Built in the 9th century during the height of the Sailendran Dynasty, today the Borobudur temple is once again used as a place of worship for devout Buddhist. It is also one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites and the most visited tourist attractions in Indonesia.
For me, personally, I was sixteen again and has my History teacher’s voice in my ear 😀
As the temple is still considered a place of worship, it is vital for all visitors to cover up during their time there. Authorities provided us with sarungs, which they wrap around our waist (despite us being all covered up beforehand anyway).
The road to the Candi itself is not easy. After getting off our coach, we have to fight our way through an army of peddlers who kept shoving their merchandises into our faces (the same is to be said on our way back).
We were mercilessly spared the moment we entered a small building attached to the vast iron-metal gates. Dubbed ‘Tourist Center’, the building was set exclusively for-you guessed it- tourists and visitors to the site, meaning peddlers are not allowed access. It was a good initiative to the institution overseeing the archaeological park as it allows visitors to get their wits together after having to flee from the persistent mob outside. There were counters to purchase tickets and they provided us with free beverages (mineral water, tea or coffee). There is also a security gate very much like those in the airports for guards to check any incoming visitors (and provide everyone with the sarungs).
After all is cleared at the Tourist Center, it is now time to walk a good 1.5 km towards the actual monument. But that wasn’t even the hard part. In the inner gates we were greeted by a flight of steep stairs (not my Mum’s favourite thing in the world) but I can already see the peak of the temple. At the top of the stairs, I saw it. I saw it all, and just like Stonehenge and the Forbidden City of China, I was awestruck by the fact that I am actually there.
Candi Borobudur is built with six square platforms as its foundation, and three circular ones on the top side. Like Candi Mendut in the previous post, the square platforms has bas-relief engraved all over the walls of the six square platforms. Buddhist pilgrims would begin their journey of worship in Borobudur at the east gate, and would read the relics carved on the wall and absorb themselves in the stories presented to them through those relics. The only difference is that for Borobudur, the engravings were on both sides of the wall, which means as you walk through a passage within the square areas of the temple, you will have tales of Buddhist teachings on your left and your right. This is with the exception of the first platform, where only selected walls still have the bas-reliefs on them. The tropical weather and threats from the nearby Merapi volcano prompted the Indonesian authorities to preserved the reliefs from the outer walls in a museum.
I was unable to read all the engravings on the walls. According to our tour guide, who used to be an archaeologist herself, an approximate time for a person to truly be absorbed in all the Borobudur could offer can go up to three years (!). But I was fortunate to learn at least one of them. Narrated by our tour guide, we listened to the tales of the origins of Prince Siddhartha and the birth of Buddha, which was carved on the walls of the second platform.
Forget what I said about the steep stairs previously. Climbing the actual temple itself was even harder, and it did not help that there were too many people going up and down the limited space of the stairs. Thankfully we developed a system which we climbed each one of the platforms and worked our way to another wing while perusing the panels of engravings on the walls.
Finally, we arrived at the seventh platform- where the heat was not as brutal but the crowd was worse. It was the beginning of the circular platforms and housed a total of 72 small stupas shaped like small bells, which also surrounded a 73rd, larger stupa. Inside the smaller stupas were statues of Buddha, although the bigger one was said to be empty.
The most unique thing I have learned about Borobudur, aside from the very interesting relics, was that every piece of stone has its own significance. All the Buddha statues around Borobudur, while appearing identical, hold different gestures which represent the five cardinal compass points according to Mahayana. The fact that the temple itself has nine levels contributed to the fact of the number 9 is a divine number in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The 72 stupas surrounding the upper levels of the temple also represents this fact (7+2=9). The bigger stupa, the 73rd one, symbolizes the surpassing of all nine levels and reaching Nirvana.
It was odd, to stand up there at the top of the temple. To stand among the reconstruction of something who stood such test of time, I could not help but be in awe. It doesn’t matter what religious shrine it is for, to me these stones speaks of defiance and relentlessness and perseverance. In a world where natural disasters are frequent, sometimes coupled with human’s own stupidity (In the 1980s, Borobudur was the target of a series of bombings, today many tourist would still toss their litters all around the temples and platforms. As if they could not see the many garbage bins around the place!), the Borobudur still stood tall against all odds. In 2006, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake badly damaged the Javanese Island, while in 2010 the Merapi volcano erupted, covering the temple with thick layers of volcanic ash. And still, the temple held on, sometimes perhaps badly tattered, but it is still there.
At one corner of the circular platforms, standing among the stupas, I could see the menacing Merapi, and yet the Buddha statues continued to look serene, unfazed by the constant danger. Perhaps there are more lessons to be learned from the Borobudur indeed.