Borobudur – The Last Puzzle Piece

“. . . Candi Borobudur . . . is a prayer in stone.”

– Professor Soekmono, the Indonesian archaeologist who directed the Borobudur Restoration Project

A short, steep climb in the dark took me to the open circular terraces crowned with 72 stupas to watch the sunrise. Around me roosters crowed in stereo, and birdsong filled the still morning air. It was overcast, so any hope of a spectacular sunrise disappeared with the receding darkness. A group of Buddhist tourists circumambulated the stupa, chanting.

Building work began around 760 CE, and lasted for more or less seventy years. Without a single blueprint, each new generation of the Sailendra kings, made their own modifications and inventions. And once it was done, Borobudur was the biggest Buddhist monument on earth. It still is. This monumental mandala, standing at the junction of the Progo and Elo rivers, was the last piece of puzzle of my ancient Buddhist temple quest, falling into place. Angkor. Bagan. Borobudur.

People milled around, gazing towards the east. Hoping for a break in the clouds. Posing. Each tried their best to capture the fleeting moment. Immortalizing it with the click of a shutter. A young woman had her small point-and-shoot on a multiple-shoot setting. Every time she pressed the button, a tiny machine gun fired at the view.

Not much is known of the Sailendra kings, who built this unique temple, and their source of power and even ethnicity are heavily debated. What we do know, is that they vanished almost as quickly as they appeared.

“By the early decades of the ninth century their dynasty was in decline, and that other regal lineage, the Sanjaya, was making a comeback. The Sanjaya scion of the day, a man by the name of Rakai Pikatan, embarked on a Sailendra-slashing rampage through the rice fields, and the last Sailendra king, Balaputra, turned tail and fled to Sumatra to seek refuge with his co-religionists in Srivijaya. All that remained was the recently completed Borobudur, coated now with white plaster and glowing like a single molar in the green jaw of Java.”

– From: A Brief History of Indonesia by Tim Hannigan

Borobudur was built by a clan of orthodox Mahayana Buddhists in a time, when the majority religion on Java was Hindu, and still stands proud in a time, when the majority religion of Indonesia is Muslim. It is not an old, forgotten Buddhist monument, frequented only by tourists, but an active place of pilgrimage and worship, especially on Vesak day.

Not only is Java one of the most earthquake prone places on the planet, but also one of the most volcanic. It is therefore no surprise that Borobudur was completely abandoned in 1006 CE, after a severe earthquake and large eruption of Mount Merapi. But in one of those wonderful twists of history, the cause of its demise, was also what helped to preserve it. In 1814, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the new British Governor of Java, intrigued by the stories and architecture of Indonesia, ordered the excavation of Borobudur. It took two hundred men six weeks to slash and burn through thick vegetation, and clearing away tons of volcanic ash to uncover it.

Sadly, souvenir hunters decapitated most of the Buddha statues to ship them to museums and mansions all over the world, while the local villagers, no longer kept away by superstitions, plundered the monument for building supplies. Well-intentioned restoration attempts by various Europeans cleared it from sediment and plant life, but the porous volcanic stone stood vulnerable against the onslaught of torrential rains, and as a result, suffered more damage than it did in the previous thousand years.

With the help of UNESCO it was eventually restored by the Indonesian Government in the 1970s. A massive undertaking that involved the complete dismantling and rebuilding of the lower terraces of the temple, moving a million stones as if they were giant puzzle pieces, while the carved panels were individually cleaned, catalogued, and treated for preservation. Experts in archaeology, engineering, biology, and chemistry from twenty-seven countries assisted in this enormous task to solve multiple problems and challenges. And to make it possible for me to stand at the top of 1.5 million blocks of chiselled grey andesite, on a late October morning.

Built as a three-dimensional guide to enlightenment, the idea is for pilgrims to walk clockwise along walkways flanked by carved reliefs to mediate a physical and spiritual journey, slowly progressing toward higher states of consciousness. Built as nine concentric terraces, the first six are square, representing the world of desire (kamadhatu) and the world of forms (rupadhatu) in Buddhist cosmology, while the upper three form a set of shrinking circles culminating in a single stupa, representing the world of formlessness (arupadhatu).

My journey took me on a reverse pilgrimage. Ascending first to the world of formlessness in the dark pre-dawn morning, but as the shapes of the world materialized, and the morning grew hot and humid, I descended slowly through the open air passageways covered in around 2,500 individually carved panels, amounting to a strip of stories, 5 kilometers long, back to the bottom and the realities of life. Borobudur, when gazed upon from ground level is squat, almost ugly, but when she holds you in her embrace, her beauty takes your breath away.

** Entrance fee (for foreigners) for sunrise is through the Manohara Hotel only, and costs Rp 475,000. It includes a light breakfast, and the use of a torch for one’s visit. Tickets can be bought on the morning of one’s visit from the hotel.

Visited: Oct/Nov 2018


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Remember to also sign up for our adventures in Portugal, A Taste of Freedom, where we are in the process of rebuilding a ruin into a tiny house. All while we are still residing in the UAE. It is a long-term project, as we do not have unlimited resources, and only progress as fast as we can put money aside for the different steps required. We also have a Facebook page for it. So, please join us on this adventure of transforming a dream into a reality.