Prambanan

Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma Temples in Prambanan, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

A magnificent temple complex dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses

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 construction around 850 CE with a small set of temples. His successors, especially Lokapala and Balitung Maha Sambu, later built most of the temples that we now see in this complex. Many kings who came after them also made minor contributions. 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 vahanas (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) where the main statue of the temple is housed. It is on an elevated platform and visitors approach it through a staircase. Enclosing the inner sanctum is a square-shaped corridor with balustrades carved with bas-reliefs depicting stories from the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Prambanan temple complex

Shiva Temple

Shiva Temple
Shiva Temple

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 in the east-facing cella. The other three statues are, Goddess Durga as Mahisasuramardini is 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 the guardians. The bas-reliefs in this temple depict stories from Ramayana, one of the great Hindu epics.

Check the Prambanan Bas-Reliefs page for a detailed explanation of some of the interesting bas-reliefs in Prambanan.

East facing chamber – Shiva

Statue of Shiva standing inside the Shiva Temple in Prambanan
Shiva

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 likely built after his death to show that he was the reincarnation of Shiva.

Here are some of the depictions of Shiva in Southeast Asia and India:

North facing chamber – Durga as Mahishasuramardini

Statue of Siva's wife Durga the Mahishasuramardini
Durga as Mahishasuramardini

The narrative statue shown in the image depicts Goddess Durga slaying Mahishasura, an evil demon who took the form of a buffalo. This feat was responsible for her title, Mahishasuramardini, which is a combination of three Sanskrit words: mahisha (buffalo), asura (demon), and mardini (slayer). The slaying of Mahishasura is all about the triumph of good over evil and is based on an episode narrated in Devi Mahatmya, a part of Markandeya Purana. Created by combining energies from Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, and other gods, Durga is a Hindu goddess of war who fights evil forces. She has ten arms, each holding different weapons/objects given to her by various gods. 

Goddess Durga is widely worshiped in India and Southeast Asia. Check the other Durga as Mahishasuramardini pages:
Durga as Mahishasuramardini (Slayer of Mahishasura) on the outer wall of the Somanathapura Keshava Temple
Durga as Mahishasuramardini on the outer wall of the Hoysaleswara Temple at Halebidu in Karnataka, India
Durga as Mahishasuramardini (Slayer of Mahishasura) installed in a devakoshta of the Durga Temple in Aihole, Karnataka, India

West facing chamber – Ganesha

Statue of Ganesha in the Shiva Temple
Ganesha

The statue of Ganesha, one of the sons of Shiva, is in the west-facing chamber. With the elephant head and human body, Ganesha is a unique Hindu god widely worshiped in India and Southeast Asia.

South facing chamber – Agastya

Statue of Agastya in the Shiva Temple
Agastya

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. Check these pages: Legend of Badami and Agastya Lake. 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.

Brahma Temple

Statue of Brahma with four heads
Brahma

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.

Vishnu Temple

Statue of Vishnu inside the inner chamber of the Vishnu Temple
Vishnu

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.

As you cas see from the image, Vishnu has four arms, two of which are raised up and the other two are down. This is how Vishnu is typically portrayed in Hindu temples in India and Southeast Asia. Here are his signature objects carried by his four hands:

  1. Shanka : Upper left hand – It is a conch shell named Panchajanya that emerged as a by-product during the Samudra Manthana. It was responsible for the creation of the panchabhootas (five elements), which are: water, fire, earth, and sky. When blown, it produces a giant primeval sound.
  2. Sudarshana Chakra: Upper right hand – It is a disc-like weapon with serrated edges. When fired, it spins and moves with a rapid force to destroy evil and then returns to Vishnu.
  3. Padma: Lower left hand – It is a sacred lotus flower that represents beauty, purity, and evolution
  4. Gadaa: Lower right hand – It is a mace named Kaumodaki and represents strength

The order in which Vishnu holds his objects vary. With four hands, there are a total of 24 combinations, and sometimes a combination indicates a particular form of Vishnu.

Just like many other statues in Prambanan, Vishnu is standing on a lotus flower pedestal mounted on a square-shaped yoni.

Wahana temples

Each of the Trimurti temples has a wahana temple in front of them.

Nandi Temple

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 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 Temple

Garuda is Vishnu’s vehicle and is an eagle. Just like the Angsa Temple, there is no main statue in this temple.

Related Pages
Prambanan Bas-Reliefs, Borobudur, Bali, Indonesia
Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs, Banteay Srei, Cambodia
Badami Cave – 1, Badami Cave – 2, Badami Cave – 3, Badami Cave – 4, Durga temple at Aihole
Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Navaranga
Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Garbhagriha Outer Wall
Belur Chennakeshava Temple – Kappe Chennigaraya Shrine
Hampi Virupaksha Temple Murals

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