Indonesia: Why Yogyarkarta is the real deal

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31 July 2013

Ever since reading a brief introduction about Borobudur in my Chinese textbook under the chapter of “The world around us”, I’ve made a deal to set eyes on the place before I die. The sun rose at 5am and shortly after breakfast, I was on my way to Borobudur and Prambanan – two great remnants of  2 great kingdoms in Central Java. SONY DSC

After the stunning views of the Merapi volcano and the countryside, I arrived at Borobudur. Time to explore the site on my own.

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Borobudur at first glance

40 kms northwest of Yogyakarta, Borobudur is located between twin volcanoes, two rivers and a lush plain filled with thick vegetation and forest. In local myths, the area is often called “the garden of Java”. It is a 9th-century Buddhist Temple, consisting of 9 platforms and a central dome. There are over 2500 relief panels and as many as 504 Buddha statues. 72 of the statues surrounds the central dome with each being seated inside a perforated stupa.

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The design is interesting and unlike any other Buddhist monuments that I’ve seen. It is said to be the world’s largest Buddhist temple with the most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs.SONY DSCDesigned in Javanese Buddhist architecture and containing the Buddhist concept of Nirvana , there are three ‘world’ representations: Kamadhatu ( the world of desire) or the earthly world, passing through Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness). Your journey from bottom (the earthly world) to the top  (nirvana) through corridors, stairways and passages alongside thousands of relief panels signifies your path to enlightenment. Tourists cut corners while pilgrims circle the monument 10 times ( total distance of 5km).SONY DSC

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Thick forest that surrounds the monument

There is no written record of who and why the Borobudur was built. Researchers estimated that it took 75 years to complete the monument. Like Angkor Wat, it was abandoned by civilisation for centuries, engulfed by volcanic ash and the surrounding jungle. Interestingly, people still know about the monument through folk stories but its glorious past became a symbol of bad luck and misery due to the defeat of a rebel and the sudden death of a prince.

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Java fell under British rule from 1811 to 1816 and the governor at the time Thomas Stamford Raffles ( the dude who established schools and churches in Singapore), who was interested in the history of Java heard about a big monument from some local inhabitants while on tour. He sent his Dutch engineer HC Cornelius to investigate the site and after some 200 men was employed to clear away  volcanic ash and vegetation, they unearthed ONLY parts of the monument. Raffle brought it to the world’s attention.SONY DSCAnother Dutch Hartmann continued and fully unearthed the complex in 1835. More Dutch came to study and make sketches of the complex before detailed information were published. The first photo taken in 1872 was  taken by a Dutch. 

First photo of Borobudur (Tropen museum and Museum Volkenkunde archives)
First photo of Borobudur (Tropen museum and Museum Volkenkunde archives)

It was nearly disassembled but an archaeologist found the fears of the monument being unstable to be unjustified so it was left intact. Imagine if they tore it apart. 

SONY DSCI took my time- visiting the temple at my own leisurely pace and as I looked out at the thick vegetation that surrounds the candi, I can’t help but imagine that it was not the Dutch but two lone bandits who first discovered the sacred site,  protected it from further destruction and brought the looted sculptures and carvings back from the King of Siam.

Let me dream
Let me dream

There’s two hours until sunset so I raced to see Prambanan.  18 km east of Yogyarkarta and amongst paddy fields and vast plantations that sweeps down the southern slope of the volcano, Candi Prambanan is a 9th century Hindu temple dedicated to the expression of God as the creator (Brahma), the preserver (Vishnu) and the destroyer (Shiva). The Prambanan compound is the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia and like most Hindu architecture; it has a towering central building inside a large complex of individual temples. SONY DSCThe temple was abandoned after a volcano eruption, power struggle and an earthquake in the 16th century. The Javanese locals in the surrounding villages knew about the temple ruins but it was not until 1811 that a surveyor in the service of Thomas Stamford Raffles ( yes the Borobudur and Singapore dude) stumbled upon the temples by chance. It was however still neglected and a full survey didn’t took place.

Photo taken in 1895 by William Henry Jackson (United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs )
Photo taken in 1895 by William Henry Jackson (United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs )

In 1918, the Dutch began reconstruction and proper restoration was completed in 1930. Today, many of the smaller shrines (there are 240 temples in the complex) are only visible in their foundations. The main iconic temples of Prambanan are located in the third inner and most holy zone of the complex.

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The temples belonging to the most holy part of the complex

SONY DSCThe shiva temple at 47 m tall and 34 m wide is the tallest and largest structure in Prambanan. Vishnu is on the north side and Brahma is on the south. Both faces east and each contains one large chamber dedicated to the respected gods.  Restoration and preservation continues to present-day and many of the temples are off bounds to visitors. I’m glad that authorities have decided to leave the complex in peace. Yes many temples are  gone with bricks lying in ruins but it is the very run-down state of the individual shrines around the main ones that makes the place more mysterious and memorable…especially when the sun sets.

What a wonderful day to see two of Indonesia’s wonders!

SONY DSCThe Borobudur + Prambanan trip was made possible by Casa Raffles Jl. Purwodiningratan NG 1/915 ngampilan ngampilan (0274) 514 256, 089 85 88 77 11, 087746329777