Our van was traversing the crowded streets when some of us looked out the window. We had just spent the better part of the morning seeing the sights, visions of which were still reverberating in our brains.
We were shaken out of our reverie by a curious pair standing on the island in the middle of the road, all dolled up and prettified. Upon seeing us, they started posing, pouting, bumping, grinding, flirting, singing and dancing — all to a tune which only they could hear. My mind’s eye wandered back to the voluptuous dancing women carved on the ancient shrines we had just visited whose posing, pouting, bumping, grinding, flirting, singing and dancing remain frozen in stone. They were also dancing to an unheard tune — one that hasn’t been heard for centuries, except perhaps by the stones themselves. Here on a steaming pavement, before my very eyes, was their modern equivalent… except these dancers were lady boys.
We were in the plains of Magelang on the island of Java in Indonesia. The plains lie at the bottom of a shallow, enormous bowl ringed by a bracelet of fire; its environs shaped and made lush by numerous volcanic eruptions. Eight majestic mountains surround these plains, their names ever so beguiling and redolent of gongs and gamelans: Mount Telomoyo, Mount Andong, Mount Merapi, Mount Ungaran, Mount Sumbing, Mount Sindoro,
Mount Merbabu, Mount Perahu. They are part of the volcanic spine running through the Indonesian archipelago which has made the country extremely fertile and has, through the centuries, resulted in a bumper crop of kingdoms and empires. Such was their prosperity and social organization that these kingdoms and empires were able to build masterpieces of engineering, craftsmanship and artistry long before the cathedrals of Europe and the temples of Angkor Wat were built.
The rest of the world was completely unaware of any of this until 1814 when Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor of the then British colony of Java and later of Singapore, was told of a vast monument lying in ruins in the plains west of Jogjakarta.
The vast monument was Borobodur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, and its discovery (preceded by that of Prambanan) made Europeans aware of the high level of civilization achieved by ancient Southeast Asians. The discovery gave rise to a fever of exploration, with Indiana Jones types roaming the region for lost civilizations until finally one of them rediscovered Angkor Wat. Now two centuries later, our band of blissfully un-Indiana Jones types had descended on Java to see for ourselves what the fuss was all about.
Our point of entry was the city of Jogjakarta which, together with the neighboring city of Solo, is “the heartland of the Javanese, the center of its history, culture and philosophy.” As if to prove this point, the two great religious monuments of Borobodur and Prambanan, lie within 30 kilometers of Jogjakarta.
Prambanan is the name given to a complex of Hindu temples, large and small, scattered over an area of one square kilometer and devoted to the Trimurti. The Trimurti is the expression of God as the Creator (Brahma), the Sustainer (Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Shiva). The temples, all 237 of them, were built by the Hindu Sanjaya dynasty over the 8th and 9th centuries. They make an arresting sight on the wide plain on which they were built, even if the great majority of them lie in ruins. The complex is a testament to the beauty of symmetry and graceful proportions, embellished by a wealth of sculptural detail. The three largest buildings in the complex are arrayed on a north-to-south axis with the magnificent building dedicated to Shiva in the center and flanked on either side by slightly smaller shrines dedicated to Vishnu (to the north) and Brahma (to the south). During the full moon from July to September, the Ramayana epic, beloved of the Indonesians, is performed on an open stage at the complex. A great many Jogjakartans, both young and old, participate in its performance which, true to the word “epic,” takes four days to perform and is participated in by 200 artisans, performers and gamelan musicians. One might say that the performance of the epic is the Trimurti in action; sets of the epic created by artisans, the performance sustained by performers, and egos destroyed by hideous masks some unfortunate performers have to wear.
Borobudur was built at about the same time by the Buddhist Sailendra dynasty as a monument to the Lord Buddha and as a teaching aid to the faithful. From above, the temple forms a mandala, a microcosm of the universe. From the ground Borobodur is a stupa, a model of the cosmos in three vertical parts: a square base supporting a hemispheric body and a crowning spire. On the five levels of the square base are galleries showing the life of Prince Siddharta on his path to enlightenment. Placed in niches above the galleries are 432 stone Buddhas, each displaying one hand position embodying either charity, meditation, fearlessness or reason while the other hand calls upon the earth as witness. Above the square galleries, three circular terraces support 72 perforated miniature stupas containing statues of a meditating Buddha. At the highest level is a huge crowning stupa atop of which is a spire. This spire represents a nail that physically enables the ruler to keep his world stable and peaceful.
On the day our party went to Borobodur, we arose long before dawn. A pale yellow moon hovered over us as we reached our destination, enabling us to make out the outlines of the monument as we made our way through the extensive park surrounding it. The land was still and quiet as we climbed to the top. I thought of how long it took to build this hymn in stone — 70 years of dedicated work by an army of laborers, skilled craftsmen and prodigious sculptors. I thought of how long it took to restore it — 10 years to strengthen the foundation and dismantle, catalogue, photograph, clean, treat and reassemble a total of 1,300,232 stone blocks. I thought of my personal connection to the monument — my father was the contractor for the restoration. I thought of how Buddhism seeks a release from suffering and endless rebirth — as I am sure some of my fellow pilgrims on the verge of a coronary were wishing as well.
When we finally reached the top and were right underneath the nail of the world, the horizon turned from dark to pale to misty orange as the sleeping world slowly stirred to life with the rising sun and Borobodur was revealed in all its glory. What stillness, what beauty, what magic! We stood there basking in the sun, in sync with the timeless rhythm of the earth and attuned to its hum. We had achieved what we came for — to watch the sun rise over Borobodur. We were all giddy at being at one with nature and marveled at the achievements of human beings much like ourselves who, centuries before, had created the masterpiece we were standing on. And then my mind wandered lazily to a cult of Indian mystics I’d read of long ago — mystics who worshiped the sun as the progenitor of all things. At this very moment, our band of blissfully un-Indiana Jones types was very much akin to those mystics. But whereas our appreciation of the sun was cerebral and very much connected to the monument we were standing on, theirs was much purer and more physical. On one special day in their solar calendar, they would emerge from their caves before dawn and stand naked, facing the east. Then as the sun would slowly rise and bathe them in its warm and sensuous rays, they would reach orgasm.