Tucked away inside the gorgeous volcanic ranges of Central Java is Indonesia's largest pocket of Buddhism, that has thrived since ancient times. It is more than a series of old temples serving as tourist landmarks, these are very active, serving as the cultural heart of this old faith. And oh by the way, it is a lovely set of landmarks that draw tourists from all over the world. This is Borobudur, located about a forty-minute drive from Yogyakarta and Sendang Sono in the center of Java.
We went there early in the morning, before the big crowds of tourists showed up. Borobudur opens super early, at 6AM every day, so it was the ideal first stop for us on a full day of touring. But we only had time to hit the main highlights -- the massive 8th century Borobudur temple itself, the smaller Mendut temple on the way, and a neighboring Buddhist monastery. Borobudur has almost a half-dozen massive spread out over a several-mile radius, which we may hit in subsequent visits.
The Mendut temple, shown in the first photograph, was our first stop. According to tour guide who took us around, this small temple marked the first place where the archipelagoes earliest Buddhist monks taught their first disciples. There was a massive banyan (or 'beringen') tree next to the temple that local kids were taking a swing on. The temple now sits in a traffic circle that greets visitors before they reach Borobudur two miles later. It's set up almost like a teaser.
The traffic circle was filled with blue festival tents, partly visible in the photo. We didn't know this in advance, but our visit was only days in advance of Waisak, Buddhism's most important annual holiday. The fields before Mendut were to be used for ceremonies, and huge colorful flags lined the road welcoming all who would come to watch.
There was a Buddhist monastery nearby, which attracted a very curious Tom. The monastery (which we could not post public pictures of) had a single large sidewalk with a bell-shaped monument at the end (similar to the bell tower topping the main Borobudur temple in the second photograph). This monument was surrounded by sculptures of various Bodhisatvas. Off to the side was a beautiful white Buddha sculpture sitting in his own little hut, surrounded by a moat filled with lilies. On the opposite side was a huge traditional gong mounted on a cast iron frame.
There was several buildings lining the sidewalk, mostly schools or mini-temples, while the residences were off the main path. The guide took Tom inside a couple of them, the most impressive being a very modern temple graced by a two-yard tall golden Buddha, covered with 19 carats, the guard claimed. Unlike the traditional paunchy Buddha, the body shape of this sculpture was sleek and athletic. The altar was flanked by two massive hand-painted urns and decorated with beautiful flowers. The guide explained the monastery's history, that it was one of the oldest and most important in all southeast Asia. Judging from the modern condition of the complex and the obvious large amounts of money poured into it, that sounded very plausible.
The Borobudur temple was the next stop. It was close to 8AM when we arrived at the massive parking and shopping area. Because Tom is caucasian, we instantly attracted a horde of souvenir purveyors trying to sell books or trinkets. The entrance to the complex was through the museum, and we learned that Indonesians and foreigners had different entrance fees (75 cents versus $10). The high cost was attributed to the massive reconstruction effort on the main temple that was recently completed, more on that later. Getting to the temple was via a winding path around a hill that brought one to the scene in the second photograph. We estimate that the distance to the temple from that spot was about a half-mile, giving you an idea of how big it was.
We arrived at the perfect time, because the monks were just beginning their morning procession. As we approached the temple, the group of junior monks (as indicated by their gray robes) shown in the third photograph were ascending the steps. Tom raced ahead to capture photos of them as they proceeded to the lower gate of the temple, then circumvented the base of the temple in double file. The white branches they are carrying are jasmine branches, the same flower used by the Javanese to make flower shawls for various ceremonies (weddings, for example).
Tom climbed all over the temple, while the rest stayed below. The temple had five levels from bottom to top. The stairs between the levels were treacherously steep. Each level was outside, with a walking path circling the temple as shown in the fourth photograph. Though the photo doesn't fully show it, the walls were engraved with scenes from Buddhist history or local legends of significance. One of our party recognized the engravings on this particular section of the temple as that of Ramayaman, the very same story that inspired the Kecak Dance played to cheering audiences each night on the island of Bali.
The fifth photograph shows a scene from the top level of the temple, which is filled with bell-shaped cages. These cages each contain a Buddha statue, and the tradition says that anyone who reaches inside and touches the Buddha's hands will receive good luck. (That is, anyone who can reach inside and touch without climbing on the bell.) For the average local, it is understandable that this might be a tough task -- the typical Indonesian is somewhere between five foot and five foot five. Tom, being well over six feet, had no such difficulty.
The top of the temple also gave a grand view of the wonderful scenery around Borobudur. We were treated to wide stretches of forest below bluish-green mountainsides in each direction, along with perfect views of Mount Merapi (seen in the Central Java Road Trip travelogue) and other volcanoes. The only disadvantage to being on the top was the heat -- the temple's location was chosen probably because it receives the sun so well, so well in fact that you could almost fry eggs on it!
The massive reconstruction effort mentioned earlier was necessary after a sad series of the events at the end of the last decade, which saw the temple besieged by acts of great vandalism during the tumultuous Asian economic crisis and the unrest that followed. While the work was done in record time, some of the historic and detailed etches were not recoverable. Still, it is a testament to the resiliency and faith of the Buddhists that they persevered and were more than ready to celebrate their special day, as they have for almost 13 centuries in Central Java.
Trip taken 31 May 2004 through 2 June 2004 -- Page last updated 28 October 2006 -- (C) 2004 Tom Galvin