According to the Kelurak inscription discovered in the vicinity, Candi Sewu was inaugurated in 782 AD. It was a Mahayana Buddhist temple built during the reign of Rakai Panangkaran from the Syailendra dynasty (746-784 AD), the second king of the Medang (Ancient Mataram) kingdom. It means Candi Sewu preceded Borobudur and Prambanan temples.
The second inscription mentioning Candi Sewu is the Manjusrigrha inscription. It said that its original name was Prasada Vajrasana Manjusrigrha. Prasada means temple or shrine, Vajrasana is a throne, and Grha means home. Manjusri is the Bodhisattva associated with wisdom.
Archaeologists believe that when Rakai Pikatan, a Hindu king from the Sanjaya dynasty, wedded Pramodhawardhani, the daughter of Samaratungga, a Buddhist king from the Syailendra dynasty, he renovated and expanded Candi Sewu. Rakai Pikatan then built Candi Prambanan, a Hindu temple, nearby. Our tour guide mentioned that Queen Pramodhawardhani worshiped Buddha in Candi Sewu. Meanwhile, His Majesty Rakai Pikatan went to Candi Prambanan to worship Hindu Gods.
Unfortunately, when Mount Merapi erupted circa 928 AD, it destroyed many areas, including Prambanan village and its many temples. Hence, Mpu Sindok moved the kingdom to East Java. These temples had been abandoned since that time. As time passed, they became known as Candi Sewu, which means one thousand in Javanese. Perhaps, people have mistaken it for a thousand temples because when they found it, the temple had been neglected for centuries. People mainly saw many piles of stones instead of a grand temple complex. Today, archaeologists have confirmed that Candi Sewu comprised two hundred and forty- nine temples.
Candi Sewu and the ruins of its Candi Perwara created the illusion of the shattered of one thousand temples.
Centuries after the big eruption of Mount Merapi, only locals know the whereabouts of the abandoned temples of Candi Sewu and Candi Prambanan. They were no longer Buddhist and Hindu. Hence, they didn’t know the history behind those ruins. They saw many piles of stones that looked like a thousand temples had been shattered. During that time, the story of Roro Jonggrang began to unfold.
Candi Sewu is one of the four temples in Prambanan Park. Hence, you only need one ticket to explore these four temples. However, since Candi Sewu is eight hundred meters (1.2 kilometers if you walk on the asphalt road) north of Candi Prambanan, many visitors are reluctant to walk there. You can catch an open-air bus or rent a golf cart (they are available near Candi Prambanan). Unfortunately, these vehicles will not stop at Candi Lumbung and Candi Bubrah. But they will stop for about five to ten minutes at Candi Sewu.
In my opinion, ten minutes is not enough to admire the grandeur of Candi Sewu, which was built as a royal temple compound. The temples were made of Andesite rocks and arranged in a Vajradhatu Mandala of Mahayana-Buddhism, with the main temple as the center. The diameter of the main temple was twenty-nine meters, and it was thirty meters high. Four smaller chambers surrounded the main chamber in the middle of the temple that was accessible through the east room. During the restoration, archaeologists discovered a base made of stone decorated with the sculpture of a lotus in the main chamber. They believe it was the base for a four meters high bronze statue of Bodhisattva. However, it was long gone. When we explored Candi Sewu, the outside was scorchingly hot, but as soon as we stepped into the main temple, the temperature inside was airy and cool. Perhaps the Andesite rock formation was the cause of the cool temperature?
You will see small temples surrounding the main temple in temple compounds, such as Candi Prambanan and Candi Sewu. They look like they are guarding the main temple. Hence, they are called Candi Perwara or Guardian Temple in English. In the case of Candi Sewu, four layers of Candi Perwara circle the main temple. The first layer (the closest layer to the main temple) comprised twenty-eight temples, then forty-four temples in the second layer. There were eight Candi Penjuru (Penjuru is an Indonesian word for points of compass) between the second and third layers. They were identical and bigger than Candi Perwara. The third and fourth layers of Candi Perwara consisted of eighty and eighty-eight temples, respectively. Hence, there were two hundred and forty Candi Perwara in total. Unfortunately, earthquakes and looting destroyed most of these temples. Today, the main temple has been completely restored (although the chambers are still empty), but most of Candi Perwara and Candi Penjuru are still in ruins.
There were four entrances to Candi Sewu, and the one in the east was the main entrance. You can easily identify these entrances by looking for a pair of giant statues called Dwarapala. Dwarapala is portrayed as a fierce giant guardian armed with mace. They protect temples and palaces. Depending on the status of the place, there could be one or more Dwarapala guarding it. As a royal temple, Candi Sewu had four pairs of 2.3 meters high Dwarapala.
Although the focal points of visiting the Prambanan complex are Candi Prambanan and Candi Sewu, you might be interested in exploring two smaller temples between them: Candi Lumbung and Candi Bubrah.