An old rickety bus takes us the 40-kilometers from Yojakarta in central Java to the village of Borobudur temple. Winding around the rice fields and crossing good sturdy bridges, the river runs frothy below with the beginning of the monsoon season. The banks expose grey basalt rock, the building blocks of the 9th century temple that I’m on the way to witness for the first time.
This temple was once the religious centre for Buddhists, and during auspicious days, devotees would walk around the temple and pay their supplications. Another modern day right of passage is getting to the temple on the local transport system. But thankfully for me, I had met some Indonesians from Jakarta, who offered to take me to the temple. All I had to do was hang on tight and enjoy the ride.
Sitting next to me, is a gnome-looking lady, shrivelled up in her seat. I grab her hand, and feel the warmth of an eon, a hundred thousand sunsets that have descended on her life. I imagined that her ancestors over twelve centuries ago were devout Buddhist practitioners, or maybe stone masons whose skilful hands chiselled this colossal structure dedicated to Lord Buddha.
“Hay Mister!” breaks my reverie, and the touts jump onto the bus signifying that we have arrived at the Borobudur village, which is only a two-kilometre walk to the UNESCO World Heritage site. They are the horse and cart drivers, each one vying for our business.
The last leg of the journey to the temple is on a horse cart. Crammed into the buggy, a healthy pony — it seemed very well fed — trots us to our destination. This is very 18th Century well worth the price of 15 000 (US$ 3) Rupiah for four people! On arrival, the touts swarmed around us like flies. They were selling needful things, like fans, caps, and renting umbrellas. It was midday, and very hot.
The wet season has its benefits, besides the temple being quieter. The taxi driver who took me from the airport said the best time to take pictures is after a storm. He wasn’t wrong, and three hours later, the clouds hung heavy around the valley and the temple took on another more enigmatic look.
“Locals believe that if you touch Buddha’s belly and make a wish, your dreams will come true,” said Novi, my guide from Jakarta.
A dozen elderly tourists with distinct American accents clamber down the pyramid wearily, but by no means disappointed. “ Come on everyone, hurry up!” says guide number seven who holds up a card with the same number. Then tour guide number four cuts through, and his group starts heading up to the top of the temple summit.
I take my time, taking in the reliefs – there are over 5000 of them – that tell the story of life’s struggle and the wheel of attachment, the main tenets of Buddha’s teachings. These are the same type of imagery I have seen in Thai temples. As you make your way up to the pinnacle of the temple, which is capped with a central stupa, and a metaphorical ascension to Nirvana. The symbolism is that we can all attain enlightenment if only we concentrate and be mindful like the stone Buddha’s that are encased in the mini stupas surrounding the main one.
A few levels were being renovated today. It was just a matter of stepping over the worker’s tools, and hoping you don’t fall in the hole. The workers were juggling the heavy blocks and putting them back into the jigsaw puzzle. I actually Google earthed the temple to see the tantric design from outer space.
It’s really a wonder of the world the way the builders were able to execute the structure with such precision. Then a thunderstorm erupts, and a streak of lightening, traversing down from the skies, signals the change of guards, and another mood of the temple is revealed.
Looking out over the temple, you get a distinct feeling that there was some divine intervention in creating it. There seems to be a symmetry between the man made structure and nature. As far as you could see, manicured grounds, terraced rice paddies, and coconut trees just added to the Garden of Eden beauty of the place.
At the top of the temple, a security guard is keeping paternal eye on the tourists. Signs are posted all over the place – one says no scratching, the other ‘No Smoking”. I just couldn’t help scratching myself like a monkey hosting a family of fleas and the temptation to light up was also there. I think they meant no graffiti or engraving your name on the structure.
When the rain got heavy, everyone scattered. I took the opportunity to take a few more pictures without the frame being cluttered with tourists. One Muslim lady, who was also trying to beat the downpour, covered herself with the batik sarong. At the bottom of the temple, an Indonesian man was posing on the guardian Lion at the base, while his girl friend took a souvenir photo.
The atmosphere here is less reverent than at other Buddhist sites I have visited. There’s a touch of carnival spirit about it. Maybe its because the temple isn’t strictly a site for Buddhists, but attracts tourists from all walks of life’s and with different beliefs.
Now the same touts trying to sell me stuff on the way in were now following me, trying to sell me their wares on the way out.
Before making our way back to the city on the same rickety bus I buy a t-shirt. Been there and done that, emblazoned on it, and a matching cap. Then on the hour ride return trip; I tweet, creating a little buzz with the hash Borobudur.
The resemblance to Lord Gautama Buddha replications was uncanny. My limited Indonesian gets him going again. I’m starting to feel like Jim Carey in this country. The Indonesians are always laughing at me and I know I’m not funny. Or am I? It’s a testament to the Javanese who live every moment to the fullest.
I have to agree with British photographer Tim Page who coined the term: the journey is the destination. It really is and Yojakarta is as good a place as any to start it!
And who knows, you might get what you wished for, as the locals believe, after making a pilgrimage to this sacred site.