Monday, June 12, 2006

Visions of Borobudur

Caught between sleep and wakefulness about 3000 meters in the air over Central Java, I had a vision: the landscape of heaven. Pearlescent clouds formed like rocks interlocked in an endless and even stretch. Jutting out of the expanse were dark, majestic mountains standing in a neat row like imposing sentinels tasseled with smoke. One mountain, large and proud, stood out of line: Mount Merapi, a disruptive and beautiful figure looming over the province of Jogjakarta, puffing thick smoke and waiting to let out a show of anger. Here, the sky was a blue belt streaked with tangerine ribbons of clouds holding this ethereal plane in place. Somewhere beneath, the sun was starting its slow climb, its rays probing through the clouds and could be seen as little bursts of golden light in this luminous sea.

Flying on Garuda Indonesia from Jakarta, I was beginning to think I was really on the wings of the great bird of Hindu mythology. As if it had seen an escape hole, the plane suddenly dove, piercing through thin membranes of clouds. Jogjakarta was revealed, a city punctuated by green fields and hills and russet terracotta-tile roofs, an architectural legacy of the Dutch who ruled the islands from the 16th to the early 20th century.
At the Adisucipto airport, the sunshine was lemon yellow, and the sticky sweet scent of Gudung Garam, the Indonesian cigarette made of cloves, clung to the air like wild orchids perfuming the morning. Not a morning person and still giddy from lack of sleep, I was easily disconcerted with the crowd, and an initial feeling of uncertainty and apprehension crept up. It was my first time in Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago and also the world’s largest Muslim nation. The last time I was in a predominantly Muslim place was in Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur in the southern island of Mindanao and the only Muslim city in the Philippines. We had sizeable police escort. Were those hints of antagonism and suspicion in the eyes of many people that we passed by? We didn’t know. News of extremist hostilities around the world just served as crude confirmation.
The dearth of knowledge made me unsure of myself. I might do something in a wrong way and I might offend. Are they very sensitive and unforgiving about it? Some form of assurance was sought from the striking physical similarities between Filipinos and Indonesians and a shared racial origin.

There to welcome us at the airport was our tall and hefty guide, A-wan, sporting a long hair gathered in a ponytail and wearing batik shirt and fisherman’s cap. His quick and easy manner could dispel any feelings of uneasiness. Stepping into the sunlight, the enthusiasm for exploration and more knowledge took over. There was no other place more apt to start than in Jogjakarta, the educational and cultural center of Indonesia. Along the way, A-wan pointed out the many universities and educational institutions that were virtually in every block of the city. People from all over the country come to Jogja, as they fondly call the place, to study. Not only that but people come to Jogja to marvel at its ancient temples, particularly the Hindu temple of Prambanan and the famous Buddhist temple of Borobudur. “We’ll go to Borobudur tomorrow,” A-wan said.
My excitement surged up. Since I was a kid I was marveling at pictures of Borobudur in books, especially the ones that discussed the “wonders of the world.” The most popular photographic image of the temple shows an open dagob revealing a seated Buddha statue with a backdrop of many more dagobs and basking in the copper glow of the sunset. The image burned in my mind.

This 9th century temple is the biggest Buddhist monument in the world. Standing on a hill, Borobudur was built like a stepped pyramid with six concentric quadrangular levels, which diminish in size as one goes up. The top tiers consist of three circular platforms, where there are 72 stone dagobs (latticed stupas in the shape of hand bells), each housing a seated Buddha statue, arranged around a monumental stupa.
Rising 95 feet from the ground, the temple was constructed mostly using andesite, a dark bluish-gray volcanic stone, mined in the site and in the surrounding areas. It was estimated that nearly two million blocks were used. With the pyramidal base measuring 402 feet long, from north to south, and 383 feet long, from east to west, it covers about 2,500 square meters.
It is not only the massive size that astonishes one, but also the craftsmanship and the labor that went with the building of Borobudur. The temple is full of statues, bas-relief and hand carvings it is said that the relief panels alone would stretch for three kilometers if laid end to end. On the terraces are galleries, open corridors with balustrades carved with 1460 relief panels depicting Buddhist tales and the life of Buddha. There are a total of 432 statues of Buddha punctuating the terraces.
Now, I was several kilometers and a day away from it. Going around Jogjakarta, I was regularly reminded. Many restaurants, shops and hotels incorporate the images and symbols of Borobudur, being one of the most important Indonesian attractions. But none had done it with such elegance and grandeur as the Hyatt Regency Yogyakarta, where we stayed.
Only 15 minutes from the airport, the hotel was hardly noticeable. The environs around Palagan Tentara Pelajar Street looked like the countryside, thick with trees and plants. As the bus lurched into a driveway, the leafy branches gave way to a view of the posh hotel. Visitors were greeted at the Paseban Lobby Court, where there was a lounge and café surrounded by pools. Golden and mottled carps swam around the decorations of water lilies and miniature dagobs serving as lamps. The open café had plush wicker chairs, where one could sip tea soothed by the gurgling sound of the pools and a gorgeous view of the multi-level swimming pools and nine-hole golf course converging into a canvas of sloping landscape of blue and green layers laced with mist. Nestled in a 24-hectare tract and ensconced in lush growth of trees, the Hyatt affected an appearance of an ancient lost temple in the jungle and its terraced look itself is a tribute to Borobudur. Scattered around its network of swimming pools were replicas of ruins around Central Java.
Around Jogjakarta, the indefatigable A-wan led us and talked all throughout the day with a penchant for efficiency of a drill sergeant. Before depositing us to our hotel, he reminded: “Breakfast at 6:30. We’ll leave your hotel at seven. We will be at Borobudur before nine.”
There was a collective groan.
“Okay, breakfast at 6:45,” he said, and there was no respond.
He repeated what he said earlier in the day: “Don’t sleep. You don’t come all the way here just to sleep.”
Indeed. I was not sure if my excitement over Borobudur would let me sleep. But as the Bible said, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

The next day, I woke up with the faint light of dawn dancing on the shiny canopy of palms. A charming letter was slipped under the door. It read: “Upon arrival at the hotel, you will notice the unusual and stunning architecture of the building, which takes its inspiration from the famous Borobudur temple. Observe the many Javanese touches that were used to give this building its unique look.
“Then, be inspired this morning by a bit of sightseeing around the hotel. Witness the various plants and trees that are depicted on the panels of the famous Borobudur temple twelve centuries ago and still exist in java such as pinang jambe (betel nut palm), lontar (palmyra), kecubung (Thorns of plenty) and many more…Have a wonderful memory on this beautiful day.”
The letter recommended Pepes ayam parahyangan (herbed chicken steamed in banana leaves) and Sate lontong ayam (chicken in skewers with rice and peanut sauce) from their bistro. It informed me of an art and culture activity in town: “Wolak waliking Zaman,” painting exhibit by 21 artists in Bantul. It also announced the day’s weather: scattered thunderstorms with temperature high of 36 C and a low of 22 C.
The exhibit sounded interesting, but Borobudur beckoned. Despite the weather prediction, the morning broke clear and sunny. It was already pass nine when our bus sped out of Jogja. Heading northwest, we passed the towns of Tempel and Muntilan. Cropping up at the roadsides were numerous stores selling stone crafts from mortars and pestles to life-size statues of Buddha.
Along the way, A-wan was continuously feeding us information on Borobudur.

“Do you know that the number nine is a mystical number for the Buddhist?” he said. “Look, there are 504 Buddha statues. If you add five, zero and four, you come up with nine. There 171 steps in the stairway to the top. Add one, seven and one, you get nine. There are 72 stupas. Again, seven and two makes nine.”
Before the scenery became mundane, the Buddhist temple of Mendut suddenly came into view by the roadside. Relatively smaller, Mendut is said to be older than Borobudur, built in 824 A.D. by the Sailendra king Indra and contains three big statues. The carvings on its walls depicted stories meant for children.
To my dismay, we did not stopped to take a closer look at Mendut. The temple seemed to serve as a preview of what was to come, further drumming up excitement.
We had entered Magelang, the town where Borobudur was. We had traveled 42 kilometers from Jogjakarta into the geographical heart of Java. A-wan said Borobudur sat inside a 75-hectare park. We would take the second VIP entrance. There were three entrances: the common entrance, from which you would walk about 500 meters to the temple; the second VIP entrance, which entailed a shorter walk; and the VIP entrance, the nearest to the temple.
Even when the bus was going through the road that encircled the park, we did not readily catch sight of Borobudur. Trees grew tall around the area. At the Manohara Hotel and Restaurant located at the foot of the hill inside the park, we saw the dark ashen, spiky figure of the temple at the top. Passing through a low iron gate and climbing up a flight of stairs, I finally came face to face with Borobudur, a massive monument sitting on a brown patch of earth, imagining the time it was built.
A legend tells that the divine architect of Borobudur is Gunadharma, whose profile is said to be discernible in a mountain south of the temple, keeping watch over his creation. Gunadharma built the temple in a single day, after which he laid a curse on anyone who dared to climb it.
Archeologists and historians concur, basing on inscriptions on the stones, that the construction of Borobudur began around 760 AD and was completed around 830 under the reign of King Samaratunga of the Sailendra dynasty, which ruled Sumatra and Java from the 8th through the 13th centuries.
In the early centuries, Indian traders had been traveling to Southeast Asia. Bringing with them the written language Sanskrit and Buddhism and Hinduism, they first went to Funan and then to Sumatra and Java, which were then part of the empire of Srivijaya.
The origin of the Sailendras can be traced to the monument-building Chandella dynasty, which ruled India between the 7th and 8th centuries. It is said that a schism within the family occurred when some members converted to Buddhism. The Sailendras, the Buddhist converts, set off for Sumatra and Java.
To incur divine merits as well as to enhance their stature in the eyes of their subjects, rulers sponsored religious activities such as the building of temples. King Samaratunga built Borobudur and handed it over to the monks, who enjoyed royal sponsorship. The temple became a center of pilgrimage and learning for about 150 years, a short but intense period of Buddhism in the island.
Although the events leading to the abandonment of Borobudur are still nebulous, it is said that the shift of power and population to East Java and the waning of Buddhism might have caused the neglect of the temple. In the13th and 14th centuries, Islam, brought by Arab traders, had largely permeated the island, and Borobudur was fast forgotten until it was engulfed by volcanic ash and thick growths of vegetation.
Now as a tourist attraction, many people come to Borobudur. Someone said that the experience of the monument is much heightened if you are a Buddhist. Since I did not adhere to Buddhism but simply admired some precepts, my experience remained largely cultural rather then religious, but all the same it is spiritual.
I had promised to relish each step and viewing upon arrival, but the giddiness of excitement had me running about, unable to contain the fact that I was indeed in Borobudur. Walking up the stairs, which had plastic mats at each landing, I wondered at the philosophy that went into the designing of the temple. The full details I learned after the trip.
Borobudur’s architecture is a representation of the universe according to Buddhist cosmology. This universe is divided into three spheres called Kamadhatu (the Sphere of Desire), Rupadhatu (the Sphere of Form) and Arupadhatu (the Sphere of Formlessness). The hidden base represents Kamadhatu, the world of the common people characterized by mundane desires and pleasures. The next five levels represent Rupadhatu, which is a transitional phase where man is released from worldly matters but is still bound by the illusion of form. The top three circular platforms represent Arupadhatu, symbolizing liberation from the phenomenal world. Also referred to as Nirvana, the Christian equivalent of Arupadhatu would be heaven or paradise.
Making the whole structure stunning is the huge amount of stone carvings. The base of the temple has 160 panels depicting the doctrine of karma, the cosmic law of cause and effect. A person saying ugly things about another is shown here to be an ugly person in rebirth. Mistreatment of animals will result into being trampled upon by elephants.
The 740 panels of the first terrace narrate the traditional story of Buddha from being born Prince Siddhartha, then seeing misery in the world to seeking and attaining enlightenment. The panels also illustrate the Jataka stories telling the animal reincarnations of Buddha. A notable thing about the Borobudur narrative is the inclusion of the episode in Buddha’s life of not entering Nirvana when he had attained enlightenment and instead choosing to share his insights and preach, here depicted by his sermon in Deer Park in present-day Benares.
What he preached is depicted in the next three galleries: the story of a young disciple named Sudhana in his quest for enlightenment. The four galleries are embellished with Dhyani Buddha statues in their niches, sitting in lotus position and displaying different hand gestures.
A contrast to the other terraces, the remaining upper tiers are devoid of carvings and embellishments. It is but appropriate for a place representing the Sphere of Formlessness. It is here where one can find the life-size Buddha statues in dagobs encircling a large stupa (which usually serves as reliquary and monument).
The Borobudur is actually a three-dimensional study text and guidebook for devotees. The temple was not really a place of worship but a place of learning and pilgrimage. As the pilgrim ascends the monument, he goes through the throng of images, showing the cycle of rebirths. He absorbs wisdom from the stories of Buddha and Sudhana. Having passed through these, he reaches the topmost where he can contemplate with an unobstructed view of the land and sky.
Surrounded by these remarkable panels, I imagined the reaction of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles when he first laid his eyes on it.
During the short British occupation of Indonesia in 1814, Raffles, the Lieutenant Governor of Java who nurtured a keen interest in the local culture, heard of rumors about an ancient monument and instructed his Dutch engineer officer H.C. Cornelius to search for the monument.
Cornelius gathered 200 men. They slashed and burned through the thick vegetation of the mist-laden plains of Kedu and dug up tons of volcanic ash. Multitudinous, strange stone figures began showing up until Borobudur was finally revealed. Coming to inspect the progress of his expedition, Raffles speculated on the past and purpose of the magnificent monument. News of the discovery quickly spread through Asia.
Further recovery projects had been amounted after that. In 1885, Dutch architect and chairman of the Archeological Society in Jogjakarta, J.W. Ijzerman accidentally discovered the hidden base and more relief panels.
Walking through a gallery, I suddenly found myself alone. The sunlight bounced among the canopy of trees. I espied a couple of elephants lumbering past the shrubbery led by two men. The park offers elephant rides. On the horizon, a sheet of gunmetal gray cloud moved southward. I was startled by two maintenance men perched among the statues, wetting the niches with a water hose and scrubbing them clean.
Ironically, the discovery of Borobudur proved to be a threat to its existence. Cleared of vegetation that had served as protection, the temple was exposed to the harshness of tropical weather. Moisture could corrode the relief. Temperature changes caused the rocks to crack. The heavy rains, the worst climatic threat, have an eroding effect. Additionally, the villagers, who were no longer superstitious about the place, saw the monument as a source of building materials. Many statues were taken or decapitated to sell as artifacts.
In the early years of its discovery, Borobudur threatened to collapse in its own weigh. The terrace walls were already sagging and the corridors askew.
The first major restoration was done from 1907 to 1911 by Theodor van Erp, a Dutch army engineer officer. He and his team dismantled the top terraces and the stupas and put them back together again. The sculptures were cleared of moss. However, much work was needed as the galleries were still sagging, and signs of cracks and deterioration kept appearing.
Then in 1968, the newly formed government of Indonesia took in the restoration of the Borobudur as a priority project and launched a campaign to save the monument. Indonesia asked United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) fro help and advice. They drew up a bold plan: to dismantle and rebuild a large part of Borobudur. In 1975, actual restoration work began. The project was a remarkable show of international cooperation. Funding, resources and experts from 27 countries poured in. Supervised by Professor Soekmono, the team included engineers, chemists, biologists, archeologists and other experts in different fields. The monument were taken apart stone by stone. Each stone is cleaned, catalogued and treated for preservation. Then, from huge piles of stone, Borobudur was put together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.
During the course, new preservation techniques were formulated and there was sharing of ideas and learning among those involved. Prof. Soekmono said, “Borobudur has resumed its old historical role as a place of learning, dedication and training. We might even conclude that the builders of the monument hoped and planned for such continuity. An excellent training program, either for the pilgrim-devotee or for the field technician, is always based on a wish, a fervent wish, that the trainee will achieve what is projected. For the ardent Buddhist it is the Highest Wisdom that leads to the Ultimate Salvation, and for the technician the highest degree of expertise that leads to the appropriate fulfillment of his duty. In both cases, Candi Borobudur is the embodiment of such a deeply felt wish. It is a prayer in stone.”
On February 23, 1983, the restoration project was completed and Borobudur was inaugurated. The cost of the project was estimated at 25 million dollars. After being closed to the public for 10 years, the beauty of the temple could be now enjoyed.
I felt lucky that I was able to enjoy Borobudur. It is fortunate that the temple was not destroyed despite the changes of ideas and beliefs. The Javanese people’s tolerance and acceptance played a role in its preservation. Perhaps it is inherent. Perhaps the rich cross-cultural experiences of Java fostered an attitude of tolerance and recognition of diversity.
Reaching the topmost tier, I wound my way through the beautiful dagobs and was surrounded by young visitors. Here, there were no souvenir vendors to besiege you, but students eager for learning.
I was stalled by a group of giggly girls, students from nearby Muntilan, in their white uniforms with traditional Muslim veils also in white. They tried to converse in the little English that they know and asked me about the Philippines. I wrote some Filipino sentences in their notebooks and was asked to draw a map. Each of them was eager to have their notebooks scribbled on. We exchanged knowledge and took photographs. It was noon and time to go, thus ending the pleasant encounter. I wrote down my address on every notebook and said goodbye.
The girls joined other groups of students and trooped down the stairs, their bobbing heads in white veil began to look like gathering balls of clouds. Among the throng, the dagobs jutted out like dark mountains. Standing near the main stupa, I had a sweeping view of the plain, a green patchwork of fields and forests punctuated by villages. The intense heat was not able to dissipate the mist that lay at the edges, gossamer trimmings to the hills of Menoreh. To the northwest stood the mountains of Sumbing and Sindoro, and to the northeast, the volcanoes Merbabu and Merapi.
Indeed, Borobudur is still a place of gathering, understanding and learning, for the pilgrims and devotees of the ancient times, for the scientists and experts during the restoration, for the students from Muntilan and for me.
Here in the plane representing Nirvana, 256 meters above sea level, with a spectacular view of the plains in the heart of an island of mist, old temples and volcanoes, and amazing galleries of stone carvings beneath, I had a glimpse of heaven.

Published in The Daily Tribune, 18 July 2004

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