Instant nirvana

Keval Singh, Mumbai Mirror

In Central Java, the road to enlightenment doesn’t stop at the Buddhist shrine in Borobudur.

An Indonesian king who almost built 1000 temples in one night and another who liked to watch maidens bathe had some ideas of their own

One of the legacies of Indonesia’s pre-Islamic past stands in the centre of Java island in the form of a ninth-century Buddhist monument called Borobudur. The monument is a shrine to Lord Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimage.

To say Borobudur is magnificent barely cuts it. Each level is adorned with bas reliefs which recount the story of the life of the Buddha as he inched towards Enlightenment. And the design of the temple mirrors this journey. The monument’s three divisions symbolise the three realms of Buddhist cosmology. These include the Arupadhatu, or formless world, which are represented by the three circular platforms and the largest topmost stupa. It is in this realm that full Buddhas experience the ocean of nirvana or enlightenment. The only light I was assailed by was that from the cameras of the mass of tourists at the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Building 1000 temples in one night: Apart from Borobudur, Central Java is also home to Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex. It is about an hour’s drive from Borobudur and is dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The ninth-century complex is the biggest Hindu temple in Indonesia, and one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Perhaps what is most fascinating is the local legend that accompanies the temple’s construction. The story goes that a prince fell in love with a princess named Loro Jonggrang. She rejected his proposal because the prince had killed her father. Alas, she was forced into the marriage but not without a condition: she told the prince to build her 1,000 temples in only one night. He almost managed the feat with the help of supernatural beings. But the princess tricked him into believing that the sun was rising when cocks began to crow. The prince was of course infuriated, and cursed Loro Jonggrang to stone.

If you fancy watching a performance with the temple complex as the backdrop, hang around past sunset for the Ramayana ballet. The traditional dance, which has been given a Javanese twist, is performed every full moon night.

Chasing an active volcano: Between the two temples is the imposing figure of Mount Merapi. I had a somewhat fun time ‘chasing’ the active volcano. Okay, I’m not a volcanologist and neither was the chase as thrilling as that in the 1996 tornado film, Twister; but suffice it to say Merapi was no easy mountain to catch a glimpse of. We drove for about an hour or so to reach an observation point from which to see Merapi, going past villages dotting its slopes and small roads. When we got there, all we saw was a lump of clouds hiding the cone. My driver was mildly amused by my bad luck; but I was not.

Drive us to another lookout point, I said. And from the Kaliurang observation point it was possible to see the Merapi in all its splendour – for all but two minutes. The clouds hid the mountain again, much like a desi bride forced behind a veil in some sappy soap opera. At the observation point, you would find a small kiosk selling bottled water and photos of the major eruption in 2006. I have to admit that at some point, I wondered how the lot of us would escape if Merapi were to blow its top there and then…

The abode of kings: Just under 30 kilometres from the volcano is the city of Yogyakarta (pronounced jog-ja-kar-ta). My first stop here was the Sultan’s palace, or kraton, where the current King Hamengkubuwono X resides. My guide told me that his father, Hamengkubuwono IX, retains a special place in the hearts of the residents of Jogja (as the city is affectionately known), for being the people’s monarch. He also supported the Indonesian independence movement in the late 1940s, a move that was quickly recognised by the emerging nation. At one point, he even allowed Indonesian troops to hide in his palace during an offensive against his city and the Dutch troops occupying it.

The same cannot however be said of the current king and his son. The more modern Hamengkubuwono X has ruffled a few feathers here and there during his time.

The loin king: Close by is the Taman Sari, or Water Castle. Built in the 18th century, it has served various functions, such as a resting area. The most well-preserved part of the complex is the bathing area, which consists of pavilions and pools (one public and one private). In the past, women used a private tunnel to access the bathing area, so as to remain hidden from the public gaze. Interestingly enough though, there’s a tower overlooking the public pool. I was told that the king would sit up here and watch the maidens bathe. As and when one of them stirred his loins, he would summon the girl to bathe with him in his private pool on the opposite side of the public one.

In the evening, we headed to Jalan Malioboro, the main shopping area in the city. You’ll find here a range of shops and malls, so there’s something for everyone from bargain hunters to those who love labels. Along this street you would also find the warungs, or streetside food stalls. It’s a no-frills arrangement with seating space on the floor, and the highlight of grabbing a bite or a drink here is the steady stream of musicians who pass through and sing for you. They come with little more than a guitar, or with a whole range of instruments to give you a more rounded musical experience. You could even make song requests, and if you think they’re entertaining enough, pay them as you deem fit.

At some point I began to notice two giggly girls sitting close to me at the warung. I managed a nervous smile before one of them came over and asked if I was of Indian descent. Then, much to my surprise, out came the camera: ‘We love Bollywood!’, they beamed as we settled into the frame. The Indian influence has not left Indonesia (or Central Java at least) after all.