I vaguely remember coming to Yogyakarta and Borobudur as a child with my family. Sometimes memory is a strange thing, you remember the most random things. I actually don’t remember much of this mesmerizingly beautiful temple that is the Borobudur Temple. What I do remember from that trip was seeing ladies in sarongs without their tops walking down the street carrying baskets on their heads. I thought to my 9-year-old-self, “Oh My!! How could they walk around completely naked?! Dad better not be looking!” Another random thing I remembered was my room in the hotel. I shared a room with my brother and nanny and the room was decorated with Indonesian ceremonial masks. These masks looked very scary and were supposed to drive away evil spirits but I thought in reality they were actually the evil spirits. I complained and complained and my brother joined in with the complaints until my dad moved us all to one of the chain hotels, probably a Hilton. I remembered being quite pleased with the familiar cookie-cutter rooms and the large pool on the premises. Anyways, back to this trip. This time, I came back with all my photography gear and ready to fully appreciate the beauty of this UNESCO site. I flew from Singapore into Yogyakarta in Central Java and was driven, about an hour north, to the Magelang area which is home to the Buddhist temple Borobudur. I stayed at the Plataran Heritage Borobudur Hotel which is quite close to the temple. The rooms are large, service is good, and pricing reasonable. Since we will be out and about photographing most of the time, there is no need to spend the money to stay at the Aman Resort this time, though we did manage to go over for dinner one of the nights. Like all Amans, it’s very nice but it has become a bit dated and definitely needs a facelift very soon.
Borobudur temple is the world’s largest Buddhist monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It remains a popular pilgrimage site and is often compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar. It was built during the reign of the Sailendra Dynasty (650-1025) and was believed to be built on the pre-existing foundations of another more indigenous Javanese structure. The most impressive thing is how the temple remained intact through almost 1,000 years of neglect especially when the structure was built without using any cement or mortar. Archeologists speculate that Borobudur was abandoned in the 14th century probably due to the Javanese population converting to Islam and also the moving of the capital of the Medang Kingdom to Eastern Java due to the effects of frequent volcanic eruptions. Over time, Borobudur became buried under layers of volcanic ash and was not rediscovered until 1815. Between 1975 and 1982, the Indonesian government together with UNESCO carried out large scale restorations to return Borobudur to its former glory.
We encountered very heavy rain the morning we headed to Borobudur at 4am in hopes to photograph the sunrise. The temple officially opens at 6am but you can purchase a ticket (which also includes breakfast) to enter before 6am to catch the sunrise from the top of the temple. Eventually the rain stopped and we knew there won’t be much of a sunrise but in any case we headed up to the temple. No sunrise but I played around with my ND filters and did manage to capture some dramatic clouds. Also because of the torrential downpours earlier, the temple was less crowded which was perfect for photographs.
King Samaratungga was traditionally regarded as the Javanese king responsible for the the completion of Borobudur. Construction of the monument took an estimate of 75 years and it follows the Javanese Buddhist architecture preaching the concept of attaining Nirvana. It is said to have the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world. Viewed from above, Borobudur is like a Buddhist mandala with a square foundation measuring 118 meters on each side. There are altogether 9 platforms of which the lower 6 are square and the top 3 are circular. There are 72 small stupas, some with Buddha statues sitting inside, surrounding one large central stupa at the top. The 9 platforms are divided into the three realms of Buddhist cosmology: Kamadhatu (the realm of feeling and desire), Rupadhatu (the realm of forms), and Arupadhatu (the realm of formlessness). Ordinary people usually live out their lives on the lowest level and their actions are governed by their feelings and desires. This is represented by the lowest square platform. Those who are evolved and no longer have desires in the earthly world graduate to the realm of forms where they see forms but are not drawn to them. This realm is represented by the 2nd to the 5th square platforms. Those who reach nirvana become full buddhas and escape the cycle of Samsara and go to the realm of formlessness, represented by the top 3 circular platforms. From the base of the monument, Buddhist pilgrims follow an extensive system of stairs and corridors around each of the platforms ascending to the top symbolizing the goal to reach enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Over 1,500 reliefs tell the story and different lives of the Lord Buddha and it is said that making the pilgrimage is equivalent to receiving a complete set of Buddhist teachings.
Legend has it that the area where Borobudur is located is a Javanese sacred place also known as the garden of Java. Archaeologists discovered that Borobudur and two smaller temples, Pawon and Mendut, were all built along a straight line but how these Buddhist temples interacted with each other remains a mystery. Pawon, also built during the Sailendra Dynasty, stands between Borobudur and Mendut and is the smallest of the three Buddhist temples. The name Pawon translates to “place that contains dust” in Javanese leading to the hypothesis that it served as a tomb or a mortuary temple for a king. Many also believed that this temple was used to purify oneself before arriving at Borobudur during the annual Vesak ritual where during the full moon in May or June, Buddhists walk from Mendut to Pawon and then ending at Borobudur. As we were all quite tired from the early morning rise, we skipped Pawon but did stop by Mendut. Mendut is the oldest of the three Buddhist temples believed to be built in 824 by the Sailendra King Indra. Along the walls are bas-relief of the Jataka tales narrating the previous births of the Buddha in both human and animal form. In the front chamber of the temple is a bas-relief of Hariti who is a Javanese symbol of fertility and the patroness of motherhood and protector of children. Childless couples like to come here to pray to Hariti. In the main chamber is the 3-meter tall Dhyani Buddha Vairocana statue flanked by Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and Bodhisattva Vajrapani. Buddha Vairocana is considered a Primordial Buddha meant to liberate devotees from the bodily karma. Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara or Guanyin for the Chinese Buddhists is the compassionate bodhisattva who hears the cries of the sentient beings and Bodhisattva Vajrapani is the protector and guide of Gautama Buddha and came to symbolize the Buddha’s power. To Javanese Buddhists, praying here at Mendut temple is believed to fulfil wishes especially to recover from illnesses.
Stay tuned for more from Central Java such as keris making, the Hindu Prambanan temple, and the people of Yogyakarta. Coming soon!
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