15 September 2013
The mythical, mystical, magical Borobudur
The first time I heard of Borobudur was on a TV documentary six years ago. I had taken a picture of the TV screen and sent it over to my mother pretending I had flown there overnight, on a whim. I don’t think she really believed me – the picture was completely pixelated anyway – but, hey, that’s the kind of humour I sometimes have (yes, it’s bad, or weird, or both – you’re welcome).
Maybe because of the way the documentary was shot, I had imagined Borobudur to be located in the middle of the jungle, remote from civilisation. So the myth had started to build up in my mind. On my way there, I was getting more excited as the night was receding – yes, yet another 40-kilometre long scooter ride into the night, it seems I love them (see the volcano rides: Bromo and Papandayan).
The site proved to be a massive, more or less well organised touristy-commercial area. Its forced passage through throngs of shops wasn’t without reminding me of the similar obligatory kilometre-long commercial artery leading to the Terracotta army in Xi’an, in China’s Shaanxi province (which is by the way overrated considering one can only see the soldiers in a pit, from a distance, as one walks inside huge metallic halls – I found other landmarks in China more interesting, such as the gigantic Buddha statues of Yungang, near Datong… but that’s for another story, I’m digressing too much here and as always, I should say).
Borobudur had not always been like that, of course. In fact, after the island of Java mostly – but not entirely – converted to Islam in the fifteenth century, the then 600-year old temple of Borobudur gradually became forgotten, remaining a legend in people’s minds: the jungle took over and, just like Machu Picchu, the site was rediscovered centuries later by a Western explorer, with significant restoration work ensuing.
In the dawn hours of the day of my visit, there was luckily barely anyone around – it would be completely different a couple of hours later with hundreds of people swarming through the monument, and of course, dozens of students eager to get their questions answered (just like in Yogyakarta). Borobudur isn’t Indonesia's most visited tourist attraction for nothing.
The magic was still preserved when the sun rose alongside the Merapi volcano. The mist in the nearby forests also made for some great background scenery in my shots. The 504 Buddha statues of Borobudur were themselves enjoying the sunrise, warmed by the sun’s orange and yellow rays, as if those rays were breathing life into them.
Did you notice how some of the bell-shaped stupas have diamond-shaped holes while others are square? Peering into some of the closed stupas would reveal a Buddha statue – there are apparently five different types of cross-legged Buddha statues, but I didn’t pay enough attention and didn’t notice that the position of the hands were sometimes different.
Let’s take a step back – or rather, let’s take a step above: the aerial view of Borobudur on Google Maps clearly shows that its base form is square, each side being a bit more than the length of a soccer field (that would be more than a hundred metres). The square shape is unsurprisingly the form of a mandala, a Buddhist symbol of the universe. The sheer size of the monument probably denotes its mystical importance to pilgrims.
Look closely: there are six square platforms and the three upper ones are circular – there’s undoubtedly no shortage of photographic angles and I couldn’t help but retrace my steps several times to fully embrace the complexity of the monument. In addition, each side of each platform is full of bas-reliefs (about two thousand panels in total) depicting scenes of daily life back then.
Now look more closely at my pictures, one of them in particular: you’ll notice how someone, or rather something, attempts to steal a Buddha statue through the air. But I was there to catch the culprit. Got you!