Prambanan in the Afternoon

Prambanan, a Hindu temple and World Heritage Site, sits in Central Java, Indonesia.
Prambanan, a Hindu temple and World Heritage Site, sits in Central Java, Indonesia. At top, the leaf from a bodhi tree folded in half across its equator forms the outline of a stupa, a common Buddhist structure. (Photos by Bruno J. Navarro)

JOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — After hiking Mount Merapi and scaling the steep stone steps of Borobudur, I figured that was all there was to Java, the cultural capital of Indonesia. I was wrong.

The 9th century Hindu temple at Prambanan hints at the waves of influences that the Indonesian archipelago underwent throughout its history. Among them, Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch, though some less prominently than others.

A World Heritage Site like its Borobodur cousin, the temple at Prambanan comprises three carved stone spires, each intended to honor Brahman, Vishnu or Shiva.

Yunus once again came through with a solid knowledge of the site’s significance and less-than-obvious highlights, which made the experience perfectly fulfilling.

UPDATE: One treat came in the form of a leaf from a bodhi tree, which Yunus picked up as we were walking the perimeter.

“Notice the shape,” he said, holding up a bright green specimen resembling an upside-down heart. “If you fold it in half, it is the shape of a stupa.”

Sure enough, bisected across its equator, the bodhi leaf looked like the stone structures protecting the seated Buddha statues we had seen at the Borobudur site. An organic shape drawn from the leaf of a tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, literally “Enlightened One.”

The afternoon also included stops at temples in Plaosan, Sambisari and the surrounding areas. For most of the day, I was the only Westerner in sight. We came across no more than maybe six others. At a couple of the smaller sites, there were no other tourists whatsoever.

Sited amid paddies and tiny villages, the temples often felt like grand discoveries rather than tourist attractions.

Plaosan, a 9th-century complex, contained 174 buildings. Most of them were in ruins, their stones organized by local archaeologists in piles, more or less, since restoration work slowed when funds ran dry.

Being able to handle ancient stuctures with your own hands imparted an air of Indiana Jones movies to the entire affair. There were no guards or signs warning visitors against such things, which added to the mystique. But I felt like I was in a museum and refrained from disturbing any of the relics.

The buildings still standing — or, more accurately, rebuilt after earthquakes and volcanic eruptions — were intricately designed, with carved-stone spires reaching heavenward and relief carvings depicting various Hindu legends. At the entrances, giant, burly stone gatekeepers, each carrying a club and a fearsome expression, stood watch over the ruins.

The temple complex at Sambisari was beneath ground level. More streamlined than the previous temples, it was unearthed in the 1960s by a local farmer tilling the soil.

The discovery led experts to believe there might be more archaeological treasures buried in the wake of Mount Merapi’s eruptions and the tons of ash they left all over Java.

How heartening it was to think there were still unknown wonders beneath a modern-day civilization.

Restoration of the temple complex at Plaosan remains incomplete.
Restoration of the temple complex at Plaosan remains incomplete.
A stone statue stands guard at Plaosan in Central Java, Indonesia.
A stone Dwarpala guardian statue stands guard at Plaosan in Central Java, Indonesia. (Photos by Bruno J. Navarro)
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