Prambanan Ramayana Ballet

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Rama and Ravana clash in Prambanan’s Ramayana Ballet.

If you visit Borobudur and Prambanan, it’s likely that you’ll hear about the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet. You’ll see signs for it. People will tell you to take a night and go see it. It’s a big deal around here.

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The billboard for the Ramayana Ballet.

I’ve never been an attentive fan of ballet or theater because in college I lacked money, and in graduate school I lacked time. But with a free evening after visiting Prambanan and tickets that only cost $35 per person for up-close, front row seating…good gravy, why not? The hotel concierge tells us that they’re even predicting good weather for that evening, meaning they’ll use the outdoor theater. We have no idea why that matters, but we’ll find out later it involves fire.

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A gaggle of students settle into their seats in the outdoor theater.

Though our hotel is just down the street from the ballet venue (on the back side of the Prambanan Temple park), the hotel staff insists on driving us. We go along and pretend we’re wealthy for the night, though we don’t have to pretend here in Indonesia—we are. But we did just finish a $2 dinner of fried rice and veggies.

After picking up our tickets, getting our complimentary tea/coffee/drink, and settling into our seats, we’re ready to enjoy the show. We watch other people filing in, including an entire gaggle of Indonesian schoolchildren in uniforms, who cluster into giggling groups as the teachers try to seat them in rows. Then the lights dim and everyone, student and nonstudent alike, falls to a hush at the undulating ring of gamelans.

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Prambanan illuminated in the background of the open theater.

I’m going to spoil the outcome now and tell you that the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet is AMAZING. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, though it’s much less a ballet and more a performance of traditional Javanese dance called Wayang Wong. There’s something hypnotic in the way the dancers move–their hands become water and feet become air as they flow across the stage. And while it might not have the absurd production value of a Broadway show or a Wagner Ring Cycle, it has everything else: an epic love story, fight scenes, drama, comedy, brilliant colors, all with bilingual Bahasa/English subtitles. Also, did I mention fire?

Below are more photographs from the ballet, with my irreverent telling of the story. But really, you should go see it live. With tickets as cheap as $7, you have no reason not to:

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Dancers throw flower petals at the start of the performance.

The ballet starts with a contest for Princess Sita’s hand in marriage, which rests on a suitor’s ability to break a magic bow. Ravana, the story’s antagonist, fails and storms off*. Rama, the story’s hero, succeeds and marries Sita. She joins Rama and his brother Laksamana, wandering the world in an exile that predates this story.

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Ravana fails to break the magic bow and win Sita’s hand in marriage.
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Rama kneels before the magic bow as Sita and her father watch. Unfortunately, Sita was not allowed to compete for her own hand in marriage.

But Ravana still wants Sita, and hatches a plan to distract Rama and steal her away. He sends his minion Maricha in the form of a golden deer to enchant Sita, who begs Rama to catch it for her. Why? Who knows. Old stories.

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“Sita, what are you going to do with a magic golden deer? Do you even know what it eats?”

Rama leaves Sita with Laksamana, but when Rama fails to return promptly both begin to worry. Laksamana seals Sita in a magic circle while he goes off to look for Rama, but Ravana disguises himself as an old beggar and tricks Sita into leaving the circle. Yep, because SMARTS.

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Sita is lured out of the magic circle by Ravana disguised as a beggar.

Rama catches the golden deer only to find it’s Ravana’s minion. After defeating it in battle, he and Laksamana rush back to find Sita gone. They find out from Jatayu, the vulture king, that Ravana has taken her.

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Jatayu then dies, because it was a bad idea to get into a knife fight with Ravana as a bird with no opposable thumbs.

What follows is a series of adventures in trying to get Sita back, which can basically be summed up as they get the ape-king Hanuman on their side who manages to sneak into Ravana’s kingdom and bring Sita a message that Rama is looking for her.

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Hanuman brings Sita a message from Rama.

Then Hanuman gets beats up Ravana’s other minions, who are apparently all really drunk at midday because palace guarding, who does that? Ravana defeats Hanuman and captures him, subjecting him to a ‘trial’ and execution by burning.

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Oh…that’s live real fire you’re bringing onto the stage. You sure you guys know what you’re doing?

This is where the performance take a creative twist, because they bring live fire out onto the stage. They light small bonfires, and Hanuman stands between them, unharmed in the story because he’s pure of heart.

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Huh, it looks like that fire you guys had really got out of hand.

Hanuman then proceeds grab a torch from the flames and set the entire stage on fire, then turns into giant ape a la Dragonball Z. In the story he rampages around destroying Ravana’s palace, but in the ballet he mostly rises like a giant monster over the flaming wreckage of the stage. Yeah, these people are serious about their ballet.

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And now there’s a giant Hanuman rising from the skyline as the entire stage is engulfed in flames…

Hanuman rejoins Rama and Laksamana, who attack Ravana’s forces and wage war. Rama confronts Ravana and they battle. Rama eventually shoots Ravana with an arrow and kills him, but not to be outdone Hanuman then throws a mountain on him.

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“Two vs one? That’s seriously not fair, guys.”

Sita and Rama are then reunited, but Rama is suspicious of Sita’s fidelity after all of her years in captivity. So Sita burns herself in flames but remains untouched, because she’s pure of heart—turns out that’s all you need to survive fire, besides like, actual safety and survival gear.

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Instead of professing her fidelity, Sita should be saying “Well you wouldn’t have this concern over my fidelity if it hadn’t taken SO LONG for your dumb ass to come rescue me.”
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Not dying in magic flames–a continuing theme in this story.

Rama extinguishes the flames and they go off, happily ever after.

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Happy ending? Rama is supposed to back to his kingdom and be king now, so I guess that’s good enough.

It’s a pretty straightforward fairy tale with elements of good and evil, what humans should and shouldn’t do, and archetypal roles of princesses being rescued by princes and their sidekicks. But really, who cares? They lit the stage on fire.

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*This differs from the original Ramayana quite a bit, where Ravana steals Sita as part of a plot to destroy Rama for his hand in killing/destroying other demons. I might be misremembering it.

Good food and Snakefruit

Just outside our hotel, there’s a family restaurant (Warung Soto Pak Ndimo) that consists of a food stall and a single open-air table hiding beneath their house’s awning. The food is cheap, delicious, and fresh, and the family is oh-so-sweet and accommodating of our utter dependency on pointing, smiling, and Google Translate to communicate (though the wife speaks a few words of English).

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An amazing egg and veggie stir fry that they make, topped with freshly deep-fried shallots. Mmmm….

And tonight after dinner they were amazingly kind and gave us a GIFT! It’s got scaly skin, but it’s not any kind of animal.

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What…is this?

We’ve seen these things in the marketplace here but have no idea what they are. The wife tells us that they’re called “salak” and shows us how to peel away the scaly skin to reveal a cream-colored fruit below. We take a nibble and it’s like a tropical apple: a bit tangy, but mostly sweet and crisp. It’s not as juicy as an apple, but that just means we don’t make a sticky mess as we bite through the tiny fruits. At the end of eating, all that’s left is a large stone from the middle.

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Half a salak fruit. You can peel the skin off and eat the sweet, crunchy fruit inside.

 

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The pits left after eating the salak fruit.

 

Some searches on “salak” reveal that it’s a ubiquitous, super popular Indonesian fruit that’s hard to get pretty much anywhere else. While I thought it might be related to lychee and rhambutan (given the stone in the middle), it’s actually the fruit of a native Indonesian palm. While I don’t think you can get them fresh in the U.S., I think the dried, crunchy chip version has made it to the States, so if you want a taste of the fruit’s flavor see if your local Asian market has some.

And if they don’t, you can always order online. Or book a trip to Indonesia. You know you want to.

Prambanan: Top of the ruins

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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.

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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.

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Bubrah Temple, circa April 2017.

 

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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?”

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The front of Bubrah Temple, dense with scaffolding.

 

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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.

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Visiting Prambanan

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A visit to Jogjakarta is incomplete without seeing the massive temple complex that sits just on the edge of town, forty minutes or so by bus from the center. Prambanan is a towering and expansive series of Hindu temples, thought to have been erected during the 9th century when the ruling dynasty of Indonesia shifted from Buddhism to Hinduism and answered the Buddhist temple of Borobodur with Prambanan.

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Photos do little justice to the feeling of the place. Unlike Borobodur where you can scale the temple itself so that it seems smaller the closer you get, Prambanan offers no such relief. The nine central towers do exactly that – they tower over you and climb to incredible heights. In my opinion the eye is fooled even further by the shape of the towers themselves, dwindling to needle-like peaks which seem all the further away.

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Each spire has a set of stairs leading up about halfway, leading to a path encircling the temple and a door into the tiny inner chamber. The path takes you through a relief carved religious story or legend. This is a photo of the tree of heaven, a common theme in many Indonesian works.

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Inside each spire is supposed to be a deity or their representation though most of the statues are missing.

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The surviving ones are treated with care, though many are replicas and the originals are housed in museums. The outsides of the temples are covered in carved statues and faces, often better preserved than the shallow reliefs inside.

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The temple area includes four separate temple complexes – Prambanan, Lumbung and Bubrah temples, and the Sewu temple. All four are in various states of repair, having been historically plundered for stones and statues and in recent times suffering damage from earthquakes. Prambanan once housed many temples of various sizes in concentric squares. Now only the central temples stand, and a few of the smaller outer temples. The rest are waiting in piles to be rebuilt.

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We saw reconstruction teams working on putting some of the smaller temples back together. Fitting the pieces together in the correct order and making the structure stable again is hard work. Not only is the location not marked, but each piece weighs a ton. Maybe not literally, but heavy enough that one person can’t lift it.

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For all the wonder that is Prambanan, the other temples deserve a visit. They are smaller in both area and height, but offer more diverse temple styles, statues, and reliefs without the crowds of tourists. When we went over to Sewu temple, there was literally no one else there.

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Here you can see not only more of the art and architecture, but also of the destruction wreaked on the temple site by the earthquake. These temples were once fully repaired, now awaiting time and funds.

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The Sewu complex is full of statues, usually damaged in various ways.

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It houses reliefs waiting to be put in their proper place.

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And is a storage grounds for spare spire tops and temple stones, intended either for their original location or to fill in a partially complete temple.

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For tourists who stand out : be prepared for the local crowds. As with all other attractions we visited in Indonesia, groups and individuals stopped and asked us to take a photo with them. Sometimes this meant a selfie, other times it meant we were going to be in some classes’ travel photos. It’s exciting and fun, but eventually I get tired of it. Natalie does a bit better with photo stamina.

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Finally, a few last shots of the entire complex. We found the entire day to be completely satisfying. A quick breakfast, temples and tourists, and a bit of haggling at the end. Be prepared with water and a bit of people stamina, and come as early in the day as humanly possible – the grounds get sweat-and-sunburn hot quickly, and there’s a lot of walking to be done.

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