The temples of Yogyakarta have it

By S.S. YOGA

When in Yogyakarta, you don’t want to miss Java’s twin gems of Hindu and Buddhist treasures — Prambanan and Borobudur.

THE heavens really opened up, and water, the equivalent of Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls and probably a few hundred other waterfalls combined, fell upon the earth. Or to be less dramatic about the whole thing – it rained like there was no tomorrow.

The day had been hot. As was the day before, when we first arrived in Yogyakarta, Java. The sun was scorching, so we were really caught unawares by the downpour.

Heritage: The Buddhist complex Borobudur in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. – S.S. YOGA

My friends and I had just left the “cooling” foothills of Kaliurang, which is in the shadow of the famous and still active Mt Merapi. We had hired a car for 10 hours for the “princely” sum of Rp350,000 (RM125). While you can easily get most taxi drivers to take you around Jogja (as the locals affectionately call the city), their rates tend to be higher.

We were heading to Prambanan, one of Jogja’s leading historical lights, at the end of the day when it got wet suddenly. What was supposed to take about 40 minutes, tops, ended up taking much longer.

But I took comfort from an old Indian belief that says if it rains, you are being blessed by the gods. And after all, we were heading towards a majestic temple complex built in the 9th century for the Hindu gods.

Prambanan, 18km east of Jogja, is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the largest in South-East Asia. When we finally arrived at our destination, the rain had eased to a slight drizzle but the sky was still overcast. Entrance prices for Prambanan and the two other historical monuments that come under the same administrative authority — namely Borobudur and Ratu Boko — are substantially different for locals and foreigners.

For Prambanan and Borobudur, you have to pay US$15 (RM50).

The majestic stupas of Borobudur.

Tip: If you go after 5pm, the ticket you obtain can be used for the next day as well. So you can enjoy sunset and night views for the day, and return the next morning to see the sunrise.

A lot of restoration work has gone into Borobudur and especially Prambanan which suffered extensive damage after the May 2006 earthquake in Java. In fact, many of the inner temples are still out of bounds to visitors because they are not structurally safe.

One highlight is the Ramayana show at night which is staged against the backdrop of a spectacularly lit temple (tickets are priced between Rp75,000 and Rp250,000; RM27 and RM90).

As we came within sight of the imposing peaks of the temple, it started to rain again. We took shelter at the very small security post that already had three security guards squeezed inside. Soon, many laughing and drenched kids from a school tour, as well as tourists, also tried to cram their bedraggled selves in there.

A local guy who was peddling umbrellas nearby did brisk business that evening!

When the rain eased off, we decided to make the best of our time there. The weather did not distract us from the magnificent surroundings. It was quite awesome to see the black clouds hovering over the many-tiered temples, which rose to 47m at the highest point. It took our breath away.

That tallest structure is dedicated to Shiva (the Destroyer).

The complex is dedicated to Trimurti, the god triumvirate of Shiva, Brahma (the Creator, whose temple is on the left of Shiva’s) and Vishnu (the Sustainer on the right). And all around the Big Three are hundreds of smaller temples.

Breathtaking: The magnificent spires of the Prambanan temple complex in Yogyakarta.The tallest structure is the Shiva temple flanked by the temples for Brahma (left) and Vishnu. – S.S. YOGA

We decided to climb up Vishnu’s temple, the only one of the three open to visitors. It was a good thing that it only started pouring again after we had reached the top. Either we were plain lucky or we were now protected by one of the gods!

Later, as the rain became a drizzle, we dashed for our vehicle. All visitors are required to take the very long circular route to the exit but, with the inclement weather, the guards took pity on us and allowed us to take the much shorter direct route.

When we were in Borobudur the day before, we had to take the longer official route. Even though our transportation was within sight, we had to sweat our way out of the premises via a path overgrown with weeds and shrubs.

Ah, Borobudur.

I was apprehensive about visiting the place because I had been to Angkor Wat, and everyone says it makes Borobudur seem somewhat ordinary.

I needn’t have worried, though. Borobudur still impressed. Sure, it is nowhere as extensive as Angkor Wat but it has a certain charm of its own.

This 9th century Mahayana Buddhist monument has six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, and is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The main dome located at the centre of the top platform is surrounded by 72 Buddhas.

Borobudur was restored between 1975 and 1982. The temple is 40km northwest of Jogja, and the view you get from the top is incredible. The whole valley sprawls below it as you take in the fantastic 360° view. There were many visitors when we were there but not too many. We still got that sense of calm and peace at the top.

What is sad, though, was that the repeated warnings coming through the loudspeakers — telling visitors not to climb over the statues and stupas — went unheeded.

The sunrise here is said to be spectacular, so much so that many people actually put up at the expensive, park-run Manohara Resort on the grounds of Borobudur just to catch a glimpse of it.

Our next stop was Kaliurang, and the ride there is said to be quite scenic. Unfortunately, I was drowsy, so I missed much of it. When we arrived at the foothills of Plawangan Hill, we were told that there was a small park within, so we ventured forth and found ourselves greeted by a troop of macaques and a rather pathetic trickle of water down the slopes of the hill in the foreground — their “waterfall”.

In order to get a good view of nearby Mt Merapi, we had to take a path up the summit of the hill. It was a trek of about a 1.5km or so. So up we went, huffing and puffing, until we reached a dilapidated watchtower that had three levels of platforms.

We gingerly ascended, and when we reached the top, we saw that the peak of Merapi was totally covered in clouds. Drats!

To overcome this disappointment, I indulged in retail therapy the next day at the famed Malioboro Street. Batik, T-shirts, kitsch souvenirs, spices, silverware — you can get it all here. The quality is good and, more importantly, the goods can be had for a steal (you need to bargain, though).

If you want air-conditioned comfort while shopping, then head for Plaza Ambarrukmo (the locals call it Amplaz), a mall that would not be out of place in KL. There are other attractions in Jogja city itself, like the Kraton (the Sultan’s palace), the museums, the buildings left behind by the Dutch, and the food. I didn’t get to explore all of Jogja and its surrounds, so I see myself going back.

Hopefully, the clouds would be so nice as to get out of the way next time!

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