I loved History when I was in school. That probably was my easiest subject after Math and English (hated Chemistry though. Couldn’t get a grip on CO2, E=MC2. Whatt??).
In fourth year we learned world history, one of them being some of the oldest temples in the world. I still remember my history teacher emphasizing on that chapter because she was oh-so-confident it will come out for our national examinations the next year (turns out, every history teacher in the country anticipated the same thing, so the Ministry of Education decided to grill us on another chapter. Gakk!!)
The two temples that was stamped into my then-young mind was the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia and the Borobudur in central Java. I can’t exactly remember what my history teacher used to teach me (I sort of emptied my mind once the exams were over) but I walked through my life afterwards knowing that these are the two ASEAN temples that I need to see in my lifetime. Nine years after leaving school, I finally managed to visit one of them, and it was like my fourth year history class just came to life.
Before we head for the actual Borobudur, my family and me took a short trip to Candi Mendut, a smaller temple three kilometres ahead of the Borobudur complex. According to my tour guide, Buddhist pilgrims would visit this temple first before continuing their way to Borobudur. The reason of this being that Candi Mendut serves as a ‘purification’ site where pilgrims would leave behind their worldly beings and focus entirely on their mind and soul.
Although it was also built in the ninth century, surprisingly I found out that Mendut was relatively older than Borobudur. However, the style of the two temples are very much similar, if only Mendut was at a smaller scale. Word has it that Mendut, Borobudur and another Buddhist temple, Pawon, were positioned in a straight line geographically. Mendut was discovered in ruins back in 1836 and restorations were completed in 1925.
The temple itself was square with bas-reliefs depicting tales from Buddhist teachings carved on the outer walls of the temple. Upon arrival at the temple and before they are able to enter the inner chambers, pilgrims would walk clockwise around the outer wall and bask themselves in the stories surrounding the temple walls. Some of the stories sounded familiar from my childhood, like the tale of the turtle who asked a pair of birds to take him flying. The birds rejected the idea, telling the turtle that he cannot hold on. The turtle said that he will hang with bite on to a stick held between the two birds, and after much coaxing the birds agreed, but warned the turtles not to open his mouth while they were in the sky. Because of the turtle’s own bigotry, he forgot the birds’ advice, and eventually plunged to his death.
There were also carvings of Apsara, spirits of the clouds and waters, which were not directly related to any of the stories on the walls.
The stairs leading up to the inner chamber of Mendut faces the northeast side of the temple. It was not very high, but the steepness still took the breath out of my poor Mum. Inside the chambers were three golden statues of Buddhist divinities- the Vairocana, Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani. Each of the statues were making different gestures depicting different teachings of Buddhism. The ceiling of the temple reminded me of pictures of the pyramids in Egypt, although the textures of the stone were very much different.
Our next destination would be one of the oldest and (some would say) greatest Buddhist temple in the region, and, according to Guinness, the largest Buddhist archaeological site: The Borobudur Temple.