Category: News@Borobudur.

Monumental revelations

Rosemary Sorensen From:The Australian February 27, 2010 12:00AM


Illustration: Tom Jellett

WORKERS constantly scratch away at the stones of Borobudur, trying to stabilise the mighty monument against the impact of weather and visitors. On a fine morning at the end of the dry season in Java, you can watch them painstakingly removing dust sediment from between the blocks of stone.
Toni Tack, a British archeologist who has, for many years, devoted much of her time to this Buddhist monument in Indonesia, pauses during her tour around the frieze-laden structure to quiz a gaggle of workmen. The dust, they tell her, is carried on to Borobudur on the shoes of the many visitors allowed free access to its steps and corridors. It sifts down gradually between the stones and threatens to destabilise the structure.

This shrine to Buddha was built about AD800, Tack tells her tour group, then fell into neglect about AD1000, through a combination of factors, including volcanic eruptions and shifts in the dominant religions of the region. Miraculously it remained intact beneath the ash and vegetation, although it was damaged.

In the 19th century, Thomas Stamford Raffles, in charge during Britain’s stint as colonial ruler of Java, learned of its existence and set to preserving it.

A major restoration project funded by UNESCO was completed in 1982. The monument, which stands between two volcanoes about 40km northwest of Yogyakarta, now can be seen almost in the state that pilgrims would have experienced it 1000 years ago, although a 1985 bomb attack by Muslim fundamentalists destroyed one of the Buddhas sitting inside his stupa, atop the monument. Security, these days, is present, but minimal.

It is not terrorism that is Borobudur’s biggest concern, according to Tack, who is the local tourism authority’s chosen guide for English-speaking visitors.

Recently the site, including the slightly down-at-heel but very good (and magnificently situated) Manohara Hotel a couple of minutes’ walk from the monument’s base, was taken out of direct government control, and put under the management of a quasi-independent authority.

Tack, who is able to tell the stories depicted in many of the 2600 relief panels that line the three levels of Borobudur’s walls, is concerned about vague plans to jazz up the site, with incongruous additions such as go-karts and even, she says with a shudder, giant blow-up Buddhas.

More visitors are desirable, economically, but that will change the experience which is, for the moment, indelibly moving. If you are yearning for a near-mystical encounter and are susceptible to soul-awakening loveliness, beware. Borobudur has a quiet reputation for changing lives.

While the new management grapples with how to maintain the magic of not just the building but the surrounding valley, Borobudur is still mercifully untouched by commercial tourism.

All ancient monuments are in danger of being loved to death and Borobudur, despite World Heritage listing, is vulnerable. Indonesian experts tell you that the place is usually swarming with tourists, but on my October visit, at the end of the high season, it turns out to be more a smatter than a swarm.

It does swarm, the locals say, at various times during the year, mostly with Indonesian school groups and, during Buddhist festivals, with pilgrims. But on a hazy morning, before the summer rains close in, and at the end of a particularly dry season that worries everyone but the tobacco farmers, only a dozen or so people have gathered on the upper level of Borobudur, among the stupas, to share the view across the valley with seated Buddhas, contemplating the sunrise.

Raffles named it Borobudur, apparently, because of its proximity to a village named Bore, but it is an excellent name, pushing off the lips with repetitive plosives and a thrumming rhythm that well suits the atmosphere.

A stay at the on-site hotel gives almost unhindered access to the shrine, dawn to dusk, which is an extraordinary privilege. Or there’s the Amanresorts property Amanjiwo, a couple of kilometres from Borobudur, hidden in discreet and isolated splendour and built to maximise views of the monument. Very fine it is, too, although Tack allows herself a small moue of disapproval at the discrepancy between this superbly situated and well-appointed resort and the simplicity of life in the mostly Muslim villages nearby.

Tack’s group during my visit comprises participants from the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on neighbouring Bali, invited to a satellite event at Borobudur, which consists of readings under the stars in front of the spotlit monument. It is special indeed and a sign that the management is keen to explore the potentials of cultural tourism.

At Tack’s behest, the Manohara Hotel organises visits for us to the two must-see small Buddhist temples a few kilometres from the main attraction. Ferried around in traps pulled by bad-tempered little horses, we watch noodles being extruded and laid out on racks in the sun, tofu being boiled in wood-fired cauldrons, palm sugar being pressed into pats. Crafty and touristy that may sound, but this is not a showcase simulacrum of the real thing: it is the real thing. More tourists, and more organised activities to cater for them, will surely affect these market industries but, for now, the privilege of stepping briefly into these Javanese people’s lives is a sobering thrill.

Tack talks about Borobudur as an open-air library, because its walls display all the stories from texts about the Buddha’s life and illustrations of his teaching. The monument is still a place of pilgrimage for monks, but Java’s dominant religion is now Islam and as you wind your way around the three tiers of Borobudur, you are likely to hear the Muslim call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

Your hotel guide in this cautiously friendly place, on the other hand, is likely to be an English-speaking Christian, one of a small minority on Java. That curious mix of presences and influences on the once-sacred hill on which Borobudur stands probably explains why it is possible for a visitor not only to contemplate the glorious stone carvings in silence rarely experienced at such an ancient site but, if the mood takes them, to clamber over the stupas. One can even reach in to touch the hand of a seated Buddha that has been dubbed “lucky”.

This ought to change, to protect these aged stones with their astonishing carvings, one after the other, in dazzling profusion. As a site of historic significance for Buddhism, too, Borobudur deserves respect.

If it soon becomes impossible to wander up this hulking mass in the grey pre-dawn, to climb the huge steps to the top, and to share a view that has possibly hardly altered in 1000 years, with a crowd of Buddhas who have been there all that time, that is a good thing.

But right now, for susceptible types, feeling the stones of Borobudur beneath is rather like imagining the sensation of watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel.

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Category: News@Borobudur
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