Borobudur – the stunning, the sad and the expensive…

A place that was firmly set in our travel plans since the very beginning of them was Borobudur. The idea of an enormous Buddhist temple set in dense jungle ringed by mountains and volcanoes in Central Java was irresistible to us.

We had arrived in the town after a bumpy and exhilarating bus ride from Yogyakarta, and immediately wanted to see the temple. We were a little disappointed, although not entirely surprised, to see that the whole complex was impossible to see unless you paid to enter – and to reach the entrance gates you had to walk trough a warren of flea market stalls all trying to sell small stone carvings, hats and clothes. We didn’t mind having to pay to go into the temple but were quite disappointed that every view from outside the private park had been obscured.

After paying to go in we raced up to the temple and were instantly captivated by its beauty. It was inevitably packed with people, but we didn’t mind that. The views from each level were increasingly stunning and it was amazing to look at the detail of some of the stone work was very interesting to look at. We stayed until just before sunset (having heard it was an extra charge of you hang around for it) and made our way back to our guest house.

Borobudur is quite a sleepy place with few options of places to eat, so when we were feeling a bit hungry we headed to the only place we had seen open called Lotus II guesthouse. This was were we met Johnny, he greeted us at the guesthouse and took our food order, then chatted a little about what we had been up to that day. After a little conversation it turned out that he was a tour guide and provided tours of the temple with a seemingly pretty in depth knowledge of the place and its history. We decided to go on his tour to get a better idea of the history of the temple and the philosophy behind it, as in Johnny’s words – the place wasn’t simply a pile of stones. We agreed to meet him at 7am the next morning inside the temple complex.

We had planned to go in at 6am to catch some of the sunrise, but were frustrated in our efforts by an official at the temple who insisted we had the wrong type of ticket so wouldn’t let us through. She also wouldn’t let us exchange it for what she was insisting was the correct ticket so forced us to queue and buy new ones for the same fee we paid the previous day – all whilst wearing the plastered on smile of someone who hated their job but relished the small amount of power that came with it. With that unfortunate episode over, we entered the temple again – left with a feeling that it was being more that a little exploited by the company that operated it. As a history graduate the idea of public heritage for private profit has never sat well with me.

Johnny met us at 7 as he said and had brought with him bags of traditional Indonesian snacks fresh that morning from the market. Over a hefty breakfast Johnny started to explain to us the history and development of religions in Java. This was fascinating and we listened with great interest to the progression from Animism to Hinduism to
Buddhism finally to Islam as the majority religion in the region. He explained that construction of Borobudur started in the earlier stages of Buddhism in Java, and that the sight was picked by royal architects who had scoured all of the island for the holiest place. We were then told about the way that the temple was built on what was previously a lake which was filled in, and all of the stones were transported via a nearby river – finally being cut and pieces together using an intricate interlocking system. Overall construction on the temple took 150 years from a workforce who we were assured were willing locals, not slaves as Johnny was keen to stress. The temple was the. Abandoned after war between kingdoms had forced the ruling family to flee – and the temple was buried under volcanic ash. It lay forgotten until the 1800s when Sir Stanford Raffles (founder of Singapore) stumbled across it and ordered the sight to be cleaned. Johnny told us that after this in the late 1800s and early 1900s a Dutch architect was behind the complete restoration of the temple. This being what really brought it into the full public attention. All of this information was very insightful and we greatly enjoyed being taught so much about the sight, I have to admit it was a lot to take in over two hours in the morning sun, but nonetheless a fascinating history lesson.

The lesson wasn’t quite over at this point – we had just a little more of the twentieth century to cover. This was that in the 1970s UNESCO got involved in the restoration of Borobudur and soon after it was declared one of the seven wonders of the world. Then in the 1980s a bomb planted by religious extremists who viewed the temple as idolatrous ruined the top level causing work to be restarted. Along with this happening, the village of Borobudur which used to surround the foot of the temple was forcefully cleared by the Indonesian government and the locals were forced to relocate. Many of the villagers relocated now work as hawkers outside the temple sight selling various trinkets to tourists. The sight was then handed to a private company to operate and they promptly planted trees obscuring the temple from view. Corruption and mishandling of the sight led to it being stripped of its wonder status by UNESCO in 2012 and from what we were told the prices of admission have steadily risen since. It was sad to find out this side to the history of the monument, you get a feeling there is a buildup of resentment on all sides from the way that the heritage of the sight has been handled and arguably exploited. There was in fact a general feeling of resentment toward tourists in the town of Borobudur, where we found with few exceptions it to be a surprisingly hostile place. From the glares of some locals as we were walking to town to the gangs of kids revving scooters waving banners with religious slogans near guesthouses and around the temple sight at night we felt a general tension.

After this sadder tangent of the lesson Johnny then decided to show us around the actual temple, starting at the base and ascending clockwise to correctly ‘read’ the stones. ‘Reading the stones turned out to be a fascinating experience, as each level represented a different stage of spiritual existence, and frescos on the walls depicted the life of Buddha. The detail here was stunning as was finding out that before fleeing the royal dynasty that built the Borobudur ordered that any carvings they deemed embarrassing for invading forces to see.

Walking further up the temple onto the upper ‘enlightenment’ levels Johnny explained the significance of the bell shaped statues which represented the death and enlightenment of Buddha. He also told us that most of the design of the temple corresponds to varying holy numbers in the Buddhist faith, whether it is the number of levels of the temple or the amount of Buddha statues that there are. The design of the sight can only be described as wondrous, with its remarkable accuracy and intricacy.

Overall out visit to Borobudur was something that I am not quite sure if I could describe as wonderful, but was certainly breathtaking. I felt that knowing how villagers were evicted and how the temple cost for everybody (including the Buddhist population of Indonesia) to enter made it an uncomfortable experience. It’s true that monuments cost money to visit the world over, but rarely has one felt quite so profit driven.

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