Borobudur at the crossroads

by Sunita Sue Leng, Jakarta Post, Feb 22, 2009

Borobudur, Central Java (Indonesia) -- The best time to visit Borobudur Temple is at dawn. That is when Central Java's magnificent World Heritage monument is enveloped in cool mist and peace.

That is when you will be able to climb the ancient stones in near solitude and be rewarded with a view of the candi's rotund stupas - 72 in total - rising majestically out of the mist with the first rays of the sun.

Of course, you don't actually have Borobudur to yourself. When I went, I was surprised to find 20 to 30 others on the highest terrace of the monument, waiting impatiently for the sun to come up.

They were mostly foreign tourists, some with fancy cameras on tripods, some with little children. However, it was relatively quiet and I felt very fortunate to be able to visit this historic gem in such serene circumstances.

This was my second visit to Borobudur, and how different it was from the first. I had come the day before and made the mistake of coming on a Sunday. The entrance at the foot of the monument was already buzzing with people eager to set foot on the monument and as I looked across the length of Borobudur Park, I could see a never-ending stream of people making their way toward the entrance.

Once past the entrance, it was quite a challenge trying to navigate the stairways. The narrow stone stairways were choc-a-bloc with people, so climbing was a slow process, often with a view of nothing else but someone else's posterior. When I got to the top, several visitors, mostly teenagers or children, were seated on top of the stupas, despite signs forbidding visitors to do so.

Strewn across the floors of Borobudur's many terraces was litter - cigarette butts, empty bottles of mineral water, plastic bags. The few dustbins that were available were already full to the brim. It was not a pretty sight.

According to the authorities, Borobudur gets about 2.5 million visitors a year, the bulk of whom are Indonesians. When I went, schools were on their year-end break so a high proportion of the visitors that day were large groups of excited students on school outings. The rest were mostly families from neighboring provinces who had come on holiday, and a handful of foreign tourists accompanied by their guides (or guidebooks).

It is comforting to know that so many people make the effort to visit Borobudur. After all, the monument is a present-day window to Indonesia's glorious past. It is also an enduring memento of the advanced level of craftsmanship that prevailed in Java at a time when Western Europe was struggling through its Dark Ages.

Built in the eighth and ninth centuries, Borobudur houses a staggering 2,672 relief panels, many exquisitely detailed, as well as 504 Buddha statues. At the summit, a gigantic central stupa rests on a massive lotus-shaped base half a meter thick, making this the largest Buddhist stupa in the world.

Borobudur is a place of pilgrimage for those of the Buddhist faith. Its passages were designed for monks to circumambulate the edifice in silent prayer. Along the lower square terraces, they would be flanked by carvings such as the biography of the Lord Buddha, from his descent from heaven until his enlightenment, which is depicted on the main wall of the first gallery.

As they ascended to the higher circular terraces, they would be surrounded by unembellished stone walls, representing Buddhism's Sphere of Formlessness. Above them, the main stupa - which is empty, signifying Nirvana - would soar into the sky. Today, Buddhist rituals are still carried out at Borobudur on auspicious days such as Waisak.

On top of this, Borobudur lies amid great natural beauty. As I stood atop the candi's highest tier, I was almost eye to eye with Mount Merapi, the still-active volcano that soars 2,911 meters in the northeast. It was wrapped in fluffy clouds, while on the ground, green rice paddies stretched for miles.

On the western and southern edges, the Menoreh hills rose and fell. This is the geographical center of Java. Called the Kedu Plain, it is also known as the Garden of Java as it has been made unusually fertile and lush by volcanic earth and the intersection of two rivers, the Progo and the Elo.

Little wonder, then, that so many are drawn to Borobudur, which is already under threat, even without the crowds. According to the Borobudur Heritage Conservation Institute, acid rain has damaged some of the carvings, while global warming could cause more fissures and cracks in the monument's stones.

The growing number of tourists to Borobudur, which is managed by PT Taman Wisata Candi Borobudur, Prambanan and Ratu Boko, add further strain. Litter is not just unsightly; the remnants of cigarettes or sugary drinks could damage the porous surfaces of the monument's stones. Overcrowding along the steep stairs holds the risk of accidents, should a child or elderly person slip and fall.

Poorly supervised youngsters mean unnecessary touching of carvings, or worse, climbing onto statues and stupas, contributing to erosion of its more fragile surfaces. Painstakingly restored in the `70s and `80s with help from UNESCO, the Borobudur temple is a grand inheritance that every Indonesian should be proud of, regardless of religion. It would be a shame to let it succumb today to modern-day tourism.