Borobudur: The Hidden Treasure of Java

“If you try to look up Borobudur in the map, you may not be able to find it easily. You will find Bali, you will find Ubud, you will find Surabaya, but Borobudur is not something many people know about.” My driver tells me as he drives the coach in pitch darkness. It is barely 4:00 AM and I am in the heart of Indonesia to realize my long-standing dream: to witness the grandeur of the pagodas of Borobudur. Along me are a few more people, twelve to be precise, who seem to have the same intent this morning.

Nobody knows who built the stupas of Borobudur or why. Studies show they were built around the 9th century and may have taken up to 75 years to be constructed. Indonesia at the time was an interesting confluence of Buddhism and Hinduism, and it is thought that this may have had something to do with the construction. The complex however was abandoned and hidden away in thick jungles and volcanic ashes for centuries. The reason for the abandonment could either be a large volcanic eruption that forced the people of the region to move away, or the Islamic influence on the country in the medieval times.

When it was re-discovered by a British surveyor, Sir Stamford Raffles in 1814, Borobudur wasn’t in the best shape; although the authorities had cleaned up place and made it functional, it was not until the 1960s that the monument was fully restored with the help of UNESCO and specialists from around the world. Today, almost 200 years after its discovery, Borobudur occupies a place of pride in the in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. But even today, it is a place only few know about.

It is still dark when we arrive at the Manohara Centre for Research in Borobudur. The centre that was build for conducting research and study about the site has now been converted into a small resort, a part of which is also used as a waiting lounge for tourists. Bright and awake, the centre looks like an oasis in the midst of a dark desert. The bus is soon parked in a well kept parking area and we are led to a brightly lit lobby. There are other buses too, and many more tourists. All of us are handed over a torch and a sticker. Soon our guides arrive and we, like school kids, are led out of the centre in a queue.

There is good reason to follow the queue: it is so dark outside that one could easily get lost. We walk in a file for almost 500 meters on a smooth paved surface before arriving at a flight of steep stairs.

The Borobudur temple is a nine story high complex. Of the nine stories, the top storey, embellished with more than seventy-three pagodas, encasing idols of Buddha inside them, remains most popular. The walls around the other levels meanwhile are carved with rich murals – some influenced by Indian version of the Buddha’s story, some uniquely Indonesian – and more idols of the Buddha in various poses. The mural count around these levels stands at a massive 2,652 and the total number of Buddhas goes up to 505. But of course I do not remember any of this when I am climbing the stairs in the wet and cold darkness of the morning. All I can think of is how steep is the climb and when will it get over.

I am still contemplating my choices in life when the climb stops as abruptly as it had begun.

Over a hundred people already present at the top – some with their DSLRs perched on tripods, some armed with selfie sticks, and some with their humble phone cameras. Their screens gleam like fireflies in the dark, and their hushed tones create a soothing buzz. I feel better about not being here alone.

The stupas along this platform – there are over seventy-three of them – look more like large inverted bells. Almost twice as high as an average human, they are rough to touch and are neither embellished, nor engraved; all they have in the name of decoration are rhombus or square shaped holes through which you can peep in to see the Buddha.

The sudden rise in the level of activity around the place indicates that it is time for sunrise. The anticipation on people’s face is evident as they scurry around to grab the best spot. I get ready with my camera too: after all it is not everyday that you get to see the sun come out from between two volcanoes. But there is a little problem – just when the horizon starts to get brighter, a dense layer of clouds floats in front of it. In a matter of minutes, the anticipation in the air is replaced by disappointment.

The clouds however have lent a mystical hue to the horizon. On the far end, peeping from above the clouds, are blurred peaks of the volcanic mountains; closer to us are layers of thick tropical forests displaying shades of green I did not know existed, the silver mist that rises from the wet earth contrasts strikingly with the exquisite gold of the sun’s rays that pierce through the cloud curtain, and the sky above has turned into a bright blue canvas with wispy white strokes of clouds. My disappointment of not being able to witness the sun rise from between Mt. Merapi & Mt. Merbau vanishes.

After having spent a long peaceful morning in Borobudur and coming face to face with the hallmark of Buddhist history in central Java, I am now at the second most important place in the island – the Prambanan temple. Interestingly, this temple complex was also lost in wilderness and covered in volcanic dust for centuries much like its counterpart Borobudur, and took decades to restore. And just like Borobudur, it is also a World Heritage Site not many know about.

The first thing I notice about the complex is its vastness. The temples spires that rise like mountain peaks from bright green earth below are strikingly similar to other Hindu temples I have seen, especially the other World Heritage sites back home. One difference, however is that they are carved out of black volcanic rocks and have much sharper spires and much more intricate exteriors than their Indian counterparts. Even though most temples’ deities are still intact, barring a little damage here and there, the temples have no priests or scope of worship.

Three temples occupy the central position in the complex. The middle one belongs to Shiva and is 43 meter high, the two others on the side, belong to Vishnu and Brahma and rise up to 33 meters each. Shiva’s temple is not only central and tallest, but also the largest with additional chambers for Durga, Ganesha, and Agastya. Shiva, it seems, was the presiding deity of the Sanjaya dynasty. I wonder if the dynasty had any alliance with the Indian subcontinent.

What stands out in the complex, apart from the exquisite architecture and craftsmanship however, is the rubble of those, which are no longer standing. Hundreds of smaller temples seem to have crumbled and fallen precisely inside their own boundary walls.

“The volcanic activity in the region had damaged the entire complex and nothing but a few structures remained. And then, soon after a British Surveyor discovered the temples in the 19th century, the locals started taking the rocks away to build their own homes. It took years for the authorities to protect the monument and start restoration; by then a lot of the original rocks were already taken away. Since the UNESCO guidelines say that not more than 70% of new material can be used to restore the monuments, all they could do was to collect the rocks and put it in their places. It is in fact a miracle that these few temples are still standing.” My guide tells me as we walk around the sprawling complex.

Looking at the imposing towers of the surviving temples standing tall and strong, it indeed looks like a miracle. But then, isn’t history often full of miracles?

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