When tasked with describing the origins of the ruinous heap of rubble sitting amongst their villages, the people of Central Java chose to err on the side of the fantastical. Long ago, as all legends must start, there were two rival kingdoms, one ruled by a man and the other a man-eating giant. Eager to expand his empire, the giant waged war on the neighboring kingdom, but was defeated by his counterpart’s son, who was said to have supernatural powers. The victorious prince, whose name, Bandung Bondowoso, sounds like what one would expect an Indonesian Marvel superhero to be named, immediately fell in love with the giant’s daughter, who, stunningly beautiful, had apparently not gotten her looks from her father. After being asked to marry him, she reluctantly agreed to, but only if the prince could fulfill one impossible request: build 1,000 temples over the course of one night. Employing his supernatural powers, Bandung summoned an army of spirits and demons who helped him construct the first 999 temples with ease. Worried that her request would be met, the princess and her maidens lit a fire and began pounding rice (a traditional morning task) so as to make it seem like it was dawn. Fooled into thinking it was, roosters began crowing and the spirits fled into the darkness, leaving the last temple unfinished. Furious, the prince turned the princess to stone and used her statue as the finishing piece in the 1,000th temple where it still sits to this day.
While the temple’s true origins were not quite as captivating a tale as the one conjured up by locals (its building was commissioned by a king sometime in the 9th Century), our imaginations were captured all the same as we caught our first glimpse of it in the distance. Rising from a pile of incoherent rubble were the imposing spires of the main temple complex. Tall and seemingly rooted in the earth below, they dominated the horizon. Serving as their backdrop was a sky that seemed undecided in what kind of weather it wanted to convey for, at any given minute, it fluctuated from blue and sunny to gray and rainy. As we approached the main buildings, it had apparently settled on rainy and we found dry refuge under a nearby tree which gave us time to contemplate the grounds.
While the towers reigned supreme in the sky, less spectacular piles of rock and haphazardly assembled structures dominated the ground, looking as we imagined they would have the day after an earthquake rattled the area half a millennia earlier. When restoration began on the site in the early 1900’s, it had been decided that any buildings that were missing more than a quarter of their original structure would be left to their ruinous state. Given that locals had been using stones from the site for centuries to construct their own buildings and 19th century looters smuggled out statues to serve as unique ornaments for their homes back in Europe, it was no wonder that a majority of the buildings were left unfinished. One could only imagine what the site must have looked like fully restored, though the present state of it, rubble and all, was still enthralling. In fact, our imaginations had been kindled the most walking amongst the rubble, with its half-finished shrines and lonely statues rising up from the pile of rocks beneath it. It was no wonder that locals were able to come up with such an incredible myth about the temple’s origins.
As the rain spell passed and blue skies returned, this time for good, we made our way into the main temple complex. If the piles of rubble had enticed us because of what wasn’t there, then the main temple did so because of what was. Standing amongst the towers we had appreciated from afar, we were overwhelmed not only by their magnitude but by the amount of inviting details that covered every inch of them. Bulging-eyed faces knowingly peered out from corners and from atop doors, cheerful lions sat tucked away in darkened nooks, and reliefs depicted grand tales that, like the temple itself, would remain largely unknown and mysterious to us.
After spending a couple of hours wandering around the grounds, it still felt like every time we turned a corner we had been hit with a bout of amnesia, experiencing the temples anew as before unseen details emerged. While this phenomenon would never truly wear off, our desire to see new things conquered our hesitation that we might have missed something at the main complex, and we left it to walk to the nearby Sewu Temple.
Welcoming us to the temple grounds were two bulbous stone guards, whose bare, protruding bellies and bewildered expression ruined any chance they had at looking intimidating, even with weapons in tow. The temple itself, pixelated-looking as each brick that made up its facade took on a different shade of gray, was well-worth the walk. Like it’s cousin a kilometer away, Sewu existed, for the most part, in a ruinous state which did nothing to diminish its intrigue.
However impressive Prambanan and Sewu were though, with their alluring grandeur and inexhaustible intricacies, we always felt our attention being drawn back to the shadowed form of Mount Merapi, a local volcano that loomed menacingly behind a veil of clouds over the entire area. For all the ingenuity of the civilization that built the temple complex, the volcano served as a reminder that anything can be dismantled, whether it be by the forces of nature, time, or another, less romantic trace of humanity, division and destruction. Historians believe that either an eruption from Mount Merapi or a power struggle between neighboring kingdoms had caused the temple to be abandoned and within generations, its origins had become a mystery and the civilization that built it it and religion that inspired it, supplanted. It was now just a hollowed shell, its once hallowed halls now only filled by myths and imaginations of those who set their eyes upon it.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Musings From an Amateur Ornithologist
An abundance of feathered creatures
stand against stone.
Tethered and flightless
they display curved beaks
with sharp points
grown smooth by age.
They don’t understand
the significance of this once holy place
buried by jungle, claimed and reclaimed.
Or perhaps it is we who don’t understand,
placing too much significance on our mark
and perceive our time to be much grander
than the score in sandstone that it is.