Borobudur and Prambanan – Surviving Mt. Merapi (2011)

Borobudur and Prambanan – Surviving Mt. Merapi  (2011)

Mount Merapi (mountain of fire, in Javanese) looks enigmatic, almost benign, as though it were a guardian angel watching over its favourite ward. A placid plume of smoke curls out of its top like an agarbatti. Yet, as late as October 2010, this live and throbbing volcano had erupted in ugly fury, spitting out pyroclastic debris that gobbled alive, at least a hundred and ninety Javanese who happened to be in the vicinity and had driven out more than 350,000 people to safer havens beyond its radiant radius of twenty kilometres. Virtually every year Merapi erupts with ominous regularity; yet the inhabitants of this land would rather risk living in its shadows, listening to its rumbling innards and glimpsing the wisp of smoke that curls out of its crown, than permanently desert their homes for less dangerous environs. As far as central Javanese are concerned, you could say home is where the volcano is! Of course, their bags are always packed and ready to move at short notice! But only for a while; they will come back to rebuild their homes and pick up their singed lives.

We are in Yogyakarta, home to Mt.Merapi but also  to Borobudur, the gorgeous Buddhist temple complex, not to mention Prambanan and other sundry Hindu temples, equally gorgeous, if less famous. As the plane hovers over the island, I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of Borobudur, but all I see is the sawn-off crown of Mt.Merapi sticking out of a dense tropical jungle juxtaposed against a topaz-blue ocean;  the coral reefs under the surface of the South China Sea are visible even from this height.

Terrifying Menu

Yogyakarta is a bustling town, with billboards and hotels, markets and the signature chaos of a vibrant Asian town. Through thick peak hour traffic we make our way to our boutique hotel tucked away in a narrow alley. The entire lane is packed with trendy hotels and cafes interspersed with book stores and antique shops designed to lure the foreign tourists who converge on this town to see its famous monuments. We saunter into an eatery that promises an international menu. Virtually every creature that walks, creeps, crawls, flies or swims is on offer – doused in dollops of cheese or cream and sauce to appease the unfamiliar palate. But if you want to order one of the snake dishes on the menu – there are three of them – you will have to give the restaurant 24 hours’ notice. But the culinary adventurist need not despair. Just walk one lane away to the main market road lined with eateries and here you can choose your own live specimens to be transformed into delectable dinner under your own gaze and to your specific tastes! I stick to my conservative culinary choice – always a safe bet in an alien land – the white creamy meat that lines the inside of a tender coconut and the yellow crunchy segments of freshly sliced jackfruit.

Lava Land

The road to Borobudur is lined with coconut palms whose tufts have been singed away by the volcanic eruption. The stumps present an eerie sight. There is grey ash shovelled on to the sides. Pumice rocks of different sizes are strewn about. These are hardened lava from the recent emissions. Borobudur is 27 miles away from the centre of town, tucked into the forests although the city has gradually encroached right up to the gate. Why would anyone build anything so grand here, right next to a live volcano? They must know that it would be submerged in ash one day. In fact, this jewel remained hidden from the world until Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles – the same Raffles who founded Singapore – coaxed the natives to lead him to it.

But perhaps if the kings of Srivijaya empire who built this grand edifice believed the volcano would preserve, rather than destroy his grand monument to Buddha, they were not far wrong. Had it not been for the volcanic ash, the structure may have been broken down and destroyed by the elements long ago.

We have no record of who built this magnificent temple complex. It is only through conjecture, it is believed that it was built by King Sailendra, possibly a Hindu king.  Borobudur is as much a testimony to the religious harmony that prevailed in those times as to the skills of the architects and artisans of the period. Perched on a mound, Borobudur beckoned like a beacon, Buddhists from around the world.

Technology –Sans Foundation

While the basic architecture bears strong Gupta dynasty influence, it is not without local touch, enough to make it uniquely Indonesian. Like most monuments of a bygone era – Machu Picchu, Angkor Vat, Nalanda etc – this structure also is an interlocking wonder without mortar or cement. Six square platforms, in pyramidal order stacked on top of each other form the pedestal over which perch three other circular platforms arranged in concentric rings. Borobudur is indeed an ode to symmetry and harmony of form. The top is crowned by a perfectly-proportioned perforated dome, the crowning glory that makes this structure quite unparalleled in beauty and grace. The edifice sports more than 500 Buddha statues and 2764 relief panels richly carved with scenes from the life of Buddha. If Angkor Vat excelled in bas-reliefs with scenes from Hindu mythology, Borobudur pays homage to structural perfection and harmony.
Historians believe Borobudur was built sometime between AD 780 and AD 840. Surprisingly, no record of any sort has been found to lend authenticity to this surmise.  Viewed from above, Borobudur resembles a Buddhist mandala or cosmos symbolically depicting the path of Bodhisattava from samsara to nirvana through the story of Sutana.

Worm’s Eye View

A worm’s eye view shows up a forest of stupas and statues set amidst stunning bas-relief panels. You access the platforms through narrow stairways placed symmetrically on all four sides and go around the sides watched over by myriad Buddha statues, serene and contemplative. As you ascend to higher levels, the statuary and adornment becomes scarcer until you reach the top which is almost bare except for the central dome.

Only six of the platforms from the base are accessible to visitors. The rest are being restored through massive and diligent efforts so that Borobodur, buried under volcanic ash for centuries claims back its lost glory.  The top of the monument, now inaccessible to visitors, has three levels – Kamadatu (the world of desire), Rupadatu (the world of forms) and Arupadatu (the world of formlessness). It is believed that as you ascend the monument, you leave behind your worlds of desire and form to become one with the formless being. As you go up, you can feast your eyes on all those panels. There are many Buddha statues that overlook the expanse on all four sides. Some of the perforated and trellised stupas still house Buddhas although many of them have been lost to vandalism as well as volcanic fury.


When you get to the upper level of the monument, you suddenly find yourself without any forms at all, just the bare stonework and you have a dome and then the central uppermost crown of the monument has no image in it whatsoever. Whether that’s simply accidental whether the image has been stolen, we don’t know, but if conforms with the idea of moving as one rises in one’s spiritual practice from a kind of rooted-ness in the sensory confused world of passion and suffering and one rises through purer forms until one reaches a formless realm where one has somehow liberated one’s mind from all those things that have somehow caught it up in the messiness of life and has achieved nirvana. When you are at Borobudur, you are standing on this great monument, you can see the entire world around you, beneath you. It is an enormous experience of spaciousness, of freedom and a far vaster perspective –a clear state of mind.
Such a glorious monument does indeed attract hordes of visitors who seem to be everywhere. In fact, it seems like a microcosm of humanity at various levels of enlightenment, depending upon the platform they are on. For a moment, the cosmic connotations discreetly recede into the background as we occupy ourselves with the immediate task of mounting the lens and taking photographs in the hope that we can share the sense of tranquillity with others unable to experience it in person.


From Borobudur we make our way to Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex some distance away.  As you exit Borobudur complex, you come across a pile of rock carvings dislodged by the eruption and being curated and arranged. Someday, these will be put back where they belong to complete the structure maimed mercilessly by the tremors and elements. On your way out, you run the gauntlet of tourist kitsch as well as some genuinely Indonesian artisanal stuff – silver filigree work, batik and lacquer work.

Like Borobudur, Prambanan is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Probably a corruption of the Sanskrit name ‘Para Brahman’ this temple complex is dedicated to the Hindu trinity of creator, preserver and destroyer – Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, respectively. If Borobudur architecture is based on Mandala, Prambanan is vertical architecture shaped like Gopurams and reaching out to the heavens.  Majestic and imposing, Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple complex in all of southeast Asia and is large even by Indian standards. Historians believe that Prambanan is the Sanjaya dynasty’s response to Borobudur, to build a Hindu temple complex rivalling the grandeur of the latter. Built by King Rakai Pikatan and expanded by King Lokapala and Balitung Maha Sambu of the Mataram kingdom, unlike Borobudur, Prambanan has some surviving inscriptions which give indications as to the time and purpose of its construction.

Prambanan served as the royal temple of the Kingdom of Mataram, with most of the state’s religious ceremonies and sacrifices being conducted there. At the height of kingdom, scholars estimate that hundreds of brahmins with their disciples lived within the outer wall of the temple compound. The urban center and the court of Mataram were located nearby, somewhere in the Prambanan plains. According to an inscription at the Shivagrha (Shiva temple), a public water project to change the course of a river was undertaken during the construction of the temple.

Like Borobudur, Prambanan too fell to the fury of Mount Merapi and the rulers shifted further away even as the temples suffered decay and neglect. When Dutch East India Company came to rule the region, the remains of the temple were carted away to adorn their gardens and homes. Serious restoration efforts began only in the early twentieth century, but even now, there are many gaps in the knowledge as well as materials challenging architects trying to piece together the structure and restore it to its original glory.

As we complete our tour of Java and head towards Yogyakarta airport, Mt.Merapi still looks enigmatic. Fittingly so, since it has been both preserver and destroyer at once!

(Published in Frontline dated March 21, 2012)

1 thought on “Borobudur and Prambanan – Surviving Mt. Merapi (2011)”

  • Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!

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