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Let’s explore Borobudur

Borobudur is usually item number one or two on the “must-see” list of places to visit in Java.  Although this World Heritage site receives regular comparison with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bangan in Myanmar, I have to admit that personally, I hadn’t heard of it until my wife started work at the UNESCO office in Jakarta. 

Then suddenly images of Borobudur seemed to start popping-up everywhere in Jakarta.  Photographs of it were on exhibit in Plaza Semanggi, while scaled down Borobudur models of sterling silver were on sale in Plaza Grande.  Even one of the forty-eight dioramas in the basement of Monas was dedicated to the thing.  So, on the first available long weekend, we booked a train to Yogyakarta to see this marvel for ourselves.

The world’s best educated-guessers say that this seven storey, 118 by118m structure was built in the 9th century AD, probably by the Sailendra dynasty, as an enormous three dimensional Buddhist tantric mandala.  They suspect that it was based on designs that Javanese pilgrims had seen while visiting India, and certainly seasoned travellers could be excused for having flashbacks to parts of Tibet or Nepal when visiting the site. 

It would have been an ambitious project to say the least.  Nothing on this scale appears to have been attempted on these islands before, so it’s a bit of a mystery why, after eighty-odd years of construction, it was abandoned to the jungle some eighty yeas later.  Some blame the nearby Merapi volcano, but the Hindu Sanyanas were merrily constructing their own huge Hindu temples in Prambanan just over thirty kilometres away, and they continued to do so for a few centuries more. 

For whatever reason, Borobudur was suddenly left to the jungle in the tenth century and remained there until Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who was ‘minding’ the East Indies for the Dutch during the Napoleonic wars, heard about this marvel and ordered that the jungle which had encased it, be cleared.  There were some attempts by the Dutch to restore the site in the 1930s, but it took a world heritage listing by UNESCO to save the site from erosion and pillaging. 

Twenty eight donor countries invested big bikkies in the 1970s and early 80’s pulling the monument apart stone by stone (roughly 1.2 million of them), cleaning each one up, recording and measuring, and then reassembling the whole lot into a brand spanking new temple (apart from all those various bits and pieces sitting in world museums and private collections).

We were advised that the only way to experience this monument was to stay on the temple grounds, in the old information centre (that has been converted to an expensive hotel) and see first fall of light on the stonework.  That’s all very nice and romantic, but our ‘mission’ was to experience Borobudur as common tourists, to see what tourists did to this monument, and what they learned from it.  So we took the cheaper (and easier) option of staying in Yogyakarta and booking a 5.00am minibus tour through our Hotel.

At 6.30am (not long after sunrise), our mini-bus parked in the centre of an empty gravel pit, occupied by another five or six coaches.  At the gates, masses upon masses of schoolchildren were assembled.  We were directed to special marble entry.  The special international tourist entry fee was 90,000 Rp, and led straight into the grounds.  Out came the camera and the video.  Time to get 90,000 Rp worth of photo action.

A team of orange suited gardeners raked up litter and trimmed micro-hedges as we stepped up the main path.  Signs warning against littering and vandalism (‘no scratching’) were everywhere.  No sign of tourist damage here. 

Then we obtained our first glimpse of the monument, which was particularly awesome.  The whole thing is a massive hill encased in carved stone.  The first five layers contain intricately carved friezes, and are then topped by three levels of stupas and statues.  From end to end the friezes cover about five kilometres, telling one complete continuous story (perhaps one of the world’s earliest comic strips).  As you can imagine, with three miles worth of carvings, you can cover the Buddha’s life (sorry, lives) in a fair bit of depth.

Because there is so much to see, with every nook and cranny designed to create a new visual experience, it pays to just wander slowly through the lower levels and simply absorb the atmosphere.  The architects of Borobudur knew how to use a location to its full advantage, with Gunung Merapi simmering over ones shoulder at every turn, and the blue greens of the surrounding countryside complementing the rich earth tones of the temple. 

Tour guides were available, for an additional 40,000rp.  The staff encouraged Western tourists to form a group to save costs, but there were only a handful of us there, and we’d already done our background reading.   It wasn’t just the touts and the guides who were disappointed at the lack of foreigners.  As we reached the fourth level of the temple, where the unique “perforated stupors” were located, we started to notice strange clusters of school children, some thirty deep in various parts of the temple.  Then, to our horror, we realised that live tourists were actually trapped inside each of these clusters. 

Shyly, one or two schoolkids approached us and asked if they could photograph us.  Then out came the autograph books and the requests for email addresses.  Next moment we in the centre of a study circle that slowly started resembling a Javanese mosh-pit.  These kids weren’t here to view one of Java’s ancient treasures.   They had come here all the way from East Java on assignment.  They were acting under instruction to deploy whatever tactics were necessary to talk to strangers (in particularly the foreign tourists).

It was a bizarre kind of reverse tourism where we the tourists had become the attraction, and photographs and souvenirs were being taken of us.  It then dawned on me that all those signs that declared “No Scratching” had nothing to do with the stonework.  They were there to protect the tourists from schoolchildren!!

By 11 o’clock we had finally freed ourselves from the students, but it was also well and truly time for us to head back to our minibus.  But there were three exits, all seeming to leading to stalls.  Someone in the Borobudur Park planning area had obviously decided that if there were 5 kms of friezes, then there should be at least 5 kms of stalls.  So we had a frustrating fifteen minutes of barging our way through endless rows of stuffy makeshift shops, with no choice but to keep moving forward until we got to the end.  But this only took us to another open-air market that filled up all the spaces not yet taken up with buses.  Luckily, as Western tourists, we were a lot easier to spot than our minibus in all this chaos and our bus driver rescued us in no time.

Many of the folk at UNESCO feel that tourist pressures are not helping the monument, and that more needs to be done to care for this historical treasure than manning the ticket window and mowing the lawn.  Surely there should be more to a World Heritage listing than just the creation of a splendid tourist attraction, a ‘Buddhist temple theme park’, so to speak. 

The idea of all that hard work in the1970s and 80s was to promote cultural understanding, create learning opportunities, and greater appreciation of humanities achievements, and not just to establish another huge market ground for crudely carved Buddhas, and annoying whistles.  Visitors should be encouraged to visit the temple, but in a way that is sustainable, and in a way that enriches them.

Signs of crumbling stonewear are not easy to notice through the untrained eye, but signs of a crumbling museum authority are easier to spot.   The accompanying museum is out of the way, and not a very inviting place.  Like many other museums on this archipelago, it has many artefacts but few explanatory notes, diagrams or other devices to assist visitors make sense, let alone gain an appreciation of these priceless relics. 

Despite the millions of visitors who have graced Borobudur with their presence, it is not the cash cow that one might at first think.  The bulk of visitors are local, and pay a fraction of the price which the handful of international tourists pay.  More money is needed for research into the temple’s future, as well as its past. 

I wish UNESCO all success in drawing world attention to this site, which is far from being restored.  Phase one, rescuing the temple from the jungle was a success, but Phase two, fostering a culture of ‘heritage’, and implementing the relevant training and expertise needed to make the site an important cultural focal point, will indeed be a challenge, as these outcomes are less tangible, (unless one arrives there at 6.30am in a minibus!).    

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