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Indonesia: Impressions of Borobudur

October 13, 2015

We spent part of the summer of 2014 on the island of Java. I was curious to visit the world’s most populous Muslim country and eager to explore the ancient high culture of the Javanese.

What I really wanted to see, of course, was the pyramid at Borobudur.  We had heard ot the place but pyramids are not the first things that come to mind when we think of Southeast Asia, and so the nature of the site hadn’t registered very high in our priorities during previous travel to the region.

The pyramid-temple was built in the ninth century BP, more or less in one effort.  Archaeologists assume there was a natural hill on the site around which the stonework of the pyramid was laid in nine levels although it’s unclear if anyone in the academic world really knows what the center of the structure contains. Borobudur is the world’s biggest Buddhist edifice although the site wasn’t used for very long considering the labor required to build the pyramid. Perhaps nearby Merapi Volcano interrupted the builders’ culture. Certainly the rise of Islam resulted in a waning of Buddhism in Java.

In the twentieth century archaeologists and engineers took the entire stone structure apart stone by stone, Abu Simbel-style, to alleviate water damage and erosion; at one time it was feared Borobudur might collapse. Then it was put back together like the world’s most impressive jigsaw puzzle. So for now the monument is safe from the elements..

I think the best way to first see the pyramid is to climb one of the hills that ring Borobudur and watch the sunrise mists swirl about the valley and slowly real the pyramid’s crowning stupa as the morning brightens. The formless world at the apex of Buddhist cosmology becomes real and the cone of Merapi looms above like an ultimate force of judgement just out of the frame.

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But eventually the visitor has to join the crowds below and walk into the modern parkland that surrounds Borobudur. The sense of its massiveness strikes the eye first, as was no doubt intended by the builders.

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Getting a sense of the place is difficult, given the huge size of the step-pyramid.  The only real way to get a grasp is to follow the ancient Buddhist tradition of circumambulating the edifice nine times, once on each level. We were told that to do this requires walking about three miles in total. Better yet, one is said to gain merit (or not) by doing so.

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Therefore that is what we did, which gave us a chance to explore the murals on each level, beginning with those that represent the world of desire and as we climbed higher, so the reliefs depicted the evolution of the human soul until at last on top there lay only nothingness, the void of perfection.

On our ascent the heat was astounding as the stones radiated the full tropical Java sun.

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Here are just two examples of the intricate stone carvings.

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We couldn’t help but notice the interlocking stones of the pavement, similar in formations to stone walls worldwide where the builders attempt to strengthen their works against temblors.

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Finally we achieved the summit of Borobudur.

Inside each enclosure lay a statue of the Buddha.

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The public gathering around the high summit is truly international. Indonesians – most of the Muslim – come from all over their country to visit. Other travelers include Buddhist monks and nuns from Japan, European backpackers, Hindus from India, and countless others. Borobudur is a gathering place for all humanity, a testament to the harmonious energy of the its original culture.

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And so what are we supposed to make of Borobudur in the end?  I am not sure, except that it represents a joyous crowning example of humankind’s imagination, creativity, and inspiration. The site knows no borders, nor modern ideologies and biases.  You’d almost think more people would wish to learn from its example.

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photos by Kit and Diana Herring

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