In the heat of equatorial Indonesia, deep within lush landscapes, hides some of the most impressive ancient structures in the world. The Hindu and Buddhist temples of this island nation were painstakingly crafted with stone so they would stand forever. Now they wait for you to find them. Put on a ceremonial sarong, quiet your mind and enjoy spirituality etched in stone that has been handed down through the ages. An overview of the most amazing temples in Indonesia:
Bali is an island unto itself amongst the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia. The island is still Hindu whereas the majority of the archipelago is now Muslim. Pura Besakih is the Hindu island’s largest, most important and holiest temple. Sitting 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) up on slopes of massive Mount Agung in the eastern part of the island, the temple is worth a visit just for the view of the lush, rolling countryside and the towering volcano above. There are 23 related temples that make up Pura Besakih but make sure to visit the largest and most impressive — Pura Besakih Agung. Be prepared for a bombardment of downtrodden locals begging for your rupiah on the way to the temple.
You’ll find ornate cave carvings at Goa Gajah just south of Ubud on the island of Bali. You’ll enter the sacred area through the parking lot after walking past throngs of merchants urging you to buy a required ceremonial sarong. Choose to buy a local’s garment or wait for the free sarong you can borrow as part of your entry fee at the gate. A cave with menacing characters carved into its face is the main attraction, mentioned in Balinese poems as far back as 1365. Inside you’ll find sexual carvings like the phallic and yoni symbols of Shiva. The bathing pools in front of the cave, complete with beautiful female fountain sculptures, were discovered in the 1950’s. The surrounding structures were added to the ancient site sometime later.
You’ll find that the Muslim locals take great pride in this central Java temple despite its Hindu-Buddhist dedication. You’ll enter the massive collection of temples past the watchful gaze of the dwarapalas, or temple guardians, each wielding a snake, club or sword to fend off evildoers. The main attraction among the 248 perwara temples is the twin viharas, or main shrine buildings. These two multi-story shrine buildings are perhaps the most impressive temple structures on all of Java.
Sitting on the southern side of Central Java, the true ruins of Ratu Boko Temple are perched high on a plateau. Bring water and be prepared for lots of stairs in the heat. The crumbled remains of the structure suggest that the site was a fortified castle or mansion for the royal families of either the Sailendra or Mataram Kingdoms. There is a ruined outer wall, a dry moat, and, at the highest point in the area, a lookout pavilion. If you climb up to the pavilion yourself, you’ll enjoy a panoramic view with a clean look at the nearby Prambanan temple with Mount Merapi. The sunset views are stunning.
The Buddhist universe manifests itself in the central temple of Mahadeva at Sewu Temple. Emanating out of the central temple are four rings containing 250 smaller temples dedicated to different Gods. Situated just about a mile from the Hindu Prambanan Temple, Sewu Temple is the second largest Buddhist temple on Java. The close proximity suggests that ancient Hindus and Buddhists lived in peace. The grand entrance to the main temple faces east and contains an inscription dating the building back to 792 AD. Sewu Temple was one of Java’s major religiously active temples starting back in the 8th Century.
Dedicated to Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa in his manifestation as Rudra, Pura Luhur Uluwatu sits high above the sea on a cliffside. Uluwatu is one of Bali’s burgeoning areas for tourism, luring young travelers with beautiful beaches and cliff side nightlife. Those looking for respite can find it at Pura Luhur Uluwatu. One of the four main directional temples of Bali, Pura Luhur Uluwatu is designed to protect the island from evil. It’s small, but it is dramatically built 70 meters (230 feet) above the surf of the southern seas. Come here at sunset. There are two vantage points to the north and south of the temple that’ll give you a great silhouette profile of the tiny temple as the hot sun sizzles into the ocean.
The cool air and fog relieve hot travelers ascending Bali island’s central mountains. Up here, you’ll find the impressive Lake Bratan nestled among peaks. The shore-side Ulun Danu Beratan Temple has been serving the Hindu residents of the area since 1633. The temple is built to praise and give offerings to Dewi Danu, the goddess of lakes, rivers and water. The goddess and Lake Bratan are what give life to crops on the island through a series of irrigation canals. Descend the mountain on the canal and you’ll find a series of smaller temples all dedicated to the water that feeds thirsty crops.
Carved into a rock formation jutting out from the sea, Tanah Lot Temple attracts thousands of visitors per year. This structure serves as the west point of Bali’s four major directional temples. In fact, you can see the south’s Pura Luhur Uluwatu high on its cliff during a clear day. The temple sits on its own island and is only accessible by foot during low tide. The original rock formation crumbled but the Balinese reconstructed the small island because of the temple’s popularity. This wave-licked temple is perhaps the most photographed spot on the island, especially during sunset.
The largest Hindu temple in all of Indonesia sits in the middle of the now-Muslim island of Java. Often referred to as the Hindu Masterpiece, this incomparable Temple is still being reconstructed. In fact, that’s the first thing you’ll notice as you walk into the park of Prambanan as the stone ruins of 224 outer temples lay scattered. As you ascend into the center of the temple area, you’ll find eight major and eight minor temples. These ornately carved spires praise Trimurti, or the expression of God as Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. Marvel at the preservation of this mid-9th-century construction.
Borobudur in Central Java is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. And the structure is here to stay. Borobudur has survived volcanic eruptions of Gunung Merapi, terrorist bombings and the earthquake of 2006. Rising high above the breathtakingly green rice fields and their accompanying kampung, or rice villages, this monumental structure can make Indonesia’s other temples look pedestrian. It looks like an ornately carved pyramid with fortified walls surrounding the bottom and five stories worth of statues ascending to the top. In fact, the central dome is crowned by an impressive 72 Buddha statues. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the monument is that it was built by hand in the 9th century. And visitors agree — it looks like it will stand forever.