Borobudur: Icon of Indonesia

Posted: February 29, 2008    Categories: Asia, Indonesia

Moon over Borobudur

Moon over Borobudur

Iconic symbols are a theme I will be referring to often. For example, when you think of Paris, what image comes to mind? Probably the Eiffel Tower. Rome? The Colosseum. London? Big Ben. New York, LA, San Fransisco? The Statue of Liberty, the Hollywood Sign, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

I can go on and on about how certain places have certain images associated with them.

Sometimes the image isn’t of an object or a building. If you think of Argentina, you think of people doing the tango or of gauchos.

What comes to mind when you think of Indonesia? Unless you live there or have visited there, my guess is it isn’t a good image. It is probably one of earthquakes, landslides or tsunamis.

I would like to suggest, however, a new (actually quite old) iconic image for Indonesia: Borobudur

Borobudur and Prambanan have not achieved the level fame of a Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramids, but they probably should be on the short list of the great, ancient places of the world.

It was difficult to get the entire structure in my camera, even with a wide angle lens.

It was difficult to get the entire structure in my camera, even with a wide angle lens.

Borobudur is a Buddhist temple in central Java which dates to the year 800. Prior to the introduction of Islam in the 1500’s, Hinduism and Buddhism were the predominant religions in Java. Borobudur was constructed during the Srivijaya Empire which covered all of Java, Sumatra, peninsular Malaysia, and coastal areas of Borneo.

It is labeled as the largest single Buddhist temple in the world. Many people think that Angkor Wat is, but that is technically a temple complex. Borobudur is larger than any one temple in Angkor Wat.

The temple was lost for hundreds of years, buried in volcanic ash and covered in forest growth. It was only during the brief period which the British ruled Java (1806-1811) when Sir Thomas Raffles re-discovered Borobudur. Being covered in ash for that long probably preserved the temple from thieves and earthquakes. The Indonesian government commissioned an expansive restoration of the temple in the 1980s and it is in relatively good condition considering its age. (It should be noted that the temple was never really “lost” to locals. Local legends always knew it existed, it is just that no one ever bothered to excavate it. it should also be pointed out that much of the archeology on Java was done during the brief British control of the islands, where as the Dutch controlled it for hundreds of years and did very little.)

Bas Relief

Bas Relief

The architecture of the temple is quite clever and isn’t readily apparent. The temple is built in tiers. The traditional way to go up to the top of the temple is to climb up and walk around each level in a clockwise direction, so the reliefs are on your right. The major divisions of the temple represent parts of the human body (head, body, and feet). Moreover, it was later found to be built in a 9:6:4 ratio, which is used in other Buddhist temples in Asia. In the 90s it was discovered that two other nearby Buddhist temples were in a straight line with Borobudur, making the construction of the temple even more impressive. There is also evidence that there may have been a lake near the temple which was filled with ash in an ancient volcanic eruption.

Near the top of the structure are many bell shaped objects called stupas. They contain statues of sitting Buddhas. There is one grand stupa at the top center of the building which does not have a statue inside.

Me and the teachers

Me and the teachers

My trip to Borobudur started out at 4:30am. I had signed up for the sunrise trip and I was the first person the tour van picked up. In addition to seeing the sunrise, if you arrive early you will not have nearly as many vendors trying to sell you stuff. The size of the vendor area seemed many times the size of the parking lot. Everyone seemed to be selling the exact same things. I’m not sure how anyone was able to make a living selling stuff.

I had a bunch of students walking up to me and asking me questions in English. Everyone also wanted to get their photo taken with me (something which happened to me all over Indonesia). It turned out they were there for an English class trip so they could practice speaking English. I was able strike up a conversation with their teachers. They said that Borobudur used to be packed with foreign tourists. Since the 2002 Bali bombing, hardly any foreigners come to Java anymore. Now you will see mostly domestic tourists at Borobudur. That is really a shame because Borobudur and neighboring Prambanan are really the two standout attractions in Indonesia.

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