The Hindu temple complex at Prambanan is based on a square plan that contains a total of three yards, each of which is surrounded by four walls pierced by four large gates. The outermost walled perimeter, which originally measured about 390m per side, was oriented in the northeast, southwest direction. However, except for its southern gate, not much else of this enclosure has survived down to the present.
The two walled perimeters that surround the remaining two yards to the interior are oriented to the four cardinal points. The second yard’s walled perimeter, which measures about 225m per side, surrounds a terraced area that consists of four rows containing 40, 48, 56, and 64 temples, respectively, each with a height of 14m and measuring 6m x 6m at the base, or 224 structures in total. The sixteen temples located at the corners of the rows face two directions; the remaining 208 structures open to only one of the four cardinal directions.
The monument’s remaining walled perimeter, which measures 110m x 112m, surrounds an even higher terraced courtyard that supports an additional sixteen shrines. The central yard’s three largest temples, which face the cardinal direction east, feature large stone statues of the Hindu deities Vishnu (north), Shiva (center) and Brahma (south).
The centrally-located Shiva temple has a height of 47m and measures 34m x 34m at its base. The Brahma and Vishnu shrines to the south and north of the Shiva temple are 33m in height and measure 20m x 20m at the base. The inside facing walls of the balustrades that surround the central structures of these three shrines are covered with bas-reliefs that present episodes from Vishnu’s human incarnations as Krishna (the Vishnu temple) and Rama (the Shiva and Brahma temples). For more information on the Ramayana and Krishnayana reliefs at Prambanan, see the “Introduction to the Javanese Temple.”
The Shiva shrine is the only building at Prambanan that has entranceways that open to all four cardinal directions. The doorway that faces the cardinal direction east leads into the shrine’s central cellar, which contains a statue of the Hindu deity Shiva. The remaining three doors lead into three ancillary chambers that contain statues of the Hindu Agastya (south), Ganesha (west) and Durga (north). With regards to the central shrine, however, there is a possibility that these three statues are not the original occupants of the auxiliary chambers.
Immediately to the east are three auxiliary shrines, each with a single staircase and doorway facing the west. The shrine to the immediate east of the Shiva temple, which contains a statue of the sacred bull Nandi, is 25m in height and measures 15m x 15m at the base. The remaining two shrines, which face the Brahma and Vishnu temples, are 22m in height and measure 13m x 13m at the base. The statuary that visitors see today in the interiors of these two structures are not the original occupants.
It is sometimes suggested that these buildings were intended to house the celestial mounts of the deities Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. However, this is by no means certain. It has been suggested that these buildings may have initially housed sculptures representing the Hindu god Shiva, including his phallic emblem, the shivalinga. The tripartite structure of the shivalinga represent the Hindu trimurti of Brahma (square base), Vishnu (octagonal mid-section) and Shiva (round tip).
Near the central yard’s north and south gates are two ‘apit’ temples, the original purpose of which is not known. Each of these structures has a height of 16m and measures 6m x 6m at the base. A total of eight smaller kelir (“screen”) structures are located just to the interior of the courtyard walls that were probably used to mark out the four cardinal points as well as the four intermediate directions of NW, NE, SW, and SE. In addition, a kelir temple that marks the center of the entire complex is located right next to the main Shiva shrine. All nine temples are 4.1m in height and measure 1.55m x 1.55m at the base.
The Shiva Temple’s Lokapalas – Guardians of the Directions of Space
On the outside-facing walls of the Shiva temple’s central cella there are a total of 24 relief panels. Eight of these figures collectively represent a group of Hindu deities called the Lokapalas–the guardians of the eight directions of space.
Hindu cosmology associated six of the eight Lokapalas with six of the “planets” of ancient Hindu astronomy: Kubera (Venus), Varuna (Mercury), Yama (Mars), Agni (Saturn), Issana (Moon) and Indra (Jupiter). In addition, the Lokapalas Nirriti and Vayu were assigned stations in the sky that corresponded with certain star signs of Hindu astronomy, called the nakshatras.
By coincidence, during the middle of the ninth century CE, the respective planetary bodies corresponding with six of the eight Hindu Lokapalas happened to rise in the same order in which they appear on the walls of the Shiva temple. This celestial event took place beginning on the evening of December 17th in 840 CE (See chart below), a date that also coincided with the Summer Solstice.
Jupiter (Indra), the Moon (Issana), Venus (Kubera), Mercury (Varuna), Mars (Yama), and Saturn (Agni) rose in succession in the early morning hours, followed by the rising Sun itself. In addition, the sun rose on December 18th in the Hindu asterism Crivana, which is assigned to Vishnu, the chief of all the Hindu solar deities.
|Jupiter (Indra)||8:58 PM December 17, 840|
|Moon (Issana)||10:07 PM December 17, 840|
|Venus (Kubera)||2:59 AM December 18, 840|
|Mercury (Varuna)||3:50 AM December 18, 840|
|Mars (Yama)||4:40 AM December 18, 840|
|Saturn (Agni)||5:09 AM December 18, 840|
|Sun||5:24 AM December 18, 840|
The Editors of the Vedas
The relief panels located on the outside-facing walls of the Brahma temple’s central cella portray 27 groups of Brahman holy men, or rishis. Dr. F.D.K. Bosch determined that the figures in these panels correspond with a list from the Vishnu Purana which presents the holy men responsible for editing the Vedas over the course of a long-term time cycle called a Manvantara.
“In every third world age (Dvapara), Vishnu, in the person of Vyasa, in order to promote the good of mankind, divides the Vedas, which is properly but one, into many portions. Observing the limited perseverance, energy, and application of mortals, he makes the Veda four-fold, to adapt it to their capacities; and the bodily form which he assumes, in order to effect that classification, is known by the name of Veda-vyasa. Of the different Vyasas in the present Manvantara (4.32 Billion solar years), and the branches which they have taught, you shall have an account.
“Twenty-eight times have the Vedas been arranged by the great Rishis in the Vaivasvata Manvantara…and consequently eight and twenty Vyasas have passed away; by whom, in the respective periods, the Veda has been divided into four. The first… distribution was made by Svayambhu (Brahma) himself; in the second, the arranger of the Veda (Vyasa) was Prajapati….(and so on up to twenty-eight).” (2)
Since the first and foremost editor of the Vedas was Brahma himself, followed by 27 Vyasa in succession, Dr. Bosch concluded that it was no coincidence that the Brahma temple at Prambanan bears the images of 27 groups of rishis on the walls of the Brahma temple’s main cella. (1)
What may also be relevant r, is that, according to certain ancient Hindu astronomy texts, the constellation of the Seven Rishis (Sapdarishi) — which is known as Ursa Major in the western world — is said to rule for one hundred years over each of the sky’s 27 asterisms in succession, taking 2,700 years to complete one complete revolution of the night sky. In this particular case, the Brahma temple presents a model of the revolution of space/time that may be compared even more favorably to the Lokapala model that is represented on the corresponding walls of the Shiva temple at Prambanan.
The Vishnu temple’s central cella is decorated with the images of male deities that are flanked to either side by a female figure. Although these figures have not yet been conclusively identified, we might expect them to also have specific identifications that reflect space/time points according to the ancient Hindu scriptures.
The Tantric Dancers
The outside-facing walls of the Shiva temple’s balustrade are decorated with panels that collectively portray figures displaying various Tantric dance poses.
“The dance depicted on the relief corresponds to the Tandava dance of Siva as this is described in the Natyasastra. 108 figures, grouped in 32 series, are treated.” (2)
(1) The Vishnu Purana, H.H. Wilson translator, Book III – Chapter III. See also: “The god Brahma surrounded by maharisi” by Dr. F.D.K. Bosch. In Praise of Prambanan edited by Roy E. Jordaan, p. 153 – 155.
(2) “Prambanan 1954” by Dr. A. J. Bernet Kempers. In Praise of Prambanan edited by Roy E. Jordaan, p. 215.