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Prambanan and the Cursed Princess

Long ago, on the lush, volcano-studded island of Java, there lived a princess by the name of Roro Jonggrang. Not only was she ravishingly beautiful; legend has it that the young maiden had a sharp intellect. Roro Jonggrang happened to be the daughter of the fearsome king Prabu Boko, a man so tall and powerfully built many believed him to be descended from giants; some say he was a fierce warrior who had a reputation for cannibalism. Not content with the territory and riches he already had, Papa Prabu declared war on the neighboring kingdom of Pengging and promptly launched an invasion. The defending forces fared poorly at first – Pengging lost many of its bravest men on the battlefield. But its king had a secret weapon. He sent his son Bandung Bondowoso to the front lines, figuring that his great supernatural powers would turn the tide of the war.

The gamble paid off. Days of brutal fighting eventually ended in the death of Prabu Boko at the hands of the heir to Pengging’s throne. Seeing his ruler slain, the giant who served as the defeated army’s second-in-command, Patih Gupolo, beat a hasty retreat to the hilltop Boko palace, where the waiting princess learned that her dear father was dead. “My poor Papa!” Roro Jonggrang wailed bitterly. She and the now-widowed queen became inconsolable. Their troubles, though, were only just beginning, for the Boko royal family soon found themselves under siege: the enemy army had reached the gates of their citadel. With Bandung Bondowoso leading the charge, Pengging’s forces quickly overpowered the outnumbered defenders and swept in, victorious.

The crown prince settled into his newly captured residence with gusto. It wasn’t long before he laid eyes on the mourning Roro Jonggrang, and he was instantly smitten. Bandung Bondowoso decided then and there that she would be his future wife; Miss Roro flat-out refused. Undeterred, the new master of the house did everything in his power to win her over. He directed the palace servants to bring her the tastiest food, made with rare ingredients gathered from the far corners of the kingdom; the most fragrant flowers to perfume her living quarters; and the finest jewelry, exquisite gold pieces encrusted with jewels and precious stones. Everything she asked for would be hers.

But no matter how wealthy or handsome or doting he was, Roro Jonggrang (naturally) had no desire to wed the man who had just killed her own father. Day after day, she turned away courtiers sent to pop the question on his behalf. The lovestruck prince became so desperate he showed up in person and sank to his knees, begging her to accept his wedding proposal. Tired of being pursued by this most insistent of suitors, Roro Jonggrang agreed on one condition. “Build me a thousand temples in a single night,” she said. No ordinary human, the princess reasoned, could accomplish such an impossible task.

Prambanan Temple as seen in the summer of 2015

Friendly faces peering out from the stone

The bulbous finials, known as ratna, are unique to Prambanan

A kalpataru wishing tree flanked by cats and birds

One of the two smaller Apit temples in the central courtyard

An ancient wonder resurrected

Bandung Bondowoso agreed. He quickly rose to his feet, took his leave, and set out to prove her wrong. Once the sun sank below the horizon, he went deep into meditation and summoned the jinn, the spirits of the land. A supernatural builder-army soon materialized out of the darkness. The royal attendants of Boko watched anxiously as a monumental temple complex took shape before their eyes. The hours slowly ticked by: the Pengging prince and his jinn completed 50, then 100, 250, and 500 stone shrines. When they were well past the 900-temple mark, a lady-in-waiting rushed into Roro Jonggrang’s private quarters to bring her the bad news: the project was very nearly finished.

Nothing scared the princess more than the prospect of being trapped in a loveless marriage with a man she abhorred, so Roro Jonggrang had the palace maidens gather piles of hay and set fires in the east. Her messengers roused the girls of the surrounding villages and asked them to start pounding rice in mortars as though it was early morning. Disturbed by the sudden commotion, the village roosters up and down the plain began crowing en masse.

The spirits heard their cries, and looking up, immediately saw the reddening skies. It seemed as though daybreak was fast approaching. Fearful that the sun’s rays would reduce them to ashes, the jinn army immediately stopped their work and vanished into thin air, leaving the crown prince just one temple short of his goal. Bandung Bondowoso was still at work on the final building by the time dawn finally came. Soon, the truth emerged, and incensed that he’d been outfoxed by his would-be bride, the future king used his magic powers to turn Roro Jonggrang into stone. The cursed princess thus became part of the thousandth temple, where she remains to this very day.

So goes a popular Javanese folktale inspired by the ancient ruins (candi) scattered across the fertile Prambanan Plain. For the average subsistence farmer living there in the 18th or 19th century, the origins of these impressive jungle-covered monuments were unknown, as were some of the deities worshipped by their temple-building ancestors. The famed life-size statue of Roro Jonggrang (also spelled Rara, Lara, or Loro due to the vagaries of spoken Javanese) actually depicts the Hindu goddess Durga. Standing on the vanquished Mahishasura, a part-buffalo, part-human demon, her image can be found inside the reconstructed main tower at Prambanan Temple, also known as Candi Roro Jonggrang.

A mythical makara; the famed statue of Durga (a.k.a. Roro Jonggrang)

The early morning sun lighting up the main temple, dedicated to Shiva

1,100-year-old reliefs of dancing celestial nymphs (apsaras) and magical beings

Bama taking photos of the ornate reliefs at the base of Shiva’s temple

A monumental and beautifully carved image of Ganesha

A statue of Shiva stands in the main sanctum; on the outdoor gallery of a temple

The façade and stairway of the biggest structure at Prambanan

The two people standing in front of Shiva’s temple give us an idea of its scale

Looking toward the slightly smaller building dedicated to Vishnu

Alongside Borobudur, which was finished barely three decades before it, Prambanan is considered one of Indonesia’s greatest architectural wonders. The ancient marvel was eventually inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1991, alongside three smaller temples within the surrounding archaeological park. Rising above a fertile plain at the foot of Mount Merapi, the most active volcano in the country, it stands on the outskirts of Yogyakarta – a royal city whose sultan retains political power over his domain.

Ancient Javanese stonemasons cut thousands upon thousands of andesite blocks and fitted them together without mortar to create the monumental complex. Dedicated to the “big three” of the Hindu pantheon – Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer – Prambanan consists of no less than 240 shrines, the great majority being smaller perwara built in concentric rings around an elevated square platform with eight main structures. Flanked by separate buildings for Brahma and Vishnu, the central Shiva temple measures 47 meters (147 feet) from tip to toe.

Closer inspection reveals intricate bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the Ramayana epic and the Bhagavata Purana, along with a cast of mythical creatures like apsaras (nymphs), and winged celestial musicians known as kinnara and kinnari. Above the doorways are menacing kala with lion’s faces, while the curved balustrades of staircases end with a flourish in sculptures of makara, a fantastical elephant-crocodile hybrid. Prambanan ranked as the largest Hindu temple in Southeast Asia at the time of its construction, and was eclipsed only 250-odd years later by Angkor Wat.

Just as astonishing as the temple’s scale and finery is its age, for Prambanan is more than a thousand years old. A ninth-century inscription (now on display in Jakarta’s National Museum of Indonesia) gives us the temple’s original name – Shivagrha, “The House of Shiva” – and explains that a stretch of the nearby Opak River was diverted to make way for the complex, which was inaugurated in November 856. This all took place during the heyday of the classical Javanese Medang Kingdom (a.k.a. Mataram Kingdom), a Hindu-Buddhist civilization that thrived at a time when Viking raids terrorized much of Europe. London found itself occupied by an army of Danes for two decades; Paris was a small provincial city of little importance, and Moscow nothing more than a swamp.

The balustrades around Shiva’s temple bear reliefs showing scenes from the Ramayana

Ishana, a Hindu god and one of the eight Guardians of the Directions

A relief of an ancient Javanese temple; the well-preserved image of Vishnu

Taking the stairway up to Vishnu’s temple

A pinnacle that fell during a devastating earthquake in 2006 serves as a memorial

The northern gateway leading into Prambanan’s central courtyard

This ancient Hindu temple complex is the largest in Indonesia

The House of Shiva’s run as an active place of worship only lasted about 80 years; historians believe it was slowly abandoned after the Medang center of power shifted far to the east. Some scholars pin the move on a devastating eruption from Mount Merapi, while others say economic reasons – namely easier access to the sea and the lucrative spice trade – drove a gradual relocation process. Several more Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms rose and fell over the ensuing centuries. In time, traders from India and Arabia introduced a newer monotheistic faith to the island, with most Javanese adopting a syncretic form of Islam that absorbed practices from the religions before it. Prambanan’s proud spires were eventually toppled by a massive earthquake, and the resurgent jungle reclaimed what was once the greatest Hindu temple in the Indonesian archipelago. Only in 1733 did the overgrown monument come to the attention of European travelers employed by the Dutch East India Company.

Its original name and purpose had been long forgotten by the time Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles – the same man credited as the founder of modern Singapore – arrived on the scene. He presided over a brief British occupation of Java during the Napoleonic Wars, and as appointed Lieutenant-Governor he carried out a military expedition against the Sultanate of Yogyakarta. More than a thousand British-Indian troops stormed the royal palace, plundering its treasury and taking much of the court archives with them. Raffles himself had a keen eye for antiquities (part of his private collection of stolen Javanese artifacts ended up, as they do, in the British Museum), and the abundance of ancient ruins on Yogyakarta’s outskirts did not go unnoticed. To survey the archaeological remains around Prambanan village, he enlisted the expertise of a knowledgeable Calcutta-based military captain by the name of George Baker.

What Raffles called a “magnificent mass of ruins” clearly suffered from sheer neglect. Fallen stones were carted away by local villagers for use in their own small-scale construction projects, while various temple sculptures had been repurposed as ornamental garden pieces. Still, Baker found several large-scale statues of Hindu deities in an exceptional state of preservation. As Baker described in Raffles’ The History of Java, Volume II: “The image of Loro Jongran [sic] is… not at all damaged, perfectly smooth, and with a polished surface.” By his measurements it was six feet three inches in height. In another chamber, he came across a seated Ganesha with feet pressed together at the soles and his trunk extended into a skull cup. “The Javans to this day continue to pay their devoirs to him and Loro Jongran, as they are constantly covered with turmerick, flowers, ochre, &c.”

Colonial Dutch authorities had the vegetation cleared away by the turn of the 20th century, though restoration began in earnest only in 1918. As at Borobudur, the decision was made to reconstruct Prambanan via the anastylosis method, by which its original blocks were used to the greatest degree possible. Engineers and stonemasons filled in the gaps with simpler pieces to show a clear difference between the old and the new. Just two of the smaller temples in the inner compound had been restored when Indonesia declared its independence at the close of World War II. All six major structures were rebuilt by the mid-nineties; work on the outer perwara shrines continues to this day. At least 75 percent of the original masonry must be recovered for a complete reconstruction to happen.

And what of the fictitious Roro Jonggrang? Curiously, the legendary princess is remembered even in 21st-century Indonesia. Her name lives on in the expression “proyek Roro Jonggrang,” which describes an ambitious project that must be done in an incredibly short time – the modern equivalent of building a thousand temples in a single night.

Revisiting Prambanan this past June

A menacing kala over the doorway of a perwara shrine

Approaching the raised inner compound of Prambanan

A lion in a niche flanked by celestial musicians and two kalpataru (the tree of life)

Students milling about in the central court outside Vishnu’s temple

A mouse-deer in relief; standing the test of time

An Apit temple in the central courtyard; dancers and stone lions

Child’s play in the well-maintained park surrounding Prambanan

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very nice. I would love to visit one day.

    September 27, 2022
    • I hear Scoot has just started direct flights from Singapore to Yogyakarta, so that makes it a lot easier to visit from abroad. Hopefully you’ll make it there soon!

      September 28, 2022
  2. Wow, what a story. What a collection of stories! I enjoyed the story of Roro very much. But the story of the construction of the temples was also compelling, as was the story of its discovery and reconstruction. I love that there was a whole civilization here when Paris was a village and Moscow a swamp 😂
    Great story telling and photos James.
    Alison

    September 29, 2022
    • Thanks so much, Alison! Crafty Roro sure had a few tricks up her sleeve… another version of the story says she asked Bandung Bondowoso to dig a deep well and go down to the bottom to inspect it. When he followed those orders she had him promptly buried alive! It was only because of his magical powers that he managed to escape. Apparently the prince was so infatuated with Roro he instantly forgave her for attempting to kill him. 😅

      September 29, 2022
  3. I feel like I just sat through a history class with a bonus picture of Bama included. The folk tale behind the temple is fascinating. The only thing I wonder is whether or not the museums that have any of the pieces from the temple will return them.

    September 29, 2022
    • Indonesia has such a deep tradition of storytelling – unfortunately we don’t know the originator of the Roro Jonggrang folktale. I think it’s a very creative way to explain how all these magnificent ruins came to be. There’s a moral lesson too: being upfront and honest is always better than achieving one’s goals with deceitful means. Some of the finer sculptures and treasures from Java’s ancient temples did end up being shipped to European museums, particularly those in the Netherlands, but a lot of the best pieces stayed in Indonesia.

      September 29, 2022
  4. What a wonderful myth. From your photos it looks like a different site from the one I visited, but perhaps that’s because reconstruction hadn’t been completed when I visited this ancient Hindu temple back in the 1980s.

    October 1, 2022
    • Wow, I can imagine how much quieter Prambanan was when you went… and the unfinished structures must have been covered in scaffolding at the time. It would be grand if you got the chance to revisit in the not-too-distant future. Odd social distancing restrictions mean we can’t go up the stairways and inside the temples right now (all my photos of the interiors are from 2015), but hopefully they will drop those rules soon enough.

      October 1, 2022
  5. I remember learning about the story of Roro Jonggrang when I was still at elementary school. I don’t know if it’s still being taught to Indonesian children today, but I think it should — using an age-appropriate approach, of course. While Borobudur is grand and massive, I’ve always considered Prambanan my favorite, if I had to choose one. There’s something so elegant about those tall spires, and the story of Roro Jonggrang has undoubtedly left a deep impression among Indonesians. However, some people might have interpreted and emulated her stance way too liberally, demanding something so big and ambitious to be done in an unreasonable amount of time. And when this happens, the employees/workers will have to temporarily work like the jinn.

    October 2, 2022
    • Your comparison between the two temples reminds me of what a Jogja-born journalist told me recently – she explained that Borobudur can only really be enjoyed when you’re standing on the monument itself, while Prambanan is impressive both up close and from afar. And yet it does seem as though Borobudur is the more famous one, at least to people from abroad.

      As you already know, I am well-acquainted with higher-ups who have ridiculously high expectations in the workplace. Looking back on the past six years, there were a few instances when I was roped into a proyek Roro Jonggrang, but I still count myself as one of the luckier ones in the company!

      October 2, 2022
  6. Wonderful write up and photography temples in Prambanan, James. I really enjoyed reading the story of Roro Jonggrang and the temples. It really does look like a massive compound and the architecture is so intricate. Wonder if it was all built as fast as the story alludes to. Reading the comments, it seems that there may be other tales too. Great photography all round, and I enjoyed the photo of Bama taking a photo 🙂 Hope you are doing well, James.

    October 20, 2022
  7. ‘Proyek Roro Jonggrang’ reminds me of my ex boss who’d accept impossible deadlines to bag a project. We – his team – would then work day and night to save his reputation that then led to him being offered crazier commissions.

    Assuming supernatural assistance in the construction of monumental temples like Prambanan is hardly surprising. And the stories make them all the more fascinating. Great read James. This makes me realise how much I’ve missed reading (well written) long form content.

    November 21, 2022

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