30 November 2012
The magnificent Borobudur Temple
High on a mountain in central Java, Borobudur Temple rises up towards the sky. In Buddhist belief, the closer you are to Heaven, the closer you are to the gods. And as you climb the steps of the temple, the jungle landscape of Indonesia revealing itself in every direction, you can understand how the people who built this masterpiece felt more connected to the ethereal than the earthly.
Borobudur was built in the eighth and ninth centuries but, at some point in history, was abandoned and left to the wilds of nature. For at least five hundred years the jungle was all that climbed the steps towards the celestial. Trees, vines, and animals overtook one of man’s greatest creations and embraced the rocks again. The temple became hidden from the eyes of humanity.
It wasn’t until 1814, when Java was under British control, that the English governor, Thomas Stamford Raffles, heard stories from local villagers about a mysterious and abandoned structure. He sent his people to investigate and for two months a team of 200 men had to cut down trees, burn vegetation and dig away at the earth to reveal the temple at Borobudur.
The world’s largest Buddhist temple is made up of five large square terraces, with three circular platforms on top of them, and then a magnificent stupa at the very top. From a distance it is stunning… but close up the true magic is revealed with intricate carvings on the walls throughout the whole complex.
Visiting it today, it’s hard to understand how something this large and spectacular could have remained hidden for so long. But there’s a certain enchantment in imagining you are the explorer who finds it for the first time in centuries. It’s slightly easier this morning because I’ve come before the official opening hours to climb to the top in time for the sunrise.
I’m told by some tour guides that the site gets absolutely packed during the day – to the point where it’s hard to even climb up the narrow and steep staircases, let alone lose yourself in the moment. I’m glad that’s not going to be me.
As the sun rises in the sky, it’s obscured partly by this morning’s cloud cover but rays are starting to break through and illuminate the structure and the surrounding lands. It’s still very quiet at the top of the temple and slowly it’s becoming lighter. Around me, inside 72 small stone stupas, are 72 seated Buddhas. They turn from shadowy silhouettes into glowing images of divinity as the morning progresses. Only one is uncovered but the rest seem protected and disconnected from the daily pilgrimage of the tourists.
The Borobudur Temple complex is the single most visited site in Indonesia, although the majority of tourists are Indonesians. The increasing numbers are presenting challenges and the authorities are looking at ways to manage any potential damage to the site. Millions of dollars have been spent on restoration and preservation over recent decades – particularly by UNESCO, which listed the site on the World Heritage List in 1991.
Something so intricate but also so large, abandoned for so many years, needs a lot of love and care. Being closer to Heaven doesn’t make it immune from the hands of man.