Prambanan: Top of the ruins

A view of Prambanan from the top of Bubrah Temple’s reconstruction scaffold.

Like ruins around the world, the temples at Prambanan stand today because they have been reassembled following centuries of neglect and decay. The reconstruction process is still ongoing; visit the ruins, including the main Prambanan Temple, and you’ll be greeted by piles of bricks scattered around the temple complexes. You’ll also find teams working together to put these ancient buildings back together, piece by piece.

A collapsed building in the shadow of Sewu Temple awaits reconstruction.

Most visitors don’t stray far from the main Prambanan Temple, but we made a circuit around the temple grounds to visit Sewu Temple and Bubrah Temple, both of which were in earlier stages of reconstruction. Sewu was empty, with no one working on it and no one visiting. We had the ruin entirely to ourselves. Buhbrah was likewise devoid of visitors, probably because it was covered in a dense wood scaffold for reconstruction.

Bubrah Temple, circa April 2017.


Photographs of the reconstruction work at Bubrah Temple. They’re literally reassembling it from the foundation up.

We thought Buhbrah was devoid of workers as well until a guy surprised us while we were looking at reconstruction photos and schematics posted next to the ruins. His English was limited, but from what we could gather he 1) worked on reconstruction here at Buhbrah and 2) was really, really excited we had stopped by to visit. He pointed up to the scaffolding and grinned at us. “Want to go up?”

The front of Bubrah Temple, dense with scaffolding.


The view from the top floor of the scaffolding.

What followed was a definitely-not-on-the-regular-docket tour of Buhbrah ruins. The guy led us up through the wooden scaffolding around the temple, ascending makeshift inclines and scaling handmade ladders. There were on guardrails on the outside edge. There were no safety ropes. The only defense from disaster was to keep our balance.

Some of the temple’s stupas, encased in scaffolding for reconstruction.


The top floor of the scaffolding, where the workers are reassembling the temple’s ceiling and main stupa.

We finished our climb at the scaffolding’s top floor, five stories up, where our guide delighted in showing us the reconstruction materials and methods and cheerfully posed us for photos. He pointed down a shaft with a pulley and bucket that extends down to the ground; this was how they brought materials up.

Looking down the shaft used to bring tools and materials up.

He then led us to one side of the temple’s central stupa and gave us a fascinatingly tactile tour of temple reconstruction, passing us bricks and tools. The bricks are surprisingly light and formless, and as I squinted at one I realize that’s because it’s just aerated concrete. So this is how they deal with missing pieces in the temple reconstruction: just replicate replacements on site with skilled craftsmen and low-cost material. It won’t last forever, but it gets the job done.

Our host around the ruins posed me for this photo, pretending to work on the ruins, butall the scattered chips are from his work. Note the difference between the lightweight concrete bricks and darker original stone.

But in the humid tropics of Indonesia, nothing lasts forever. The original stones from the temple all sport heavy weathering in whites and grays. Many of the ornate carvings wear a veil of moss that in time will efface their details. Even the new wood scaffolding around the ruin is already showing signs of decay: a mushroom peeks from between the cracks, fed by the tropical warmth and rain. The manicured lawns around the temples may not be jungle, but nature still sends forth tendrils to reclaim the works of man.

A mushroom pokes out from between slats in Bubrah Temple’s scaffolding.
Moss grows on an ornately carved temple stone. Its growth will slowly eat away at the stone’s detailed shapes.

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