Travels with ITB’s aunt began at Prabanan, Jogjakarta, Indonesia, an inspiring temple, with plenty of walking, writes Anne Anderson and ITB.

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Auntie Anne was born on an Indonesian bump. We were bouncing along a Jogjakarta street, trapped inside a little public bus. ITB was sprawled half fainting under a sliver of aircon hitting the back seat. I was taking photos from the hot seat, the engine block beside the driver. Just as a really nice photo angle appeared ahead, the question came again. Gesturing at ITB, a sweet little thing with good English, a niece, and tales of a foreign boyfriend, asked “Your son?”

Well, no. It must be the combination of conservative and chaos that does it. But there’s only so many times we can face up to answering the truth, friends from Australia, we work together, and the barrage of questions that follows. Especially when we are working.

“No, I’m his auntie.”


An aunt is something everyone understands, and a querulous aunt has myriad uses. A man between stops wistfully showed this one 5 star hotels along the way that he would never enter.

The little bus pulled into side loop of fruit sellers and soto, soup, vendors. “Mango!” yelled out every second seller. Guavas and rambutans had also just ripened on the trees.Glimpses of tall thin building tantalised through trees and a long walk along a fence. From afar, they looked faintly Khmer, but they weren’t. Building finished at Prabanan soon after 850A.D. Situated on the flats and outskirts of Jogjakarta, this Hindu temple, one of the best examples of early Hindu Indonesia, served as inspiration for Cambodia’s Ankor temple-building god-kings.

Prabanan’s sea of steeples confirmed, in stone, that after a century Javanese kings had recovered lands and waters rightfully theirs. They had thrown the yoke of the Sriwayan overlords, emanating from Palembang in Sumatra, who had built a Buddhist temple, Borobudur, in their eyeshot, on the slopes of Mount Merapi.

Next to navigate through the gate of cheap tickets and the marble lined “foreigner’s entrance” (“free coffee” after ten times the entry fee).

“Why do they do that?” asked ITB.

“Because they can, “said his newly adopted Auntie Anne.

Steps up to the temple complex, on a knoll, parted a jumble of rubble. Guides held back tour groups, explaining, at length, a long sign board detailing the temple’s original sea of steeples, and devastation wreaked by earthquakes, most recently a few years before.

Earthquakes were why we were here. Though it stood its ground for 1150 years, and big as it is, leave seeing Prabanan for too long, and there may be nothing left to see. Its Hindu kings lived on a volcanic plain set squarely atop the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire.

From outside, the complex Prabanan looked divorced from terrain around it. Inside, it was an integral part of a far larger landscape. To the north Mount Merapi framed it, a triangular mountain vertically split by a cloud. A range cupped it from the south.

Perhaps seven bullet shaped buildings still challenged the domain of aeroplanes and clouds and swallows. Juggled behind and around each other, they were too hard to count and be certain. A last remnant gate stood in the south wall. Entrance over the steeple rubble was from the east.

A block headed Naga watched us from a square foundation as we split apart. Underneath it, animals gambolled in the stone: monkeys and rabbits, peacocks and cats. People stood in bands, in blind windows, above it, near stone entrances to dark shrines deep under the tall shapes rearing skyward. What had looked like trees growing as weeds on high turned out to be stabilising wire netting: stopping high stones tumbling.

The statues here weren’t the busty Boddhivistas and Apsaras of Buddhist Borobodur, legitimating lifestyles for foreign rulers. Austere, these Indianised servants of Hindu kings invoked the adjectives of fashion magazines: stylish, elegant, and refined.

Looking at the vertiginous staircases shinning up to the shrines, I made my way to one of the shorter temples. New nephews have their uses, and high climbing is one of them. I clambered over a last steep step – and almost fell into its shrine, one long robbed of its statue.

The tour guides with firm treads propelled their charges not up steps but to the shade of a tiny tree in a back corner. Some were not just well heeled but wedge heeled as well.

As with Wat Angkor in Cambodia, we are finding the sheer size of the complex disorienting. Prabanan is more contained, but every angle of the temple, north, east, south and west, displays its different personalities.

“You don’t get the shot unless Pramanan wants you to”, said my new nephew, “As you walk closer, the temple takes on another dimension. Its not until you enter the main pavilion that you get a grasp of the sheer audacity of it. It seems to have Shiva written all over it, and screams from the past of Kali’s blood thirst send chills up your spine.”

He disappeared with my camera as well as his own.

Watching tourists is always just as much fun as watching temples, and here it was no different. Sometimes people abroad are just as puzzling as understanding the ritual needs of Brahmin priests. The wedge-heeled well- heeled, perspiring in sleeveless shirts and shorts looked under dressed beside smartly dressed Asians in sleeves, jeans and sneakers. A woman with hair neatly hidden by a red headscarf skipped up shrine steps in pink sandshoes. A young man straight from the streets of Hong Kong wore a black fedora swirling with silver stripes as he filmed everything around him on a white mobile phone.

Hawkers pestered an older woman girt in white cotton harem pants under a shirt covered in impossibly soft pink roses. Makeup had cemented out the lines of her face. “Indonesia map 100,000” soon became “maybe 80,000,” “Here, here Prabanan book.” When she cleaved herself away from them, they stopped to swap notes on the sales from their satchels.

By now, nephew was long lost, as lost as he’d been at That Luang in Vientiane. There’d been but a single sighting, gazing up a lens at magical light in the clouds, too far away to call, and too busy to interrupt. Here, though, there was only one exit he could leave through. It was time to take it.

A cool wind came from the base of a black cloud. Seated hawkers sold fans, drinks and Buddha statues at a Hindu temple in eyeshot of Islamic minarets. To north and south, sunlight turned the minarets to gold. Further on a hedge of fine leaved bamboo clumps reflected the tall shapely buildings behind. Two men in uniforms were posing in the bamboo, taking photographs of each other, and the wings on their shoulders.

Beyond was an avenue of fig trees pruned to high crowns. Among them over amplified voiceovers interrupted a broadcast of wind chimes. The bad sign was a stand of bicycles to rent. The good sign was a little blue shuttle train. It took the longer road still, circling through the ruins of other temples, leaving the tour groups in its wake.

Small spotted deer lazily pushed each other with antlers like spiky sticks inside a yard near the last gate. The men with wings on their shoulders fed them underneath signs saying “Do not feed the Himbuan,” in English, and in Bahasa Indonesia.

Through the gate out of the park, was a sea of hawkers and stalls full of sales traps for grandmothers, from gorgeous little dresses to drums for small boys to use to do their parents heads in. Not a place where ITB would linger.

Close behind the well heeled wedge heeled had not taken the train. and they were hobbling now. The eyes of the hawkers lit up.They fell away in search of easier prey, prey that spoke no Indonesian. Their prey tried everything but “Tidak,” not looking, speaking firmly, in desperation, even pushing them away.

All but a set of limp harem pants with sodden soft pink roses and now raddled cheeks. She made a seller’s day. She bought a wooden fan. Now she looked like a kind woman, a long way from home. It was impossible not to like her.

Finally came a last gateway everyone must pass through, one with a little pavilion by a car park. On its wall a man sat smoking clove cigarettes was taciturn, until he discovered I was Australian, not Dutch. Then he was loquacious. He was a driver, he was waiting for Indian tourists, and as it was getting dark they should have been out by now. He wanted to get home. Then the triangular mountain still just visible in the gloom caught his eye.

“Mount Merapi. Explodes BOOM!” he explained. “Every 5 years. In 2006, big explosion, temples fall down. Every 5 years fire in the air and um, um…”

“Lava?” I asked, doing a quick calculation of the time gap back to 2006.

“Yes, yes, lava”

“How long since the last explosion?”

“Last explosion last year.”

There was another explosion, yelling, from outside the fence, and it wasn’t Merapi this time. “Anne! Anne! Auntie Anne!”

Grinning ear to ear, nephew was back. And we had another temple under our belt.


Hindu temple complex completed in 856 A.D. near Jogjakarta, island of Java, Indonesia.


Direct international flight or by domestic flight from the Indonesian capital Jakarta or from the island of Bali


Bus, taxi, car with driver, organised tour group


International tourist centre with range of clean and comfortable accommodation from low end to high end both in the city centre and also close to the temples.


7 thoughts on “Prabanan Temple: a Sea of Steeples

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