Semarang, Java, Indonesia
We had to get up very early on February 25 to meet our excursion leaving at 6:15 AM. We were headed to Borobudur, and ancient Buddhist temple. Since we were up so early we got to see the sunrise. We were welcomed on the pier by a large & loud marching band, complete with drum majors & a platoon of flag waving women. And inside the terminal were more traditional Indonesian dancers. Quite a welcome, though some passengers who had no reason to be up so early weren’t thrilled to be woken by the drums as they marched in.
It is about a 2 hour drive to Borobudur, so we had a rest stop after reaching the mountains. Because of the notoriously bad traffic on Java we were given a police escort. They stopped traffic & routed us when necessary onto the wrong side of the road. The rest stop featured a restaurant & gift shop as well as interesting gardens with a large Banyan tree & what looked like a giant yucca with a flower stalk 15 or 20 feet tall.
Finally arriving at the temple grounds, we walked through the large park that surrounds it to approach the temple. Our guide told us that he grew up in a village adjacent to the temple, which was razed to create this park, and played at the temple with his friends as a child. His father was an Islamic Imam, but he gave our guide books about this Buddhist temple. Anyway, this thing is HUGE and amazing. It is almost 400 feet wide on each of its four sides and 115 high. It is built on (or really, encloses) a natural hill. Built in about the 9th century, it was abandoned sometime during the next 500 years or so, and accumulated a covering of jungle growth & volcano ash. It was “rediscovered” in 1814 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (after whom the Raffles Hotel in Singapore is named), who was the governor of Java during its brief British occupation. In reality, he learned about it from the locals, who knew very well where it was all along. But he did begin the process of spreading the word about it abroad & unearthing & restoring it. Every day workers are out washing the monument in a never-ending battle against moss & insects.
The whole complex was uncovered by 1835. For many years it was scavenged by souvenir hunters, often working for western museums. The king of Siam (now Thailand) visited in the 1890’s and was given permission to remove 8 cartloads of souvenirs, now in a Bangkok museum. There are more than 500 Buddha statues on the temple, many without heads because they were carted away as souvenirs.
Borobudur was built of what looks like lava rock without mortar. While it is all monotone now, evidence indicates that originally it was painted in bright colors and maybe gold leaf as well. The stones were connected with dovetail joints & knobs fitting into indentations. The first attempt at restoration was in the first decade of the 20th century, but they used cement which further damaged the structure. Between 1975 and 1982 a full restoration was sponsored by UNESCO, in which more than a million stones were removed, indexed & cleaned before being reconstructed. The entire structure was stabilized & a new drainage system installed inside. Since then, the temple has been vulnerable to natural disasters, like ash from volcanoes (2010 & 2014), and wear & tear & even vandalism from millions of visitors. Bombs were set off on the top level in 1985 & in 2014 ISIS threatened to destroy it, so security is pretty tight.
The temple represents the path from desire at the bottom to complete enlightenment at the top. The first four levels are square shaped and are surrounded by walkways lined with relief panels on both side of the corridor that tell the stories of Buddha’s life & his development toward enlightenment. There are more than 1400 narrative panels, all of which were originally carved after being added to the temple.
There are statues of Buddha in niches on the walls above the reliefs & at every corner is a gargoyle that is really a water spout for releasing rainwater (water is one of the major enemies of this structure).
The stairs from one level to the next were very steep and some steps were quite high. Some of the stairways had handrails but others did not. It was very hot & humid, so the exertion took a toll, particularly on older folks. There were guys around who, for a very small fee, would hold a parasol over a visitor, fan her and assist her in climbing the steps. This was a godsend for some people. You will notice in these pictures that we had to wear sarongs to enter Borobudur, just as in Bali.
The top three levels of the temple are round, rather than square. And instead of corridors they are covered with stupas, bell shaped structures perforated with square or diamond shaped holes, inside which is a statue of the Buddha. There are 72 of these structures, some of which are whole & some not. Some of the Buddhas are headless and some are whole.
On the very top is the large main stupa, which is not perforated. Apparently there were not enough of the original stones left to be sure of its exact design, so it has been restored according to the best guess. It is empty, although stories have been told that it originally held a large Buddha which was removed by the first workers to enter the dome in 1842. This structure apparently represents Nirvana, or complete enlightenment.
From the upper levels there are dramatic vistas. You can see a very long way.
So finally we came down the temple & walked through a woods to a restaurant for an Indonesian lunch. The extreme heat & all the climbing had taken a lot out of us, so an opportunity to refuel was welcome. But we lingered over our final views of the temple as we retreated into the forest.
After lunch we made one stop for shopping & viewing a Wayang shadow puppet show, then headed for our final adventure of the day, a ride on an old train through some wetlands in the shadow of large mountains that are probably volcanoes. Our ride out of the mountains was pretty wild, with our police escort keeping us going at good speed through small villages and around bends, changing lanes at speed while oncoming traffic stopped or swerved & often barely missed us. Disney World would charge a lot for a ride like that.
So we drove back to the dock & sailed away after another very full and fascinating day.