By Diane Daniel
One of the largest Buddhist structures in the world is in the largest Muslim country — Indonesia. Borobudur Temple on the island of Java is a colossal world wonder.
The temple was built between AD 750-850 with more than 2 million blocks of stone carried by hand from the Progo River to the building site on a small hill. Seen from the air, it looks like one giant stupa, the dome-shaped Buddhist structures used to house relics and commemorate significant facts and events.
Borobudur houses an amazing 1,460 individual narrative reliefs and 1,212 decorative ones, all ornately and intricately carved. They tell a series of 11 stories, or Buddhist doctrines. To follow a story from beginning to end, one must walk a complete circle around the three levels, or spiritual worlds, of the temples. At the top, which signifies nirvana, are 72 bell-shaped stupas, each covering a statue of a seated Buddha. Most are now missing their heads and limbs after centuries of wear and pillage.
Visitors reach their arms through the diamond-shaped openings in the stupa for the one Buddha statue that is supposed to bring good luck when touched.
The temple is Indonesia’s most popular tourist attraction, but because it’s a bit out of the way, it attracts more natives than foreigners. We were among a handful of Westerners on a day when dozens of Indonesian students were there on a class outing that included an assignment to get information from a foreigner. We obliged many by answering basic questions (Where are you from? Where are you going next?) and having our photos taken, usually with giggling students joining in.
If, like many visitors to this country, you are going only to Bali, one island over to the east, there are day trips by air to the famed temple. You can do the same from the capital of Jakarta, in west Java. My husband and I decided to take the train from Jakarta in order to see the countryside and mingle with the locals. Though the seven-hour ride on the “eksekutif” train (a phonetic version of “executive”) turned to nine, it was worth it for the sights and interactions.
The train station and airport are in Yogyakarta, a crowded city full of vendors and all sorts of human and motor-powered transportation. We found a “taksi” to take us on the hourlong ride to Borobudur village for $10.
We had booked a room at Manohara Hotel, the only lodging inside the archeological park. The rooms ($40) were scruffy, but the grounds were lovely, and the proximity to the temple unbeatable. The room rate includes an audiovisual show about the temple (highly recommended) and admission ($10). You can also hire an English-speaking guide for $5.
From the film, we learned that the reliefs tell parables of good and evil, but more amazing were the stories of the temple’s renovation. The temple was abandoned almost as soon as it was built, as Buddhism declined in Indonesia. Only in 1815 was it rediscovered under layers of volcanic ash. The Dutch, during their rule in the 20th century, did some restoration, but the temple became waterlogged and unstable.
Finally, between 1973 and 1983, a global restoration project financed the addition of supports, securing of the stones with cement, installing a much-needed lightning conductor, and cleaning much of the stone. Before-and-after photographs in the temple museum show the transformation from decay to splendor.