Tales From The Borobudur Temple


The Borobudur Temple

The Borobudur Temple from its West Entrance

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 ūüėÄ


What's with the Sarungs??

What’s with the Sarungs??

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.

One of the 72 stupas at the top of the temple

One of the 72 stupas at the top of the temple

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.


Still with the Sarung??

Still with the Sarung??







Before Borobudur: The purifying Candi Mendut

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.

Candi Mendut from just outside its gates

Candi Mendut from just outside its gates

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.

Tales of the Turtle and The Birds

Tale of the Turtle and The Birds

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.


Jogjakarta: Kraton Ratu Boko

If I were to summarize into one word my four-day trip to Jogjakarta and Solo, it would be this: enlightening.

I will tell you a secret: I nurse the not-so-secret, frustrated ambition to be a historian/archaeologist. My mother even joked once that if something is not at least three hundred years old, then it’s not worth my attention. Being in Jogjakarta for four days, everything got my attention. Simply because almost everywhere we visited was definitely not from this¬†millennium.

Kraton Ratu Boko was our first stop in this trip, a little over an hour after we touched down in the province’s small

The front gates of Kraton Ratu Boko

The front gates of Kraton Ratu Boko

airport. The name Kraton actually means palace in Javanese, while Ratu is the honorary name given to the ruler, male or female. Boko is the name of the ancient ruler said to have built the palace complex located high up on a plateau , which have now turned into an actual archaeological site. It was my first visit to an actual archaeological site, so you can just imagine my excitement. We were very blessed to be accompanied by a tour guide, Ibu Lingga, who used to be an archaeology student, so she gave me a great input on what an archaeologist does on-site.

Ibu Lingga also pointed out the functions of each building constructed in the site- the tall walls and deep terrace made for protection for the King and his subjects, the audience hall (called Pendopo) and the entertainment chamber. She showed me that the stones which made the buildings were cut in shapes to fit each other. One of the archaeologist’s duty is to figure out which stone in the ruins fit what and for what¬†function. Kind of like a jigsaw puzzle or tetris on a massive scale.

We had an early dinner at the guest center within the archaeological park, and from the plateau, we could see the towers

Stone depiction of Kala, the personification of Time

Stone depiction of Kala, the personification of Time

of Candi Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex built in the 9th century by kings from the Mataram dynasty. During the days of Ratu Boko and his descendants, it was common for the royal family to perform spiritual ceremonies at the Prambanan. It existed almost side by side with the more modern mosques scattered all over the land, with the imposing figure of the Merapi volcano (a symbol of the Javanese principles of nature) looming in the background.

It is a striking view, and at the same time represents what I was told- that in Jogjakarta, religion, history and principles go hand in hand depending on an individual’s interpretation.