Yokyakarta: "Don't Miss Borobodur!"
May 11, 2005
Dear Family and Friends,
A fellow traveler wrote to me and said, "Don't miss Borobudur."
I took her advice.
"From the plains of Kedu, 42km north-west of Yoyga, a small hill rises out of a platform of palm trees and fields of rice and sugar cane.
It's topped by one of the greatest Buddhist relics of Southeast Asia - up there with Cambodia's Angkor Wat and Myanmar's Bagan."
"Rulers of the Sailendra dynasty built the colossal pyramid of Borobudur some time between 750 and 850 AD. Little else is known about Borobudur's early history, but the Sailendras must have recruited a huge workforce, for some 60,000 cubic meters of stone had to be hewn, transported and carved during its construction."
"Borobudur is a broad, impassive monument, built in the form of a massive symmetrical stupa, literally wrapped around the hill. It stands solidly on its base of 118m x 118m. Six square terraces are topped by three circular ones, with four stairways leading up through finely carved gateways to the top. The paintwork is long gone, but it's thought that the gray stone of Borobudur was at one time washed with white or golden yellow to catch the rays of the sun. Viewed from the air, the whole thing looks like a giant three dimensional tantric mandala."
"In fact, it has been suggested that the Buddhist community that once supported Borobudur consisted of early Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhists who used it as a walk-through mandala."
"The entire monument was conceived as a Buddhist vision of the cosmos in stone, starting in the everyday world and spiraling up to nirvana - eternal nothingness, the Buddhist 'heaven.' At the base of the monument is a series of reliefs representing a world dominated by passion and desire, where the good undergo reincarnation as some higher form of life and the evil are destined to a lower reincarnation."
"There are nearly 1460 richly decorated narrative panels and 1212 decorative panels in which the sculptors have carved a virtual textbook of Buddhist doctrines, as well as many aspects of Javanese life 1000 years ago. There is a continual procession of ships and elephants, musicians and dancing girls, warriors and kings."
"Some 432 serene-faced Buddhas stare out from open chambers above the galleries, while 72 more Buddha images sit, only partly visible, in latticed stupas on the top of the terraces. Reaching in through the stupa to touch the fingers or foot of the Buddha inside is believed to bring good luck."
Please forgive me, my friends, for using my guidebook to describe this special place. I still must be exhausted as I recall climbing up and over and around this monument with no protection from the hot Javanese sun.
I also recall my exhilaration, and I must admit, a little pride. Now I have seen all three dramatic Buddhist sites in Southeast Asia.
And, just like the other ancient temples, Borobudur was crawling with tourists. Yes, this is a serious place, a pilgrimage destination. But also it was lots of fun. The tourists here were dozens of Indonesian high school kids on a field trip.
These kids are sweet and warm and friendly, unself-conscious and talkative. Each small group insisted I pose for photos with them. And naturally, they are happy to pose for me. In fact, in many places in Asia, kids only have to see a camera in my hand and they rush over and smile.
And not only the kids. Groups of adults also call to me and draw me to their midst.
This is one of the great pleasures of my travels. I am treated like a visiting dignitary, celebrity or rock star. Or, maybe, just a guy they would like to know for a moment.
It's one of the reasons I feel so comfortable in the East. I feel "at home" here.
In her own image, my mother, Ruth Polatschek, trained me to be curious, and open and friendly to strangers. I try to behave in that way. And so, I naturally react to that same pattern in others. I "fit in."
In the course of a brief interaction with my fellow "photographers," inevitably I am asked, "Where are you from?"
Now, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. American armed forces now are stationed in another Muslim country. So you can imagine my apprehension as I respond, "I am from America - USA."
(As we say in Thailand, "Mai pen rai." Never mind. It's OK. No problem.")
I never feel uncomfortable. I never feel threatened or in any danger.
The only negative reaction I got was a sort of neutral, expressionless stare. Everywhere I go, everyone, really, gives me a broad grin, an enthusiastic "thumbs up" and a cheerful "America. OK.!"
So, I thank my friend who recommended Borobudur. I give it an energetic "thumbs up."
And, may I conclude with recommendations of my own: "Don't miss Mt Bromo, at sunrise." "Don't miss Prambanan, at sunset."
See you there.