A forest of temples at Prambanan

Continued from my evening experience of watching the Ramayana in Indonesia

This was, in fact, my second trip to the Prambanan temple complex in the day. I had paid a visit as a typical tourist earlier in the morning, to take in the magnificent Hindu temples dedicated to the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (to whom the largest temple here is dedicated).

The sky was grey and menacing when I stepped into the complex, with the rain thundering down within minutes and adding a touch of drama to this fascinating, open space.

All the temples in this complex were built between the 9th and 10th centuries, when this Java region of Indonesia saw the intermingling of Hindu and Buddhist cultures.

Being at Prambanan was a bit like standing inside a forest of temples, the tall spires reaching towards the skies. There are over 200 monuments inside this complex, but only some of them survive intact today, most destroyed by earthquakes over the centuries.

At closer glance, every temple took on a character of its own, each with its unique and profuse carvings on the walls and pillars, particularly the bas-relief of Ramayana in the central ones. I even spotted a classic Ganesha statue inside one of the shrines, practically undamaged and shining in the dim light that managed to stream in through cracks in the roof.

Not surprisingly, the Prambanan temples were inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage list a few decades ago. Along with the world’s largest Buddhist temple at Borobudur, the Hindu temples of Prambanan stand as a solid testament to this country’s respect for its chequered past and the tolerance for its multicultural present under the rule of the present Sultan. Surely, there is a lesson for the entire world there in this small, bustling town of Indonesia.

Watching the Ramayana in Indonesia

As the sun began to set and the yellow electric lights of the theatre came on, there was restiveness in the air. A large group of school children had arrived there a few minutes ago, apparently as part of a cultural excursion. Apart from these giggly kids and their harried teachers, most of the audience comprised foreign visitors to Indonesia. Like me.

I was at the Prambanan temple complex near Yogyakarta (pronounced locally as Jogja) to watch the famous Ramayana ballet that takes place there every night. In the summer months, the performance is in the open-air theatre, against the backdrop of the towering temples. But since I was there in the cold season, we had settled into the cosy amphitheatre, with its stage right in the centre.

The orchestra at the back of the stage – complete with local versions of musical instruments we know in India, such as the mridangam and harmonium – soon began to strum traditional tunes, signalling the start of the show. Having grown up with this epic, I was really not sure what to expect, but I was definitely looking forward to a new interpretation. As it turned out, the performance was fascinating, enhanced by the undeniably Indonesian looks and costumes of the actors, over 200 of them.

The performance was peppered with lots of dance and movement, all the actors (including the demons, I must add) seeming to glide with an easy grace, leaving no doubt that this was indeed a ballet. The music was melodic and dramatic by turns. And there were no spoken words in an unfamiliar language to hamper my enjoyment of this experience.

The story began with Rama and Lakshmana leaving for the forest, a docile Sita in tow. The narrative was more or less traditional, following their path to Lanka, all the way through till Ravana’s gory end. A glittering golden deer, a brave Jatayu vulture, the semi funny-ferocious demons at Ravana’s court – every detail was carefully detailed through dance and music, and the vibrant costumes. Sita herself was a petite beauty, filled with pathos and hope at the same time, moving gracefully in time to the lilting music.

Although the battle scenes were spectacular, it was Hanuman in his white costume and beard who stole the show, first with his antics and finally the flair with which he set fire to Ravana’s golden city.

At the end of the ballet, as I made my way out of the theatre, I found myself coming face to face with Hanuman; along with other characters, he was waiting to pose for photos with the appreciative audience. I refused with a smile and walked on, humming the lilting notes of the background score.

(Watch this short video for a sense of the vibrant costumes and the lilting music and the magnificence of the battle scenes)

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To be continued: At the Prambanan temples of Yogyakarta

A quick guide to Borobudur

Although Indonesia is best known for the gorgeous island of Bali, the highlight of my trip to this country was the UNESCO site of Borobudur. It is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, in the world’s largest Muslim country. What more can I say?

The best time to see Borobudur was early in the morning, I had been told repeatedly. Just at sunrise, in fact. I gave it a pass though, not relishing the idea of trudging up tall and uneven stone steps at 3 am. But even later in the morning, when the sun was still mellow, the Borobudur temple was a stunner.

Decorated with over 500 Buddha sculptures and 2500 relief panels, and located on a flat hilltop overlooking the green forested hills of Java and the active volcano Gunung Merapi, Borobudur was unlike any Buddhist temple I had ever seen. It took me just over an hour from my hotel on the other side of town in Yogyakarta, driving through the city traffic and then the relatively quiet highway.

Believed to have been built around 800 AD, the Borobudur temple is in the shape of a stepped pyramid of five square bases, topped by three circular terraces. Each of these is encircled by 72 miniature stupas containing a statue of the Buddha. While some of them are barely visible through the lattice holes of the stupas still intact, many sit exposed, with the stupa peaks broken.

My arduous climb up to the top level became all worth it when I saw these stone Buddhas staring out on to the lush hills in the distance, as if contemplating the very future of humankind. I sat in the shade next to one of them, both to catch my breath and take in the soothing silence.

Like many great monuments, the Borobudur temple survived destruction after it was abandoned in the 14th century, by remaining buried beneath layers of volcanic ash and thick foliage for hundreds of years. Stamford Raffles, the British Governor of Java, is credited with its rediscovery in 1814, but it appeared in the popular tourist circuit only after extensive renovation work by UNESCO in the late 1900s.

From an aerial view, the temple resembles a lotus flower, held sacred in this faith. What was most interesting to me, from the stories narrated by my guide, is the fact that the entire monument is an ode to Buddha’s path to enlightenment. Every single carving at every level tells a story from Gautama’s life – often extrapolated as a teaching about the larger physical world.

I came away from Borobudur, in fact from the town of Yogyakarta, marvelling at the lessons in tolerance that this small, bustling town of Indonesia holds out for the entire world.