Ancient Temples and Extra Credit White People: Visiting Borobudur and Prambanan

We took four days last week to leave Bali for a bit and go on a side trip to the area around Yogyakarta, in central Java.

The primary things that drew us to the city and region of Yogyakarta, often nicknamed Jogja, were the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Borobudur and Prambanan, which are the largest Buddhist temple and one of the largest Hindu temple complexes in the world, respectively. They did not disappoint.  Both of these sites tell epic stories from their religions through statues and thousands of carved reliefs (most significantly, the stories of the life of the Buddha and the Ramayana).  They are truly astonishing places of cultural significance and innovative feats of architectural design and preservation.  I had learned about Borobudur several years ago in the context of the looting of important buildings around the world, as a number of the heads of the Buddha statues were broken off for collecting, but I had never expected to actually make it there to see for myself.  Needless to say, I was very excited to actually do so.

Turns out, this vast Buddhist temple is located around an hour’s drive away from the city of Jogja (Yogyakarta), and wasn’t hard to reach, even though it is definitely off the beaten path for most international visitors to this country. Borobudur itself is situated on top of a hill in a park filled with tropical trees and flowering plants, near a village that seems to have in good part developed to support the millions of yearly tourists and pilgrims. These tourists are mostly domestic visitors, meaning that we, as foreigners, white people, and English speakers, were something of an attraction ourselves, shall we say! But we’ll come back to that point later.

Toby at the base of the temple.

After a short walk through the gardens and up the hill from our hotel, the Manohara Center for Borobudur Study, we were confronted by the vastness of the temple, the many tiers of stone rising up and filling the horizon. It is more horizontal than vertical, and kind of resembles a layered cake at first glance. Closer looks reveal that the walls are lined with hundreds of meditating Buddha statues, geometrically detailed archways, and stupas, which appear like large, sitting bells. Directly ahead, a steep staircase stripes the middle of the facade, interrupting the horizontal lines of the 9 floors of statuary surrounding the  building. Streaming up this staircase, and only occasionally diverting onto one of the tiers, were hundreds of people in brightly colored clothes, many of whom carried umbrellas to fight off the sun, and/or wore head coverings called jilbab.

(At least we think that’s the right name for that shape in this culture, since the name has other meanings elsewhere; they were like hoods that fit around the edges of the face and over the hair, with little included sun brims and curves of cloth that fit loosely over the shoulders.  We also saw wearers of the occasional hijab, which tends to be a rectangle of cloth wrapped around the hair and neck, and is more familiar to the American imagination of Muslims, along with plenty of women who did not cover their hair.  We have since learned that it is a fairly recent development for Indonesian Muslim women to wear head coverings, as traditionally Islam in this region was more relaxed than the practice of the religion in some other parts of the world, although those more conservative areas have started to exert more influence here in the last few decades.)

As we started to explore the lowest layers of the building  (there are no indoor rooms, just concentric paths around the outside), we had our first experience being a spectacle ourselves. A group of maybe 6 adolescent kids in matching school uniforms got our attention, and nervously/excitedly asked if they could practice their English with us for a school assignment. When we agreed, one turned their phone to video mode and began recording our conversation. They took turns asking us our names, what we thought of Borobudur and Indonesian weather, what are hobbies and favorite Indonesian foods are, and eventually asked to take a photo with us. They were so eager and earnest that we happily agreed. We didn’t realize that we would end up repeating this kind of experience dozens of times that day, no exaggeration. It seems all the schools in the area have nearly the same assignment of interviewing native English speakers for extra credit (or French, as we found out when one group said bonjour! and was a bit disappointed when we said we were American and not French). At one point, we spent easily 10 minutes or more being swarmed by excited adolescents wanting our signatures, photos, and high marks from us for their English skills. Toby and I eventually just started giggling from how strangely and unexpectedly like celebrities we felt, and how happy many of these kids were to stand next to us in a photo.

Emmons with the first group of students to ask us for an interview and photos.

But this wasn’t limited to school children, oh no. A few of their teachers asked for photos with us, as did numerous families throughout the park, men, women or children eagerly pointing at my short, blond hair, or bouncing a little in their excitement whenever we agreed.

It was striking to us what this says about the demographics many of these people are likely exposed to regularly. There is a fair amount of diversity in Indonesia from one area to the next, with many Chinese tourists all over, and, in the touristy parts of Bali, many Australians, along with Europeans and Asians of all sorts. But here, in the Yogyakarta region of Java, this is clearly not true. Despite the growing popularity of Borobudur as a tourist attraction for international travelers, we were still in the extreme minority, and that’s been a rare experience in our lives previously (the most obvious exception for me being my study abroad time in Japan in high school). We have not noticed any hostility from people about the fact that we’re clearly foreign (this is something we’ve been asked by folks back home), but mostly just have felt perpetually out of place, to varying degrees. It really highlights how privileged we normally are to live in places where we aren’t the obvious minority, given the problems that can come from standing out like that. But here, we are both out of place and a cause for happy excitement.  This makes me think that people’s reactions are a matter of novelty and likely also of white status in the media. (The sunscreen and skin lotions in the store, by the way, are sometimes marketed as “whitening,” like toothpaste in the US!)

Another shift from our time in Bali is that the majority population here is Muslim, rather than Hindu. (Apparently, when a major king in Java declared that his kingdom would become Muslim somewhere around 500 years ago, many communities and other rulers that wished to stay in a Hindu society left for Bali, reinforcing the Hindu culture already there and leaving Java more Muslim than not.) This has meant for us that the call to prayer has been a lot more prevalent and obvious than in anywhere else either of us has been before. We heard a single mosque broadcasting the call when we were in Padang Bai, but here it comes from many mosques all at once. Sing-song, in a key/mode that sounds mournful and eery relative to Euro-American traditions, all different patterns and rhythms overlapping and sometimes discordant. This was most true when we were sitting in a park in Jogja, with mosques on all sides, but we could also hear the calls when we were at the temples. A great moment was when we climbed Borobudur early in the morning to watch the sunrise from the top, and the first call to prayer of the day joined us in greeting the sun, along with a flock of darting swallows.

Sunrise from the top level of Borobudur, with stupas, a statue of the Buddha meditating, and Mount Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia.

During the main part of the day, most of the visitors to the temples (particularly Borobudur) were also clearly Muslims (mostly identifiable by the women’s head coverings and the occasional overheard Islam-associated phrase borrowed from Arabic), many of whom were school groups. We were struck by the obvious amount of interfaith tolerance and education that that implied. A guide who brought us around Prambanan explained that a major founding principle of Indonesia, represented on their national symbol, is not religious tolerance, but rather that everyone believes in one god, and that all the gods of different religions (here mostly Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism) are just different interpretations of and paths to the same central divinity called by different names. This is a pretty important aspect of Hinduism already, and I imagine that it had spread into the broader local culture from there.

There are of course people who are more conservative and dogmatic and less tolerant, like anywhere else. A museum docent with whom we spoke a lot in Yogyakarta said that she had converted to Catholicism from Islam, which had nearly meant her ostracism from her family, and that she had to pretend to be Muslim whenever she went back to her village. She lived mostly in Jogja because it was easier to be Christian in the city, with many Christian Chinese immigrants living there. (We later learned that a poll from a few years ago reported that a full 30% of Indonesians thought the death penalty an appropriate punishment for leaving Islam, so no wonder she suffered discrimination for her choice to convert!) But at the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan, people of various beliefs were paying respect to these ancient, impressive religious sites and sacred grounds.

We spent the better part of three days doing that ourselves, with breaks to rest or get away from the heat, and visits to associated smaller temples and museums. It was incredible to be walking around these massive buildings with their thousands of carvings, all in stone, and to think about not only all the tremendous work that went into making them, but also all the wonder, meditation, prayer, discussions about philosophy, ethics, history, and the nature of the cosmos and the soul that people have experienced at these places over the years. Looking at the statues of Buddhas and gods and the carved stories of their lives, we were amazed to think about how many human beings have passed before them, learning from them and bringing those lessons back out into the world.

A relief on Borobudur – likely showing the type of ship used in the Cinnamon Trade between Indonesia, China, and Madagascar.  A few years ago, archaeologists worked with local shipbuilders to recreate this ship, after which a crew sailed it all the way to Ghana!

The process that these places have undergone to get to their current condition is also pretty striking. Begun likely in the late 8th or 9th century, they took many decades to completely build, of course, with some stone carvers probably spending their whole working lives on one building. Borobudur then became a center of teaching and pilgrimage, with students of Buddhism likely needing to learn from the carvings all the way around one layer of the structure before moving up to the next path, with the whole building forming a giant mandala filled with stories in stone. Five centuries later, the large volcano in the region, Merapi, exploded, covering the valley in so much ash that the region was abandoned and the ruling dynasties moved from central to eastern Java. Borobudur got covered in ash and eventually the jungle took it, until it was uncovered again in 1814 and gradually restored during the 20th century.

Prambanan’s present existence is more impressive still, as it was destroyed (earthquakes and volcanoes, again mostly due to Merapi and the underlying fault there) and for centuries consisted of hundreds of forest-covered piles of rubble.  They have completely rebuilt the central 8 temples and a few of the surrounding 240. Most of these are still sitting in relatively organized piles in what archaeologists believe to be their original grid-like pattern, surrounding a series of massive spire temples dedicated to the central three deities of Hinduism: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and most important in a region of volcanoes and earthquakes, Shiva the Destroyer. These temples are steep-sided, almost pyramidal, with a tiered path part way up with storytelling carvings, and doorways leading into darkened rooms housing statues of the gods, with smaller spaces for their avatars, mounts, and wives.

The main temples of Prambanan – You can see some of the rubble from the still-ruined minor temples in the foreground.

And most of this was rebuilt in what must be the world’s most complicated and heaviest jigsaw puzzle.  Each piece has key-and-lock groves to help it fit into its neighbors, meaning that each one is distinct and can only go stably in a single spot in the structure.  Despite that, they’ve figured out how to reconstruct the most massive and intricate of these structures.  They estimate it would take another 300 years before the entire complex could be reconstructed, by the way, and they’ve already been doing it for nearly 200 years!  Totally astounding.

Emmons at Shiva’s temple, with the medium one for his mount, a giant ox, in the background.

We also got to experience a more ephemeral art form important to this region.  Our other main goal in Yogyakarta was to learn more about shadow puppetry, or wayang kulit, an important tradition that developed around here before spreading to other parts of the archipelago. To this end, we found a museum (the Sonobudoyo) that houses a living workshop for producing the puppets, as well as a nightly performance group. These puppets are carved out of preserved buffalo hide, with small holes punctured in intricate patterns, creating flat figures on sticks with impressive silhouettes. For performance, the puppet master sits on one side of an illuminated screen, backed by a full gamelan orchestra, and casts shadows onto the screen for the audience to watch as he tells the stories of the Ramayana or Mahabharata, important mythologies from Hinduism. (The puppets are also brightly painted, even though only their shadows emerge through the silhouettes.) The orchestra plays on a series of metal and wooden instruments that look like bells, gongs, drums, and xylophones, and which create clear tones all layered on each other in a rapid but minimalist fashion. (Many places in Indonesia will play small-group versions of gamelan, which we’ve really been enjoying.)

A puppet of Prince Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, and the star of the performance we saw – This particular puppet was in the workshop we visited, waiting to be painted.

After checking out the museum and the workshop, and learning from the puppet-makers about their craft, we stayed to watch that night’s show.  The performance we saw was a section of the Ramayana (which Indonesians like to compare to Romeo and Juliet, but with a happy ending) but because it had a lot of talking without much motion of the puppets, and was all in the local Javanese dialect, it was rather hard to follow. The fighting part was pretty cool, though, as the characters flail and chase other across the screen with swirling motions by the puppeteer. Admittedly, the performance by the national Indonesian gamelan orchestra and master puppeteer I saw a few years ago at Cornell was much more engaging and accessible, as the whole story was compressed into 2-3 hours (rather than just seeing one episode at its usual slow pace, taken from a maybe 16 hour total story) and there was a a live translation projected on a nearby screen. But that’s ok, because we got to see a local Javanese production in its home region, and met the creators of the instruments and the puppets. And it was fascinating to listen to the trance-like music of the gamelan, played live and by a full traditional orchestra.  Definitely worth it for arts/heritage/music fans like us.

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Puppets in action!

And now, we are back in Bali!  We first headed to a small town in the northwest of the island, near the protected lands of Menjangan Island and the West Bali National Park, and stayed in a little informal B&B run by a local host.  You may have seen the pictures he posted of us on Facebook this week, actually!  It was nice and quiet there after the busy chaos of Jogja, offering a relaxing break between that city and our current adventure in Ubud this week, which is a small city in central Bali, and one of the 3 main locations of the book/movie “Eat Pray Love.”  More on those experiences later!  If you made it all the way through this long post, thanks for reading!

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