Prambanan, also known as Rara Jonggrang, is the largest Hindu temple complex in Indonesia and the second-largest in Asia. It is located 17 km northeast of the city of Yogyakarta, right on the border between Central Java and Special Region of Yogyakarta. Prambanan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was originally constructed around the year 850. The history and culture of Prambanan attracts millions of tourists annually from Indonesia and beyond. My weekend visit was on an unusually warm and sunny day during the rainy season, so the crowds were pretty crazy with local and foreign tourists alike. As a solo traveler, though, it was easy for me to slip between the larger tour groups and explore the temple grounds.
It’s important to note that the term “Prambanan” may actually have one of three meanings. It is commonly used to refer to the scattering of Hindu temples within the Prambanan Archaeological Park. However, as there are other temples (all Buddhist) within the fenced-in area of the park, the term “Prambanan” may also refer to these temples as a whole. Or, as the archaeological park is situation on the Prambanan Plain, which houses temples beyond the walls of the park, “Prambanan” can refer to the entire group of Hindu and Buddhist temples in the general Prambanan Area. In this post, the term “Prambanan” will refer only to the Hindu temples which make up “Candi Prambanan” within the Prambanan Archaeological Park and will not refer to any of the other temples nearby.
A view of the three main temples at Candi Prambanan as viewed from the west.
Tickets and Entry
Prior to entry, you will, of course, need to purchase a ticket for the Prambanan Archaeological Park. For locals with KTP (and KITAS holders, like me), entry for Prambanan and the additional temples within the complex is Rp. 50,000. Unfortunately for foreigners, an entry ticket is far more pricey, starting at ~$25 or Rp. 325,000. If you’re planning to stay in the neighborhood for a few consecutive days, it may make sense for you to buy a combination ticket for Prambanan, Ratu Boko, and Borobodur. Since I had already visited Borobodur a few weeks earlier, I chose to stick with the single ticket for Prambanan. However, if you’re interested, the combo ticket for foreigners costs ~$40, or Rp. 520,000 and the combo ticket for locals costs Rp. 75,000. You may also choose to visit Prambanan with a tour and purchase your ticket with a tour agency. In that case, ticket prices may vary.
(These are 2020 ticket prices and are subject to change).
Once you have your ticket, you can pass through the metal detector and enter the archaeological park. If you’d like to put your bag in a locker so you don’t have to carry it around, you can do that here. This is optional – I chose to carry my backpack around with me and did not encounter any issues. I suggest taking at least water, sunblock, and any additional neccessesities with you during your visit to Prambanan if you choose to store your bag.
You’ll be approaching Candi Prambanan from the east, and your first glimpse of the impressive temple complex will include all of the individual temples that remain standing. On your approach to the temples, you’ll pass by information about current preservation and restoration efforts, which is definitely worth a read!
A view of Prambanan from the temple’s outer zone.
Prambanan is characterized by several tall, pointed temples, which are typical of Hindu architecture. Historians believe it was constructed as a response to the construction of Candi Sewu, a Buddhist temple nearby in the archaeological park, when power in Central Java shifted back to the Hindu Dynasty in the 9th century after decades of Buddhist rule. Prambanan is dedicated to the Trimurti; in Hindu religion, this is the expression of God as the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva). The Candi Prambanan complex is divided into three zones: the outer zone, the middle zone, with hundreds of small temples, and the inner zone, which is the holiest zone and contains 8 main temples and 8 smaller shrines.
Originally there were 240 temples in the Candi Prambanan complex: 3 main Trimurti temples, 3 Vahana temples dedicated to the vahana of the main gods, 4 temples in each of the cardinal directions, 4 temples in the corners of the inner zone, 2 temples between the Trimurti and Vahana temples, and 224 smaller, Pervana temples surrounding the inner temple zone to complete the outline of a mandala. Today, 8 of the main temples and 8 of the smaller, inner shrines have been reconstructed. Of the original 224 Pervana temples, only 2 have been restored. The rest lay in a vast field of rubble surrounding the inner zone. I personally spent a long time exploring the ruins of the Pervana temples before even venturing into the inner zone.
Views of Shiva and Brahma temples.
While the layout of the temple complex suggests that you should enter the inner zone of the Prambanan complex from the east, you can walk along the outer zone and enter from any of the other directions if you so choose. I ended up entering the inner zone from the north, even though this is technically marked as the exit. Feel free to wander at your leisure!
The Shiva temple is the largest temple in the Candi Prambanan complex, and at 47 meters tall it is the tallest temple in Indonesia. While there are stairs on each side of the temple, the main stairs are the eastern stairs. This staircase is marked by two small shrines, which are dedicated to Shiva’s guardian gods, Mahakala and Nandhisvara. Enter the temple from these stairs and continue along in a clockwise direction to view the relief panels that depict the story of Ramayana (this story continues in the reliefs of Brahma Temple as well). As you walk through Shiva temple, you’ll encounter four chambers: one in each cardinal direction in line with the stairs and a fifth, larger chamber in the center, which houses a 3m-high statue of Shiva and is connected to the smaller, eastern chamber. The other three small chambers house statues of Durga, Agastya, and Ganesha, as these gods are all related to Shiva himself. Make sure you take time to admire the intricate architecture of the Shiva temple and be patient with individuals hoping to take pictures on the stairs!
Brahma and Vishnu Temples
The Brahma and Vishnu temples, located to the immediate left and right (north and south) of the Shiva temple, are slightly shorter than their counterpart in height. Both temples stand 33m tall. While the Shiva temple has four staircases, the Brahma and Vishnu temples each only have one staircase which faces east and leads to a single, central chamber. The central chamber houses a statue of each temple’s patron god. During my visit, I noticed that many tourists tended to stay on the eastern side of the temples between the main shrines and the Vahana temples. If you’d like to view the Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu temples more closely, more peacefully, or just avoid some of the crowds, I suggest that you head around to the western side, or the back, of the inner zone.
Left: Shiva temple. Middle: Me in front of the state of Ganesha in Shiva temple’s western chamber. Right: Brahma temple.
Vahana Temples, Apit Temples, and Smaller Shrines
A Vahana temple is located directly across from the eastern face of the three main shrines in the inner zone of Candi Prambanan. In Hindu religion, a god’s vahana is his vehicle. For Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu, their vahana are the bull Nandi, the swan Hamsa, and the kite Garuda, respectively. Shiva’s Vahana temple not only contains a statue of his vahana, Nandi, but also statues of the sun and moon gods, Surya and Chandra. However, Brahma‘s and Vishnu’s Vahana temples are currently empty. Is is thought that statues once occupied the inner chambers of these temples.
Between the rows of the main temples and the Vahana temples are the two Apit temples, which are located in the northern and southern ends of the inner zone. In the Javanese language, “apit” means “flank.” The Apit temples are very similar in appearance to the Vahana temples, although it is unclear to which gods these temples are dedicated. Based upon the existing reliefs on the southern Apit temple and the pantheon in Hindu religion, historians believe that the southern temple is dedicated to Sarasvati while its northern twin is dedicated to Laksmi.
Beside the eight main temples (Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, Vahana, and Apit) in the inner zone are eight additional, smaller temples; the Kelir temples and Patok temples. The Kelir temples are located along each of the four cardinal directions, while the Patok temples are located at each of the corners of the inner zone.
Only two Pervara temples remain standing out of the original 224 that once graced this site. These temples remain among the rubble of the middle zone, constructed in concentric rows in an identical design that becomes increasingly elevated with decreasing distance from the center. There are four rows of these “guard” temples in existence at Prambanan. Some historians believe that this way done to honor the caste system, while others believe the design was simply aesthetically pleasing.
Left: The rubble of one of the Pervara temples with Brahma temple in the background. Middle: The inner balustrade of Shiva temple. Right: The Vahana temple built for Brahma.
The sides of the main temples are decorated with hundreds of bas-reliefs which narrate Hindu epics such as the story of Ramayana. The actual Ramayana reliefs are located on the Shiva and Vishnu temples. In general, the reliefs adorn the inner walls of the galleries of the three main temples. You can read these stories from left to right, starting on the east side continuing clockwise around each temple. This mimics a ritual maintained by Hindu pilgrims traveling to holy sites. Even if you can’t understand the story being told, the relief panels provide an impressive example of ancient stonework that has withstood the test of time.
Additional panels exist on the Prambanan temples beyond those which narrate epic tales. Reliefs of devatas and brahmin sages line the gallery walls opposite the narratives of Brahma and Vishnu temples respectively. Shiva temple is adorned with images of lokapalas, the guardians of the four cardinal directions, opposite the narrative of Ramayana. On the lower, exterior walls of the temples are rows of individuals panels containing a lion between two trees. According to Hindu beliefs, these trees are sacred and can fulfill wishes. On either side of each tree is an animal – bird, elephant, monkey, etc. – which varies from panel to panel. The animals in each individual panel are always identical. These panels are so common around Candi Prambanan that they have been named “Prambanan panels.”
An image of a “Prambanan panel” as seen throughout Candi Prambanan. The animals in this panel appear to be peacocks.
There are several benches scattered around Prambanan if you’d like to take a moment to sit and enjoy the atmosphere of the place. Remember to respect the integrity of this ancient location dispose of any trash in the appropriate locations! You can hire a guide if you’d like to learn in-depth information about the history and architecture of Prambanan as you explore the grounds. Otherwise, you can wander at will. If you’re a westerner, you may discover that many local people wish to take photos with you. This is common! Even though thousands of tourists visit Prambanan and other sites in Indonesia each year, the presence of westerners is rare and somewhat special. During my visit, I posed for group individual photos with an entire class field trip simply because it made the students happy. You may find the frequency of random strangers asking for a photo annoying, but it adds to the experience during your visit.
Getting To and Away from Prambanan
As with everywhere else, I took a GoJek to Prambanan from my kos in Kota Yogyakarta. The trip cost Rp. 39,000 and took about 30 minutes. The bus would have been slower but cheaper. You choice of transportation will ultimately depend upon your budget and how long you’d like to spend in transit. Yogyakarta is the nearest city to Prambanan at 17 km to the southwest; the next closest city is Solo, at 40 km to the northeast. The main road between Solo and Yogyakarta, the Solo-Yogya road, passes directly by Prambanan at km 16, so getting to the temple complex is fairly easy.
Both Solo and Yogyakarta have international airports, which makes it easy to visit Prambanan and Special Region of Yogyakarta from other regions of Indonesia or neighboring countries in southeast Asia such as Singapore or Malaysia. Taxis and car rentals are available at the airports. You can also choose to take a private vehicle and park it inside the Prambanan complex for an additional fee.
If you’re more interested in public transit, you can take the TransJogja Bus from Adisucipto Airport in Yogyakarta directly to Prambanan. Choose route 1A and get off at the Prambanan stop. This should cost approximately Rp. 3500, and the bus operates every 15 minutes (depending upon traffic). You can also take the TransJogja bus to Prambanan from Jalan Malioboro. The route – 1A – is the same as that from the airport. Alternatively, you can take a provincial bus heading between Yogyakarta and Solo or Yogyakarta and Surabaya and get off at the Prambanan stop. This will be more expensive than the TransJogja bus; interprovince buses operate every hour from the Giwangan Bus Station. In either case, the bus ride should take approximately 40 minutes.
Outlying temples surrounding Prambanan can be reached by bicycle. To get to Borobudur from Prambanan, you’ll need to join a tour or take a private vehicle.
Stay safe, and happy exploring!