Though I love temples I seldom get the chance to go to temples outside India. So I was very happy to get an invitation from my Japanese daughter to go to Indonesia to visit the ancient temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Thus it happened that I landed in Jakarta last week and took the next flight to Yogjakarta. This city is also known simply as Jogja or Yogya. This word is actually a corruption of Ayodhya, the famed city of Rama in India. Names from the Ramayana abound in this island. Sometimes even without their knowing it many of the names used by the Indonesians are Sanskrit in origin but of course most of them are so distorted that it takes a while to find out the actual source. The Special Region where Yogyakarta is situated is the smallest province of Indonesia (excluding Jakarta). It is located on the island of Java. The word Java has such a special flavor that I was really glad that I had come here instead of one of the big cities. On a clear day one can see the famed volcano Mt. Merapi, which is still alive and the history of which is closely connected with the history of Borobudur and Prambanan.
This 300 hundred year old city is the cultural center not only of Java, but of the whole of Indonesia. This is in part due to the variety of religious influences found here like, Buddhist, Hindu, and other indigenous beliefs, which resulted in the construction of the impressive temples of Borobudur, Prambanan and the Dieng temple complex.
Indonesia's oldest palace 'The Kraton,' is situated here. This is still the home of Jogya's royalty. It is the only province in Indonesia that is still formally governed by a Sultanate, the Sultanate of Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat. Even now the current Sultan of Yogyakarta retains remarkable political prestige. Yogyakarta offers an abundance of Javanese art, painting, silverwork, batik handcraft, traditional Javanese dances, as well as contemporary art.
From Yogyakarta airport we took a taxi to Borobudur where we stayed at the Manohara hotel which is supposed to be the only one with a magnificent view of the temple which can be seen right in front of it. The hotel is set amidst a typical tropical garden filled with lush greenery and the usual tropical flowers like ixora, frangipani, bougainvilleas in variegated shades, sweet smelling jasmine and the famous paritjata flower which is mentioned in our puranas.
There was a unique blend of cultures even in the décor. We were greeted by two ancient Ganesha statues at the entrance but there was a pool in front of the hotel in which you found a statue of Lakshmi which had a striking resemblance to the Chinese goddess of prosperity called Kuan Yin and scarcely any resemblance to the Hindu goddess.
At night four huge water lilies bloomed, shedding their intoxicating fragrance into the air. I had read about these night blooming water lilies called ‘kumudini’ in Sanskrit literature but it was the first time that I had ever seen them. They were pure white and as big as lotuses. They reached their maximum size at midnight and closed up again by morning.
Watching the sunrise from the top of the temple was supposed to be a great experience but again we were told that since it was the rainy season it was very unlikely that we would be able to see it. I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to jump out of bed at 3 in the morning and dash up the hill. I had been traveling continuously from 4 am the previous day. It was a grueling journey from Rishikesh to Delhi and from Delhi to KL and then to Jakarta and to Yogyakarta and finally to Borobudur!!
However we set off at 10 in the morning along with a host of other sight seers. They were certainly not pilgrims and all of them were armed with hats and caps of various sizes and designs and of course the umbrella man was having a great trade selling multi colored umbrellas. So armed with one of these I set off in the blazing hot sun, not waiting for the rest of the party who were frantically searching for a good guide. Since I was a very slow walker and even a slower climber I fully expected the young members of my party to catch up with me in no time. But I climbed and climbed for more than half an hour without seeing any of them. Each time I turned round to have a look, all I could see was a sea of brightly colored umbrellas bobbing up and down. Eventually I gave up the attempt and decided to carry on to the top on my own. I did two of the pradikshanas or circumambulations of the 5th and 6th platforms and finally reached the top to get to which one had to climb some steps which were obviously made for giants. I was totally drenched in perspiration and would have been glad to get at least a tiny bit of shade but there was none to be had since all the pagodas hardly cast any shade as it was 12 noon. As I stood in the blazing hot sun, not knowing whether to go back or wait for the party, a number of college students clustered round me and started to talk to me very eagerly. They were so sweet that despite the heat I stood and answered all their questions. They had some sticky Indonesian sweets which they pressed on me. I was forced to take some even though the thought of eating sticky sweets when my whole body was sticky and hot was not a very happy thought. Before we parted they presented me with a pearl rosary and of course I gave them our ashram cards with the photo of baby Krishna by which they were quite charmed. I realized afterwards that this is typical Indonesian behavior. They are such a charming people, so friendly, so polite and so interested in people from India. I started my journey back to the ground soon after since I realized that unless I got to a shade soon I would probably collapse from the heat.
Now to describe the temple…. If seen from the air and also from the small reproduction of it in the museum I realized that it was made in the form of a Hindu Meru which is a vertical representation of the Sri Yantra. Apparently this was the shape of a Buddhist mandala. The height of the whole edifice before renovation was 42 meters. Now it is only 34.5 meters since the lowest level has been used as a supporting base.
It has ten terraces. The first six terraces are square and the two upper terraces are circular. Right on top is the terrace on which the statue of the Buddha had been seated facing westward. The statue has been removed and is now to be found in the museum. Each terrace symbolizes one of the stages of human life. The aspirant who wants to reach the stage of the Buddha has to go through each of these stages. The base is known as Kamadhatu. There is a very similar square in the Sree Yantra which is supposed to be that state of life in which the human being is still bound by desires ‘Kama’ and passions. From here we climb up to the second, third and fourth terraces and these are known as Rupadhatu. This is the stage when the human being is still bound to ‘rupa’ or form that is to the world of shapes and forms – the world of the senses as we experience it. On these four terraces the effigies of the Buddha are placed in open space. The next three terraces are known as Arupadhatu and here the effigies of the Buddha are confined inside domes with holes in them. Only those who have freed themselves from lust and passion for forms, can reach this stage. The final part is known as Arupa and is the state of nirvana, or liberation which is the state of the Buddha
Borobudur is said to have been built by King Samaratungga, one of the kings of the old Mataram Kingdom, the descendants of the Sailendra dynasty. Based on Kayumwungan inscription, an Indonesian named Hudaya Kandahjaya had a revelation in which he was told that Borobudur had once been a place for prayer that was supposed to be completed on 26 May 824, almost one hundred years after the construction had started. The name of Borobudur, as some people say, means a mountain having terraces (budhara), while other says that Borobudur means monastery on a high place.
It is a Buddhist temple and has 1460 relief panels and 504 effigies of Buddha in its complex. These panels are all on the walls of the terraces. In order to see them one has to climb the stairs of each of the terraces and then do a pradikshina or circumambulation in a clockwise direction round it. This is the correct way to discover the beauties of the temple and also derive maximum spiritual benefit. Each terrace has its own panels showing how skillful the sculptors were. Some of these panels tell the legendary story of the Ramayana. Besides these, there are panels depicting the condition of the society at that time. Some show farmers working in the fields and some show sailors in boats, thus giving us a glimpse of the advanced state of the navigation techniques of that age.
Many of the panels reflect the Buddha's teachings. If you walk through each narrow passage in Borobudur with a competent guide you will come to know much of the philosophy of Buddhism. Atisha, a Buddhist monk from India in the tenth century once visited this temple that was built 3 centuries before Angkor Wat in Cambodia and 4 centuries before the Grand Cathedrals in Europe. After gathering a lot of information from these reliefs he returned to India and started another sect known as Vikramashila Buddhism. Later he became the leader of the Vikramashila monastery and became a teacher in Tibet. Six scripts from Serlingpa were then summarized as the core of the teaching called "The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment" known as Bodhipathapradipa.
The sculpture of the panels leaves you spellbound. Great attention is paid to the most intricate details. Some portions show what happens to those who do evil deeds and what happens to those who do good deeds. Buddha’s dictum was that karma or action alone decides our life both now and in there hereafter. ‘As we sow, so we shall reap.’ Some of the panels depict the ‘Jataka Tales’ in which moral questions are answered through beautiful tales of birds and animals.
The mystery of why the temple was constructed in the first place and how it was buried for centuries is still not clear. Some say that initially it was surrounded by swamps and was buried because of the volcanic eruption of Mt. Merapi. Sir Stamford Rafles was said to be the one who first discovered the existence of this site and encouraged a German to excavate the huge mound and unearth the wonders of this temple. Since then the Indonesian government as well as the UNESCO has done a lot of restoration on the temple which is still being carried on.
However when you go there in the early morning, you can have a glimpse of what it might have been in ancient times. The edifice looms through the pearly mist of a monsoon day and one can imagine the wonder and the mysery of that amazing place and imagne the ancient Buddhist pilgrims plodding their way up with their rosaries swinging from their hands muttering the great mantra of the Buddha – ‘Aum Mani Padme Hum’.
We left Borobodur reluctantly and returned to Yogjyakarta. Our next port of call was Prambanan which is a ten-century Hindu temple. This temple is dedicated to Shiva, and is locally known as Candi Loro Jonggrang, which means 'temple of the slender virgin.' The beautifully sculptured spire, of the main temple which soars up to a height of fifty meters does indeed resemble a 'slender virgin.' Like the Buddhist stupa in Borobudur , Prambanan was probably abandoned when the Buddhist and Hindu inhabitants of Java moved to East Java. The temple is situated seventeen kilometers east of Yogyakarta, and is believed to have been built by King Balitung Maha Sambu in the middle of the ninth century. Another story goes that it was built around 850 CE either by Rakai Pakatan of the second Mataram dynasty, or Balitun Maha Shambu, during the Sanjaya Dynasty. Not long after its construction, the temple was abandoned and began to deteriorate. This was no doubt due to some fault in the location of the site according to Vaastu – the Indian science of architecture.Reconstruction of the compound began in 1918. The main building was completed around 1953. Much of the original stonework had been stolen and used at other sites. A temple will only be rebuilt if at least 75% of the original stones are available, and therefore only the foundation walls of most of the smaller shrines are now visible and there are no plans for their reconstruction.
The temple was again severely damaged during the earthquake in Java in 2006. Early photos suggest that although the complex appears to be structurally intact, damage is significant. Large pieces of debris, including carvings, were scattered all over the ground. The temple was closed to the public for quite a while. However, some weeks later in the same year the site re-opened for visitors.
The temple complex is set like a jewel amongst luxuriant green fields and some villages. It has eight shrines, of which the three main ones are dedicated to the trimurtis, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. The main temple of Shiva rises to a height of 130 feet and houses the magnificent statue of Shiva's consort, Durga.
The whole complex consists of three zones. The outer zone is a large space marked by a rectangular wall which has been destroyed. It is possible that it was once a sacred park, or an ashram for the priests. In fact the very word Prambanan is actually a corrupt version of the Sanskrit word ‘Brahmana’ or priest belonging to the Brahmin caste. No doubt these were the ones who came from India and made this temple to their favouite deities.
The middle zone consists of four rows of 224 individual small shrines. These concentric rows of temples have identical designs. Each row is slightly elevated towards the center. These shrines are called "Candi Perwara" or complementary temples. The Perwara are arranged in four rows around the central temples. Perhaps the Brahmin priests made these differentiations according to the four castes and each caste had a special enclosure. The enclosure next to the central compound was accessible to the Brahmin priests only, the next was reserved for the nobles or the Kshatriyas, and the third and fourth for the Vaisyas and Shudras. The very name of the temple suggests that it was a Brahmin controlled hierachy.
The central compound was no doubt the holiest of the three zones. It has a square elevated platform surrounded by square stone walls with stone gates on each of the four cardinal points. This is surrounded by eight main shrines called candi. The three main shrines as has been mentioned are dedicated to the Trimurtis or Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the preserver and Shiva, the destroyer. The three shrines in front of these main temples are dedicated to vehicles of the three gods. The shrine in front of the Brahma temple is to Hamsa or the swan which is Brahma’s vehicle, the one in front of Shiva is to Nandi or the bull and before Vishnu we have the Garuda or the eagle vehicle of Vishnu.
The Shiva shrine at the center contains five chambers. The four small chambers face the four cardinal directions and the main sanctum is reserved for the deity. It used to have a three meter high statue of Shiva as Mahadeva. The statue of Shiva stands on the yoni or pedestal that bears the carving of serpents on the north side. The other three smaller chambers contain statues of Shiva’s consort Durga, the sage Agastya, and Ganesha, the son of Shiva.. Agastya occupies the south chamber, and Ganesha the west, while the north chamber contains the statue of Durga as Mahisasuramardini depicting her slaying the buffalo demon. The shrine of Durga is also called the temple of Lara Jonggrang (Javanese: slender virgin), after a Javanese legend of princess Lara Jonggrang.
This is a very popular legend which connects the site with the Ratu Boko Palace. The legend goes of how Prince Bandung Bondowoso fell in love with Princess Lara Jonggrang, the daughter of King Boko. But the princess rejected his proposal because Bandung Bondowoso had killed King Boko and taken over her kingdom. Bandung Bondowoso forced her to agree ro marry him, but she set him one condition. The Prince would have to build her a thousand temples in one night.
The Prince went into meditation and conjured up a multitude of spirits from the earth. Helped by these supernatural beings, he succeeded in building 999 temples. When the prince was about to complete the thousandth, the princess woke up her palace maids and ordered the women of the village to begin pounding rice and to make a fire to the east of the temple, in order to make the prince and the spirits believe that the sun was about to rise. As the cocks began to crow, the supernatural helpers fled back into the ground. The prince was furious about this trick and cursed Lara Jonggrang to turn into stone. And thus alas the poor unfortunate princess became the last and the most beautiful of the thousand temples. According to tradition, the Shiva temple is the unfinished thousandth temple created by the demons and the Princess became the image of Durga in the north cell of the temple and thus it came to be known as Lara Jonggrang or Slender Virgin.
The bas-reliefs along the balustrades of the gallery around the Shiva and Brahma temples depict the Ramayana legend. They show how Sita who is known as Sinta in Javanese was abducted by Ravana, the demon king. The monkey king Hanuman brings his army to help Rama and rescue Sita. This story is also shown by the Ramayana Ballet which is regularly performed at full moon at the Trimurti open air theatre in west side of the illuminated Prambanan complex. On the balsutrades in Vishnu temple there is series of bas-reliefs depicting the story of baby Krishna which they call the Krishnayana., which is a word which is never found in India.
That night we went for the Ramayana ballet which was performed on an open air stage with a beautiful background . The costumes of the women reminded me of the costumes of dancers or Odissi. The villains make up was reminiscent of the Kerala Kathakali. All the names had strange twists in them and even the story had some things which are not to be found in the original Ramayana. Hanuman looked very fierce but Rama and Shinta were very sweet. It was a beautiful experience and a wonderful finale to my trip to Indonesia.
Hari Aum Tat Sat.