Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.
According to the ancient Kayumwungan and Karangtengan inscriptions, the construction of Candi Borobudur was completed around May 824 AD and took an estimated 75 years to build. Unfortunately, about a hundred years later Mount Merapi erupted and buried the temple in volcanic ash for a thousand years. In the aftermath of the volcanic eruption the whole region suffered from famine and starvation, whilst all across the island there were religious and political conflicts. Although the temple was eventually uncovered by the Javanese people, it was left neglected for hundreds of years.
Whilst circumstances may have no doubt contributed to its neglect, nobody really knows for sure why such an epic and culturally significant monument was left to degenerate into a state of chronic disrepair. Nevertheless, it was rediscovered again in 1811 when Java was under British administration. The then Governer of Java, General Thomas Raffles, heard stories about the ruins of an ancient temple in the jungle so he commissioned a team led by Dutch engineer H.C. Cornelius to begin excavation of the site. It took more than two decades to uncover the entire area, but by 1834 it was completely cleared and work continued over the subsequent years to unveil some of its mysteries.
Unfortunately, as interest in the Borobudur site developed it was plundered by thieves and souvenir hunters for many years after its discovery. The Dutch colonial government even gave away eight containers of statues and relics that had been escavated from the site to the King of Siam as a diplomatic gift in 1896. However, in 1973 a new restoration project began and over 700 workers spent the next twelve years meticulously reassembling almost one and a half million stone bricks, sculptures and reliefs to restore the epic monument to its original glory. In 1991 all this work was rewarded when Candi Borobudur was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The Borobudur temple has survived a volcanic eruption in the 9th century, terrorist bombings in 1985, an earthquake that measured 6.2 on the Richter scale in 2006 and hundreds of years of natural erosion and human neglect. Today it still stands high and mighty and is the most popular tourist attraction in Indonesia, visited by around 2.5 million people a year. Today it was my turn.
Like the other Indonesian monuments, there is a two tier pricing system for Indonesian residents and tourists. Entrance into the site for the visiting non-Indonesian public is 110,000 IDR, which buys you the privilege of feasting your eyes on one of the world’s greatest man made monuments. My driver declined my offer to pay for his entry and decided to wait for me outside instead. I told him it would be likely that I would be a couple of hours, but he simply smiled and nodded and told me where he would be parked when I came out. There was little shelter from the sun’s rays in the car park, but he probably knew the other drivers that visited the site every week with tourists so I assumed he would find something to do to fill the time, even if it was just to take a nap.
Like Prambanan, visitors entering the Borobudur temple are instructed to wrap a sarong around their waists as a sign of respect for the religious significance of the site. Visitors are offered a complimentary beverage before entering the grounds, so I asked for a coffee and took a seat in a little terrace area before I started what was likely to be a lot of walking. As I sat in the sun I was interrupted by a huge, bright-green grasshopper that came from nowhere and made a heavy landing on the floor in front of me. Four-inch long grasshoppers may be the norm in Asia, but for a western city boy this was like an added tour feature. I played with it for a few minutes, trying to get an action shot of the giant bug in full jump mode, but the critter was just too damn quick for my me and my little digital camera. So I left it alone, finished my coffee and made my into the site.
The gardens that surround the main temple are well maintained. Large stretches of grass, bleached blonde by the relentless year round sun, reach out toward the jungle at the edges of the site. An irregular scatter of large palms and other tropical trees grow from the lawn like organic parasols, offering the option of shelter every thirty or forty yards. You walk along the wide, flat-stoned, granite pathway upon entering, passing small pagodas and vendors offering elephant taxi tours of the grounds. It isn’t long before you see Candi Borobudur through the treeline. The path leading directly down the centre of this treeline to the east entrance of the temple is about a hundred metres long, splitting into two like an elongated running track. A long two-tier section of landscaped garden fills the centre. Miniature trees line the lower tier whilst a bed of colourful little flowers on long stalks crown the top tier, large black butterflies flitting amongst their mini blooms. Looking down this line of colour your eyeline takes you up the steps of the huge black monument and there you see the peak of the Borobudur temple rising imperiously into the blue sky.
The design of Borobudur is based on the mandala, a Buddhist diagram representing the universe as depicted in Buddhist teachings. Outside there is a marble plaque with a diagram of the temple giving instruction to visitors on how to correctly walk up an around the temple, a practice known as pradakshina. This ritual involves pilgrims walking around the temple clockwise from the base of the monument at the east and walking around each of the terraces three times up to the main stupa that rises 115 feet at its peak. The story of the Buddhist universe is depicted in over 2500 bas-reliefs carved into the walls. There are nine platforms decorated with 504 Buddha statues, many of which have been vandalised and had their heads stolen (one of these Buddha heads sits on display in the British museum). These have been built on a 118 metre base and comprise of six square terraces with three circular platforms at the top. The top three platforms have 72 small stupas surrounding one large central stupa in the centre, each housing a statue of Buddha.
All in all, the complete pradakshina walk, which circumambulates the monument and includes gated stairways to each level watched over by 32 lion statues, is almost five kilometres long. Quite a mission in the searing Javanese heat, but if you are going to take a look at the monument you may as well take the prescribed route to do it. That being said, unless you are a Buddhist, walking around each terrace three times isn’t really necessary. The engravings and the views are impressive enough on the first viewing.
Without research, religious devotion or the informative narrative of a guide, an unenlightened tourist such as myself can only assume that the Javanese islanders lived in happy times. Topless maidens, lords in procession on elephants and people in various contortions of Buddhist repose adorn panel after panel as you make your way to the top. It is like a stone-carved recording of a massive island party that makes you wish for a world of peaceful Buddhist indulgence and spiritual contemplation.
Like the other tourists visiting the site, I didn’t stay completely true to pradakshina. Nonetheless, I took my time and I enjoyed my walk up to the top of the monument and its crown of bell shaped stupas with their resting buddahs enclosed. The spectacular views of surrounding jungle, blue sky, soft clouds and distant mountains immersing into a vista of greeny blue hues are wonderful. Each platform is designed to represent one stage of enlightenment and the three levels of Buddhist cosmology: Kamadhatu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of formless). I like to think that, whichever way you make your way to the top or whatever your beliefs, with its beautiful natural views and the manmade craftsmanship that adorns the structure, you are imbued with a feeling of some kind of Buddhist contemplative calm.