The sun began to set and the yellow electric lights of the theatre came on at the Prambanan temple complex near Yogyakarta (locally known as “Jogja”) in Indonesia. I was there to watch the famous Ramayana ballet that takes place every night. In summer, the performance is in the open-air theatre, against the backdrop of the towering temples. But since it was cold, we had settled into the cosy indoors.
The orchestra at the back of the stage — complete with local versions of the mridangam and the harmonium — began to strum traditional tunes, signalling the start of the show. Having grown up with the epic, I was not sure what to expect, but I was looking forward to a new interpretation. As it turned out, the performance — with over 200 actors in traditional costume — was fascinating.
The performance was marked by dance and movement, with the characters, even the demons, seeming to glide with an easy grace, leaving no doubt that this was a ballet. The music was melodic and dramatic by turns. And there were no spoken words — in what would have been an unfamiliar language for me — to hamper the enjoyment.
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, up to Ravana’s gory end. Although the battle scenes were spectacular, it was Hanuman in his white costume that stole the show, first with his antics and finally the flair with which he set fire to Ravana’s golden city.
The Ramayana performance at Prambanan
This was my second trip to the magnificent Prambanan temple complex that day. I had earlier gone to take in the Hindu temples dedicated to the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. All the shrines in this complex were built in 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 have survived intact, most having been destroyed by earthquakes over the centuries. Every temple has a character of its own, with unique and profuse carvings on walls and pillars, particularly the bas-relief of the Ramayana in the central ones.
The Prambanan temples made it to the Unesco World Heritage Sites list a few decades ago. However, the highlight of a visit to this region is Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, in the world’s largest Muslim country.
Out of Ashes The best time to see Borobudur is early in the morning, I had been told, just at sunrise. 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 2,500 relief panels, and located on a flat hilltop overlooking the green hills of Java and the active volcano Gunung Merapi, Borobudur was unlike any Buddhist temple I had ever seen.
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, many sit exposed, with the stupa peaks broken.
My arduous climb to the top became worth it when I saw these stone Buddhas staring out into 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 to take in the soothing silence.
Like many great monuments, the Borobudur was abandoned in the 14th century, and got buried under 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 the Unesco in the late 20th century.
In an aerial view, the temple resembles a lotus, considered sacred in Buddhism. More interestingly, from the stories narrated by the guide, the entire monument is considered an ode to the Buddha’s path to nirvana. Every carving at every level tells a story from Gautama’s life — often extrapolated as a lesson for the larger world.
I had to skip the sprawling Kraton palace complex of the sultans and the boutiques selling exquisite batik work, but Yogyakarta stayed with me, as a grand reminder of how faiths coexisted in this corner of Indonesia.