IN THE DARKNESS of the minutes before dawn, Arik and I are negotiating the steep stairway up the Borobudur. The only source of light in the enveloping blackness is our flashlights. I quicken my pace on the last few steps. The air is cold and the stars overhead bring a feeling of calmness. A few others have arrived before us and are jealously guarding their spots, there with the same purpose as mine – to wait for the sunrise. There is a collective sense of anticipation.
“We’re lucky,” whispers Arik, my motorbike guide from ViaVia, a Belgian company that, aside from running a restaurant and a guesthouse in Yogyakarta, does a number of really interesting alternative tours across Java. “The sky looks great. It’s going to be a very lovely sunrise.”
With the letdown of the sunrise trip to Angkor Wat last April still on my mind, I just shrug. “Hopefully.”
But as the sun gradually rises behind Mount Merapi on the horizon, the verdant rice fields and palm trees encircling us reveal themselves. The clouds may obscure a part of Merapi’s summit, but it cannot fully conceal the mountain’s majesty. The golden rays of the young day bring a magical aura to Indonesia’s greatest Buddhist monument.
Long before Indonesia‘s colonization, traders from India arrived and settled in the archipelago, taking with them their Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Some of them constructed temples and brought along priests and monks. In the 8th and 9th century, the region that comprises present-day Central Java became the stronghold of the Buddhist Sailendra Kingdom and the Hindu Mataram Kingdom, both of which were responsible for the construction of majestic temple complexes. Their aim was to reproduce the Indian civilization in Java.
The Borobudur itself was constructed using two million stone blocks wrapped around a small hill. The massive stupas stand on six square terraces with a base that measures around 118 square meters, and reaching the top involves passing through four sets of stairways that cuts through intricately designed gateways. Overall, the temple is supposed to resemble a giant tantric mandala, which is the Buddhist representation of the cosmos.
As Buddhism in Indonesia declined and power transferred from Central Java to the rulers in the east, Borobudur was abandoned and forgotten underneath the ashes spewed forth by a number of Merapi explosions. In 1815, Sir Thomas Raffles stumbled upon the ruins, leading to a massive project to restore the temple. Finally, in 1991, the Borobudur was placed in the World Heritage Site list along with Prambanan.
There is a sense of eeriness here, a strong feeling of how this structure is at the mercy of nature and how it was nearly completely lost in obscurity, not unlike the Ta Prohm in Cambodia. It’s impossible to stand on top today, especially with the steady rise of the sun, and not feel a spirituality draping the surroundings. The stupas are now catching the first rays of sunlight and in their golden hues, they seem like imposing guards of Buddha, the statues of which stare into the rice fields around the temple.
On the walls of the temple, there are more than a thousand panels containing carvings of images detailing the teachings of Buddhism and the way of life of ancient Javanese. Around 400 images of Buddhas are placed inside the stupas and one of them is named Lucky Buddha – whoever touches it will see the fulfillment of his/her wish.
Among those who have spared enough sleep to witness this spectacle, Arik and I are the last to go down. I want to savor my last moments here on top – the serene environment, the comforting sunshine, the ethereal sense that embraces my soul. The paints of Borobudur have long faded, but to those who witness it hundreds of year after it was first constructed, it still never fails to awe and inspire.
“Aren’t we lucky?” Arik says again while looking at the sun, now peeking from the slopes of Merapi.
This time I cannot help but nod.
First published in TravelBlog on September 12, 2013.