Temples in the Jungle

06/05/2016 18:20

From the shrine highest terrace, the morning sun warms the rough surface of the stony bells covering the Bodhisattva statues. One after another in a never ending succession. In the distance the top of Mount Merapi smokes above the clouds that hide its slopes. Looks like a majestic apsara, a heavenly nymph, suspended in the air. Borobudur awakes.

As soon as access is open school students with their teachers run to reach the path that leads to the main stairways. It is one of the most visited monuments in Indonesia. There are plenty of foreign tourists but most visitors are local people.

Borobudur’s name probably comes from Vihara Buddha Uhr, the Buddhist Monastery Hill. Although for the French traveller Robert Chauvelot, who visited the place in the twenties of the last century this wonder of Java, rivalling Angkor ( ) means in Javanese Thousand Buddhas, as he wrote in The Paradise Islands.

Borobudur, one of the great wonders of the world, about twenty four miles west Yogyakarta, is a huge Mahayana temple willing to be, symbolically, a path to enlightenment progress through the three levels of Buddhist cosmology. Heritage of Sailendra dynasty that ruled Srivijaya in the eighth century, the structure was built in that time upon a hill. It ascends through several architectural levels until six square and three circular platforms. Seventy two thousand cubic yards occupied by two million stone blocks shape the huge stupa. The ground plan takes the form of a giant mandala.

The first level is Kāmadhātu, the world of desire, comprising the base that holds the perimeter. To continue going up through the steps and across the balustrades carefully watched by the gaze of the stone lions at Rupadhatu, the world of forms represented here by five terraces waning in each floor. The walls hold thousands of reliefs. The Borobudur carvings occupy two twenty seven thousand square feet of walls and facades including those that were hidden behind the base reinforcement. They portray the daily life of the ancient Java in the eighth century and thanks to them it has been known how the ships were, the composition of an early gamelan orchestra and abundant daily court scenes, the king, the queen and their subjects. About Gods and goddesses like Tara holding a lotus flower and celestial nymphs caught in a conversation. Some of the latter were carved into the tribhanga pose, a classical ideal posture in ancient India that gives all its beauty to the arched neck, hips and knees holding the body on one leg. No representations are missing from the life of Buddha before he became Prince Siddhartha.

The upper level corresponds to Arupadhatu, the formless ocean of Nirvana, the complete emptiness of nonexistence of being. These are the three circular upper floors. In the last three platforms seventy-two bell shaped and perforated small stupas allows to glimpses the Buddha statues inside each. The large central Borobudur stupa is crown at one hundred fifteen feet above the ground. At lower levels there are four hundred thirty-two Buddha statues. At first glance all are apparently identical, but it is not true. Depending on where are located they change hand gestures based on the five points of the compass: north, south, east, west and zenith, the latter represented by the upper platform. Each of the hand positions or mudras symbolizes an attitude: charity, meditation, boldness or reason.

In the distance Prambanan is about thirty miles east of Borobudur. In the time probably around half a century. The one that made the difference and rivalry between the Buddhist Sailendra dynasty of the Srivijaya kingdom and the Hindu Sanjaya, which in central Java formed the kingdom of Mataram after the military defeat of King Balaputra by King Rakai Pikatan. The latter would order to build the temple complex at Prambanan plain, which also has the largest number of Hindu shrines throughout Indonesia.

The main complex of Prambanan is dedicated to Trimurti, the Hindu Trinity composed by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Originally two hundred forty temples stood in the place; most of them were minor and were aligned in four concentric rows to the core. Just as in Borobudur, the temple as a whole is a symbolic model of the Hindu cosmogony displayed in three planes: Bhurloka, Bhuvarloka and Svarloka, corresponding to the three levels of Buddhism in the evolution towards Nirvana.

In the centre, the stylish Candi Shiva Mahadeva is the largest construction, reaching almost one hundred seventy feet high. Inside the main chamber, a three meters Shiva Mahadeva statue out from the shadows. He is accompanied on neighbouring chambers by Agastya, incarnation of Shiva as divine teacher, Ganesh, his elephant-headed son and Durga, his consort, killing a devil incarnate as a bull. Outside, surrounding the temple, forty two scenes from the Ramayana narrates the abduction of Sita, wife of Rama, and how Hanuman and Sugriwa helped to rescue her. On both sides there are two temples attached. North one dedicated to Vishnu with new Ramayana scenes and a Brahma statue with four heads. South Candi Brahma reliefs tell the story of Krishna, hero of the Mahabharata.

The main temple and by extension the whole complex is also known as Candi Rara Jonggrang, the temple of the slender virgin. Refers to the existing legend about the construction of the temple in which the Princess Rara Jonggrang was turned to stone while trying to avoid wedding with Prince Bandung Bondowoso. He must to build a thousand temples in one night whether he really wanted to marry her. She tried to fool him making him believe dawn was breaking when he had only just one more shrine to build. He lost the deal, but in revenge turned her into a stone statue. Now she is associated with Durga image in the main temple.

The of Hindu kingdoms decline in Java was probably started by an eruption of Mount Merapi in early X century shifting the centre of power away to the east and leaving worship in Borobudur and Prambanan. After come the Islam. Abandonment and time passing by led to the jungle and oblivion seizing them, until in 1814 Sir Stamford Raffles, then governor in the brief period, 1811-1815, when the island was administered by England, was reported its existence. When the Dutch administration come back began to clear and dig the old Hindu Javanese temples. In 1835 Borobudur was completely cleared. The first picture was taken in 1873 by a Flemish engraver from Bruges, Isidorus van Kinsberger. Prambanan rehabilitation took longer, in fact preparations did not begin until 1918 and any work was not started until 1937, ending the first phase in 1953.

Currently, apart from the sightseeing, temples are still object of pilgrimage. Borobudur in May, commemorating the Vesak, the birthday and transit to Nirvana of Lord Buddha. Always coincides with the full moon that illuminates the Javanese plain now that are no longer hidden under the jungle.

© J.L.Nicolas


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