shiva by his vehicle Nandi and the celestial objects, Sun and Moon.
Statues inside the Nandi Temple
Angsa (Hamsa) is Brahma’s vehicle and represented as a sacred swan. There is no main statue in this temple. It is not known whether the statue existed in the original building.
Garuda is Vishnu’s vehicle and is an eagle. Just like the Angsa Temple, there is no main statue in this temple.
The temples in Prambanan have beautifully carved bas-reliefs, some of which depict scenes taken from the episodes narrated in different Hindu epics. Most of the bas-reliefs are very detailed, and because of that, the episodes they depict are easily identifiable.
The bas-reliefs depicting stories from Ramayana are carved on the inner walls of the balustrade of the corridor surrounding the inner sanctum of the Shiva and Brahma Temples. See the image of the Shiva Temple corridor below.
Not all bas-reliefs are in the right order, and in some cases, wrong bas-reliefs are in place, a result of improper restoration. Here are some of them that are easily identifiable.
Rama was one of the four sons of Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya. Being the eldest son, Rama was the legitimate heir to the throne of Ayodhya. Kaikeye, one of his three wives, wanted her son Bharata to be the future king of Ayodhya.
When Dasharatha became ready to hand-over his reign to Rama, Kaikeye invokes two varas (boons) that Dasharatha had given to her when she saved his life during a battle. She asks Dasharatha to make Bharata the crown prince and banish Rama to the forest for 14 years. King Dasharatha reluctantly agrees because he could not go back on his promises. Rama respects his father’s wishes and leaves Ayodhya for the forest along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana.
The bas-relief shown in the image is a narrative depiction of Rama, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana leaving Ayodhya for the exile in the forest. Seated in front of the chariot are Rama and his wife Sita, and in the back is his brother Lakshmana. The people in the back chariot are the courtiers from King Dasharatha’s court bidding farewell to their popular princes.
King Dasharatha’s Funeral
Once Rama, Sita and Lakshmana left for exile, King Dasharatha became grief-stricken and died soon after. The bas-relief depicts the funeral ceremony of Dasharatha.
Bharata’s Inauguration as the King of Ayodhya
Bharata is a half-brother of Rama, who is the eldest son of Dasharatha and the legal heir to the throne. As mentioned earlier, Bharata’s mother Kaikeyi convinces Dasharatha to make Bharatha the king of Ayodhya and banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years.
The image depicts dancing at the inauguration of Bharata as the king of Ayodhya.
Rama’s Time in Exile
As mentioned earlier, Rama along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana went into exile in the forest for fourteen years. Some of the bas-reliefs depict events that happened during his exile.
Rama spent 13 of the 14 years of exile in Dandakaranya, a forest that was home to many noble rishis (sages) as well as evil rakshasas (demons). Viradha was one of the rakshasas attacking the rishis and animals and destroying vegetation in Dandakaranya. No weapons could kill Viradha as he possessed a supernatural power from a vara (boon) he received from Brahma. Because of this vara, he was fearless. As Rama was wandering in Dandakaranya with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, Viradha arrogantly confronts Rama and tries to snatch Sita. Enraged by this act, Rama kills Viradha by burying him since weapons could not kill him. As he lay dying, he morphs into a gandharva, which was his original form, and thanks Rama for releasing him from the curse that made him a rakshasa. Note: Gandarvas are a type of demigods who are celestial musicians.
Kidnapping of Rama’s Wife Sita
This famous episode in Ramayana happens in the 13th year of Rama’s exile. In this episode, Mareecha, a rakshasa (demon) and maternal uncle of Ravana, assumes the form of a golden deer to distract Rama in order to enable Ravana to kidnap Rama’s wife Sita (Shinta in Java).
The image below shows Rama killing the golden deer with his arrow and the body of Mareecha springing out of the golden deer as it starts dying.
According to the story, before Mareecha dies, he imitates Rama’s voice and screams “Oh! Sita, Oh! Lakshmana.” Troubled by this voice, Sita pleads with Rama’s brother Laksmana to help Rama. Lakshmana reluctantly agrees, but before he leaves, he draws a line, famously known as the Lakshmana Rekha, around the hermitage and asks Sita not to cross it under any circumstances.
Once Lakshmana leaves the hermitage, Ravana disguised as a sadhu (ascetic) comes there and chants “Bhavati Biksham Dehi” (Oh! mother, give me some alms). Seeing the sadhu, Sita goes inside to fetch alms. Ravana tries to follow her into the hermitage but was unable to cross the Lakshmana Rekha. Once Sita returns, he convinces Sita to come out of it to give Ravana the alms. As soon as she crosses the Lakshmana Rekha, Ravana kidnaps her.
Rama Killing Kabandha
Kabandha is yet another rakshasa, Rama and Lakshmana killed during their exile. With the eyes and mouth in his belly, he is a rakshasa with an enormous appetite. The image below shows the bas-relief depicting Rama killing Kabandha.
This episode happens after Ravan abducts Sita. According to the story, Kabandha finds Rama and Lakshmana wandering in the forest looking for Sita. He tries to catch them with the intention of eating them, but Rama and Lakshmana fight him off and were about to kill him by severing his hands. Realizing that they are not ordinary human beings, he asks for their identity. When he comes to know who they are, he pleads with them to release him from his curse by killing him.
Just like Viradha, Kabandha too was born a gandharva but cursed by Indra to become a carnivorous rakshasa. Once Rama and Lakshmana kill him, he regains his original gandharva body and advises Rama how to find Sita. He suggests Rama befriend Sugriva, a vanara (monkey) who is in power struggle with his brother Vali, and help him to become the King of Kishkindha.
Building Rama Setu (Bridge to Lanka)
After killing Kabandha, Rama continues his journey in search of Sita. As per Kadambha’s advice, he goes southwards to the Rishyamuka Mountain to meet Sugriva, who agrees to help him, provided Rama help him topple his elder brother Vali, the King of Kishkindha.
Rama and Sugriva devise a plan to defeat Vali. As per this plan, Sugriva invites Vali for a duel, and during the fight, Rama waiting on the sidelines kills Vali with an arrow. See the beautifully carved Vali-Sugriva Fight bas-relief on the Banteay Srei Temple that illustrates this fight.
After the death of Vali, Sugriva becomes the King of Kishkindha. Sugriva’s friend Hanuman goes to Lanka and finds the exact location of Sita.
Eventually, Sugriva builds a vanara sene (army of monkeys) to invade Lanka to get back Sita. Because Lanka is an island, Sugriva builds a bridge to Lanka to ferry the monkey troops. The image below shows the bas-relief depicting the vanara sene led by Sugriva building the bridge to Lanka (Rama Setu).
Other Ramayana Bas-reliefs
The bas-reliefs shown in the images below are not easily identifiable.
Bas-reliefs of Ramayana tales
Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, is the principal character in the Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana, and Bhagavata Githa. The Krishnayana reliefs depict stories of Krishna’s childhood and youth, mainly taken from the Bhagavata Purana and are carved in the Vishnu Temple.
Krishna and his stepbrother Balarama lived with his foster parents which is because Krishna’s parents, Vasudeva and Devaki, were jailed by Kamsa, his maternal uncle and the King of Mathura. Having killed Krishna’s six elder siblings, Kamsa was intent on killing Krishna because of a prophecy that foretold the death of Kamsa at the hands of Devaki’s eighth child, Kamsa feared Krishna would kill him.
Krishna’s foster parents, Nanda and Yashoda, lived a simple life in a place named Gokula. Nanda was the head of cowherds, so both Krishna and Balarama spent their childhood herding cows.
The image shows the bas-relief depicting the life of Krishna during his childhood.
Krishna and Balarama played together and often go to a wooded place named Vrindavana to play with their friends.
Krishna and Balarama Killing Demons
The image below shows a section of the Krishnayana bas-reliefs with two different stories.
The left section depicts Krishna taming Kaliya, a vicious serpent who lived in the Yamuna River and roamed on its banks. According to the legend, Kaliya was poisoning the Yamuna River and creating havoc among the people living in Vrindavana. One day, when Krishna was playing in Vrindavana, the ball falls into Yamuna River. As Krishna dives into the river to retrieve a ball, Kaliya swoops on Krishna and tries to bite him. Krishna overpowers Kaliya and is about to tear apart his jaws to kill him, Kaliya’s wives come begging to Krishna to spare his life. Krishna listens to their pleas and forgives Kaliya, but banishes him and his family to Ramanaka Dweepa, an island far away from Vrindavana.
The story in the right section is about Balarama killing Dhenukasura, an asura (demon) who assumed the form of a donkey. When Dhenukasura attacks Krishna and Balarama for eating fruits in the Talavana Forest, Balarama wheels Dhenukasura’s body around by holding his hind legs and then swings it on the top of trees to kill him.
Krishna Killing Vyomasura
The image above shows a section of the Krishnayana bas-relief depicting Krishna killing Vyomasura, a demon who could fly like a bat. According to a legend, Vyomasura disguises as a cowherd with an intention to kidnap Krishna’s cowherd friends. When Krishna notices an unusual face among his friends, he confronts Vyomasura, who then shows his true self. As can be seen from the image, Krishna lifts Vyomasura up by grabbing his legs, smashes him to the ground and kills him.
The image below shows Krishna fighting an unidentified rakshasa.
The Prambanan temples have other bas-reliefs that are not directly related to either Ramayana or Krishnayana. Some of them depict devatas and apsaras. There are also reliefs of Lokapala, which could be Indra or the likeness of King Lokapala.
Lokapala in Sanskrit literally means guardian of the world. Loka means world and pala means guardian. In Hinduism, there is also a notion of guardian of a cardinal direction. A Lokapala may also be a guardian of a direction.
The Shiva Temple has numerous bas-relief frames with Lokapala sculptures. The other temples also have similar bas-reliefs but not as beautiful and expressive.
The Lokapala statues are in the sitting position but with different hand gestures (i.e., mudras) and facial expressions representing moods. The thrones on which Lokapala sits are similar.
The Lokapala statues have similar types of jewelry carved almost in the same position on the body. These include the necklace, thread around the belly, and thread on the left shoulder going over the navel (similar to the yajnopavita, a sacred thread worn by Hindus). Some experts believe that the Lokapala statues portray King Balitung Maha Sambu himself.
Lokapala Reliefs in the Shiva Temple
The images below show the Lokapala statues placed in different directions.
Lokapala Reliefs in the Vishnu Temple
The images below show Lokapala flanked by the apsaras.
The bas-relief depicting different rishis are carved on the outer walls of the temples. The sculptural relief shown below is carved on three frames in the Shiva Temple depicts the seven great sages of ancient India known as saptarishis. Here are the names of these rishis from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
1. Vishwamitra 2. Vasistha 3. Jamadagni 4. Kashyapa 5. Atri 6. Bharadwaja. 7. Gautama Maharishi. The other Puranic texts have a different set of names.
Astronomically, Saptarishis represent seven stars of the constellation of Ursa Major, commonly known as the Big Dipper. The legend of seven great sages exists in many ancient cultures, including the Greek, Chinese, and Egyptian cultures.
The sage at the center is most-likely Vishwamitra. As you can see from the image, Vishwamitra and some of the sage are holding japamalas with their right hands. A trishula (trident) is behind Vishwamitra with a kamandala (water jug) hung on its prong. It appears they are engaged in a debate.
Here are the reliefs of other rishis:
Lion flanked by Kinnaras
Most visitors to Prambanan notice the beautiful and a detailed carving as shown on the image below. There are similar carvings on the outer walls of many temples.
At the center of this carving is the statue of a lion in the niche, and on either side of the lion is a kinnara couple (male and female) standing under the Kalpavriksha (a.k.a Kalphataru), the divine tree that fulfills wishes. Kinnara female is known as kinnaree. The significance and meaning of this unusual but beautiful and detailed carving are not well understood.
In Southeast Asian Hindu mythology, a kinnara is half-human and half-bird, whereas, in Indian Hindu mythology, a kinnara is a half-human and half-horse. Kinnaras are celestial musicians and live as a couple.
According to Mahabharata, a kinnara couple is a husband and wife forever, and their love is everlasting. No third person or creature can ever share their love. Because of this reason, they can never become parents, therefore, cannot have offspring.
According to Hindu mythology, Kalpavrisksha is a divine tree that fulfills the desires of people. It is a by-product of the Samudra Manthana (Churning of the Ocean of Milk). See the Samudra Manthana bas-relief in the Angkor Wat Temple. Indra, who was in the middle of the Samudra Manthana, took this tree and planted in his garden.
Other Lion Carvings
In some of the lion carvings, the kinnaras are replaced by animals such as rabbits. See the images below.
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