Have I mentioned my undergraduate degree in archaeology? Few things get me feeling all warm and fuzzy like old stuff, and Central Java might as well be called Archaeology Disney Land. Unfortunately, three weeks is not sufficient time to see all of the ruins around Yogya, and we only had three days, leaving us just enough time to see two: Borobudur and Prambanan, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Susan has a major thing for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In an effort to rest Susan’s sprained ankle, we stopped at a drugstore to buy a pair of crutches before setting out and then had a wheelchair to minimize walking when we weren’t climbing the structures. Susan scaled the uneven steps of both Borobudur and Prambanan on crutches and in the rain like a champion – with a smile on her face the whole time.
Borobudur is a mammoth Buddhist structure built in the 8th century and abandoned shortly after. UNESCO ran a major restoration project on it in the 70s – which included disassembling it brick by brick and putting it back together (woah). In 1983, bombs were planted near the top destroying some small stupas, but nothing that couldn’t be repaired. Today, it is magnificent. The colossal size of the structure is one thing, but I was most entranced by all the carvings that lined the corridors.
One is meant to enter the temple and walk clockwise in meditation looking at the reliefs that depict life on earth – with all of its pleasures, pains, and punishments, the transformation of the original Buddha from a lavish prince to The Enlightened One, and finally, Nirvana is at the top. Strolling through Borobudur was incredible, albeit confusing, and it wasn’t until after reflection and reading about the experience that I’ve been able to understand the genius behind the building as a meditation tool. For three levels, you are overwhelmed by visual stimuli. From the base of the floor are reliefs that are impossible to appreciate – due to quantity and detail – unless examined slowly and thoughtfully. It is overwhelming. Looking up, there it seems endless and there are few spaces to look outwards over the vast green field that Borobudur is situated in. One almost feels trapped, and, especially for the ignorant tourist, very confused. Upon reaching the, now circular, platforms of Nirvana, everything is open and there are no carvings, only soft shaped Stupas with Buddhas inside of them at in the very center, a large, empty Stupa. When we made it to Nirvana, I remember thinking “this is it?” But now, I understand, that yes, that’s it. Buddhism is about abandoning worldly possessions and preoccupations and reaching a state of empty clarity, Enlightenment or Nirvana. The summit of Borobudur evokes exactly that.
One cannot help but to notice that many of the Buddha statues are missing their heads. As it turns out, that even at a place meant to motivate people to abandon greed and possessions, people struggle to resist themselves and still take.
After visiting Borobudur, we went to Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex roughly one hour from Borobudur and built only fifty years later. Java embraced both Hinduism and Buddhism, and it was very interesting to see the similarities and differences between the two sites.
Prambanan is said to be one of the largest and grandest examples of Hindu art. Unfortunately, it has not survived the earthquakes as well as Borobudur. Restorations are still underway and not all the temples are completely stable, check out the hard hats we had to don in the main Shiva temple.
The main Shiva temple tells the Ramanaya epic in reliefs, which was very interesting to see because the previous night, we had attended the ballet. It was amazing how easy it was to identify parts of the performance on the temple walls. The story is about a princess who is abducted and then rescued by Hanunan, the white monkey. The ballet was incredible complete with armies of colorful monkeys, fire, and beautiful costuming.
I was not as taken by Prambanan as I was Borobudur, but we also didn’t allow ourselves sufficient time to embrace the complex. Eight key temples are clustered together while just on the outside is a border of temples that now lay in complete ruins. The entire complex lies over many square kilometers that would have been wonderful to explore on bike, like we did at Bagan in Myanmar.
I was most impressed by Prambanan’s beauty at night when the main temples were the backdrop to the Ramanaya Ballet. It was very cool to see the reliefs brought to life with gamelan music and Javanese dance.