Seat of ancient pilgrims

Did you know that before Islam came to the Indonesian archipelago, that Hinduism and later Buddhism were the predominant religions? Yes if one were to follow the historical development of the Thalassocrat empires (remember Venice?) of the region one would realize that trade routes were the main conduit of ideas and religion.

As the centre of a very old kingdom of Mataram, the region around Yogyakarta is considered the capital of classical Javanese fine art and culture. It is also place where some of the best preserved Hindu and Buddhist monuments can be found in Java. Fondly called “Jogja”, it is still the center of a modern day Sultanate, though it is a part of the republic. The Sultan governs as a governor but retains his royal title. It is an interesting arrangement and one of few in the archipelago.

And onto the story.

The influence of Hinduism is said to have already arrived by the 1st century AD via traders (see? we said that), solders and missionaries. The local folks adopted some of these beliefs. And as these influence increased, political patronage led to the building of large monuments such as Prambanan.

Hinduism at its peak

Prambanan73The temple complex was dedicated to the Trimurti, an expression of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the largest in the region. Located about 15km northeast of Yogyakarta, we were there on a fine sunny day close to noon time and it was blazing hot. To enter the complex, we had to don batik sarongs (which strangely the locals do not have to).

The guide told us that frequent earthquakes in the past few years had made it difficult to restore the entire temple complex of near 224 temples. In the last one, we were told entire structures toppled over. We are on Java which sits on the pacific ring of fire, so this is a constant threat. Now the restoration crews have work cut out for them to fit the individual pieces back together like a puzzle. Prambanan14Which has been made harder with damage from the quakes. And as you walk into the temple complex, you will come across working areas in which teams of locals are employed to fit the various stone fragments together. Suan recalled that there were more standing structures in 1990 when she last visited. So apparently the damage from quakes is getting severe.

Prambanan28Of all the structures here, the most significant is the 47 meter high Siva temple.

And as with any Hindu temple, there are reliefs carved onto the walls. They all tell stories from the Hindu religion – fears, pleasures etc. Some reliefs were downright cheeky. Can you tell which one? In the core of one of the Trimurti temples, there was this beautiful sculpture of a cow that is very lifelike. Quite a crowd to get through before we were able to see it.Prambanan49

Like its contemporaries, this complex was abandoned – in this case the 10th century and was lost to most people for nearly 1000 years until Sir Stamford Raffles commissioned an expedition. You see, he had heard stories about a this fantastic site and decided to look for it. Today, quite some parts of the temples remain lost – with many a stone being pilfered for building material or as garden stones by locals and the colonial Dutch. A lot of looting of the monument took place in the 19th century during a period of turmoil, adding to the loss.

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Tip: get to the back of the Trimurti temples, you can pose as if you can reach the tip of the temple with your hands like the tower in Pisa.Prambanan61

So much for funny poses. We happened to be at the complex at the same time as the school children of the region were having an afternoon’s excursion. They were there to learn more about earthquake response. We signed so many autographs and took so many photos with the children, like we were stars! Perhaps the big mysterious sunglasses do help.

Now it’s Buddhism’s turn

A switch in scenery is next when you visit Borobudur.

Borobudur - ground level 12As a Buddhist temple complex, the architecture is quite a bit different. At the time that this complex was built, there was considerable competition between Hinduism and Buddhism, both trying to gain political favor, patronage and hence dominance. Where have we heard this before?

Borobudur - Arupadhatu 15The guide told us that it took nearly 75 years to build the complex, spanning 3 generations of craftsmen and laborers. An interesting thing for us is the similarity of the relief carvings on the walls with that of Angkor Wat. While the reliefs tell about the teachings of the Buddha, the style of carving out the Apsaras seemed very familiar. Could have sworn we saw it before. In any case we ascended the 3 levels of the temple complex – from the level of normal humans to the level signifying the abode of the gods. Now that’s a promotion!Borobudur - Arupadhatu 21

There are 72 Stupa and they are all on the top level of the complex. Each one has a Buddha inside. We have a picture of one where the dome had been removed. If you can reach and touch the Buddha statue from outside the dome, it is said you will be granted any wish. Nope, we did not make it try as we strenuously stretched. Perhaps the arm was not long enough or did the Buddha sculpture move away as we stuck our hand in? Hmmm….

Did you make out one of the photos where the Golden Arches could potentially be advertising? Well, those two arches surely looked like Ronald was there in the old days trying to entice pilgrims to go to his restaurant. Know what we refer to?Borobudur - Rupadhatu 23

After spending quite a bit of time on the top level, it was time for us to descend back to our own realm – all the time enjoying the bas relief work on the walls. We noted that there were workers constantly using high powered spray to wash the walls, to remove algae and acid rain falls. Such is the nature of maintaining a historical site – it takes time, effort and obviously funding. Today, we are told that special works are needed to keep the entire complex from sinking into the ground due to soil erosion and the weight of the stone complex. If one looks it up, it is estimated that two million stones were used to construct this site. Guess that’s pretty heavy huh?

There are still Buddhist rituals being performed at Borobudur because each year during Vesak day, thousands of pilgrims throng the complex, rendering it almost impossible to visit as a tourist. So it is good to know the dates when the complex will be thronged by devotees.

You can visit the complex at the break of dawn or during dusk. We prefer mid morning when there is less crowd. Of course, whether you see the sun rise or set depends if the day’s cloudy or not… Best time to visit when it is the dry season, cause the stones can be really slippery. Plus, you get less of the clouds to ruin your sun set/rise activity.

When we were there the guide told us that the land around the monument were gazette to be sold for development. Sigh. We hope not. Because it would be such a sore eye to have resort buildings surrounding Borobudur.

Do not just shop in the city or go cave tubing when you are in Yogyakarta. And also don’t be sidetracked by all that shopping which you will find in the markets and craft villages. So much history beckons to you just an hour from the city. Spend some time here amidst the monuments from more than 1000 years back and step back from all that material wants for just a little while.

This journey took place in September 2013

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