Borobudur Temple: Marvel in Stone

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Anjaly Thomas

Dragging my feet up the treacherously steep stairs to the ninth level of Borobudur Temple was an effort, but not as ghastly as the futile climb up Mt Merapi a few hours ago, which on hindsight had been a wasted exercise. I hadn’t quite seen what I had been promised — for the frosty little mountain had decided otherwise.

On the suggestion of the know-it-all tea-shop man in Selo, an obscure town that served as the start for the climb, I had hitched a ride on a motorbike to Magelang, before taking a short ride on what could possibly have been a bus to Borobudur, hoping to make up for the disappointment of walking into a fog that hid the glorious spectacle of the sun rising over the volcanic rim of Mt Merapi.

Therefore, Borobudur Temple became, what you might call, the salve for my frayed self-esteem. But as I hauled myself up the last steps before plopping beside something that looked like a randomly shot at bell, a completely irrelevant thought came to mind — that of a cake.

In my haste to get to the top, I sprinted upwards bypassing the decoration adorning the nine levels of the temple complex. Well, I could begin from there, thought I, picking my way through visitors clogging the narrow walking paths circling the bells (stupas). Enthusiastic locals and Japanese tourists stretched their hands through the holes in the stupas trying to reach the little Buddha statues installed inside and failed, severely hampered by the length of their arms. Tradition says whoever reaches the statue inside will have a wish granted. I didn’t try. After seven hours of trudging uphill through dense vegetation on a dark and wet night, my feet had lost their agility and no way I was going to do the same to my arms. I wasn’t sure that having an imaginary wish granted justified strained elbows.

I leaned against the cold bell, trying to steady my breath and rest my feet until a noisy crowd of locals took over the platform posing at every bell for a picture… and there were 72 of them put together on the three circular platforms! Quite a morning’s task they had cut out for themselves. I followed a group of Japanese tourists, pretty in their crisp hats and smart shoes, rapidly turning pages of their guidebooks and breaking into excited chatter without warning. I lost them around a bell that caught their fancy. Personally, all the 72 bells looked like clones of each other and I couldn’t tell them apart if I tried. Had it not been for the view alternating between fields, mountains and occasional clumps of wood, there was no way of telling if I had moved or was staring at the same bell at intervals.

I walked. I studied the carvings. I rested. It felt a lot like reading Agatha Christie — you knew only enough to want to know more. With every step the story of Borobudur unfolded likes chapters and I was hooked to the plot — only I was reading the book backwards. Whichever way I saw it, I suppose in the end, all the pieces would fit together.

The stone panels depict in detail the doctrines of Buddhist teachings and his early life.

I walked around clockwise on the circular platform that formed the base of the large dome on the top. (The top three platforms being circular and the lower platforms square), keeping my right side towards the monument, for I remembered, just in time, the instructions given to me in a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka. The correct way to walk around any Buddhist monument (they advised) was to keep your left side (the unclean side) away from the Holy site.

It is almost impossible to describe the magnificence of Borobudur. This enormous pyramid-like structure built centuries ago is one of the greatest, yet lesser known, Buddhist monuments in Indonesia, Southeast Asia.

I descended, feeling quite like a bee inspecting her hive, to the lower platforms and circled around correctly, looking at the carvings and admiring apsaras (angels) on stone. But then, there is only so much ‘epic tour’ one can take, especially an Indian grown up on Ramayana and Buddhist teachings. But to be fair, the depictions are brilliant and almost self-explanatory and although they didn’t immediately fuel the imagination, they were awe-inspiring in their detail.

But as I reached the end, it was as satisfying as only a good book can satisfy. Then I ran into a board at the entrance of the Temple which boldly read: Dilarang Corat Coret (No scratching). It served as a warning to people beginning their climb upward, but for me it came too late. But that is how I learnt my first and the only sentence in Javanese.

Borobudur definitely commands respect. From below, the temple looked to me like a heavily layered cake and the large dome on top, the topping — that suggestion actually made me hungry. But between the exit gate and me was a stretch of manicured lawn and park with benches just the right size for a mid-morning snooze. It was here that a small Indonesian man with bamboo containers hanging on either end of a long stick, approached me. I smelt the contents before he popped the lid of the bamboo container and smiled. The exhilarating smell of palm pervaded my nostrils and in seconds the fragrance had broken down my resolve of moderation.

The strong and hot son cheerfully danced off the stones, giving no indications that Borobudur Temple was ever abandoned, buried under volcanic ash and jungle growth for years before it was rediscovered in the 18th century by a Dutch engineer. The layers of lava rocks which made up Borobudur, despite looking like a cake, was going strong in the face of the Javanese wind and rain and wasn’t likely to go down in one bite.

The guide book will tell you that Borobudur is built as a single large stupa and an aerial view will show it like a tantric Buddhist mandala representing Buddhist cosmology. The base of the Temple shows images of man’s earthly attachments, shifting towards the aspired nirvana as one reaches the top.

Now a World heritage site (and older than Angkor Wat in Cambodia), Borobudur is slowly reclaiming its importance on the tourist map.

Getting there

Fly to Jakarta, then connect to Yogyakartha (Jogjakartha), which is the nearest airport to Borobudur.

Seeing Borobudur

A fee of USD11 applies to all tourists

Ensure you carry a bottle of water at all times, as it can get hot

Guide books, trinkets and other souvenirs can be bought at the entrance.

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