The Soul of a Nation

Like many parts of the world, Indonesia is a melting pot of opposing faiths.  Occasionally, and very sadly, there exists conflict generated by extremist groups, and the world’s media has – perhaps understandably – largely focused its attention on the tragic bombings of this nation’s recent history.  But in doing so I believe it has overlooked something remarkable: that in pockets of this vast country there are communities breaking down the religious barriers, climbing inside each other’s contrasting ideologies and meditating together, as one, in the hope that by better understanding each other’s differing spiritual approaches they can live side by side in harmony, and without discord.  Borobudur is one such place.

Sitting serenely on a plane of rice paddies amidst soaring volcanic peaks, Borobudur is a town in search of Nirvana – via a multitude of spiritual routes. Buddhist monasteries, Islamic mosques and Hindu temples share the surrounding land amicably; whatever your religion or belief system, here you are accepted.

Arriving late afternoon on a laughably over-crowded public bus, we were at once smitten.  Transferring onto rickshaws and meandering through the town’s bumpy back roads we found the air to be clean and undisturbed by traffic; a welcome change from the mayhem of noisy, suffocating cities.  The countryside was instantly breath taking, and the pace of life pleasingly slow.  We settled into a palatial guest house – the perfect antidote to the stuffy, windowless, back alley rooms we had become accustomed to – with a four-poster bed, a stone bathroom fit for a sultan and majestic views from our private balcony overhanging some spectacular flooded rice paddies.

What draws most visitors to this part of Java is Borobudur’s colossal Buddhist temple, a 1200 year old monument which has survived the wrath of Mother Nature in several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the wrath of man in a 1985 terrorist attack.  Having risen at 4am and journeyed up into the hills for sunrise overlooking this famous stone structure, we couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed when the wet season’s finest rain clouds engulfed us, preventing even the briefest glimpse of the temple, or of the sun’s ascent.  What we should have seen from our mountainous look-out was a sweeping vista of sun-tinted beauty, and what we in fact saw were half a dozen trees shrouded in mist.   We descended for breakfast, muddy and disappointed.

Our next attempt to connect with the famous monument saw us traipsing around the site itself in punishing midday heat, clad in ridiculous sarongs which I’m positive are only compulsory attire for foreigners in order to satisfy the local people’s amusement.  Up close, the large stone Buddha heads and narrative carvings embedded in the walls of the structure were certainly impressive, and the views across the region from the temple’s hill top position were definitely worth the steep climb, but it was hard to appreciate the enigma of this World Heritage Site when every Asian tourist present was queuing up for a photo with us white folk.  Posing awkwardly before their lenses was becoming something of a daily occurrence for us and whilst it was amusing, I’m pleased to report this little town had something more authentic up its spiritual sleeve for us.

Nestled in the centre of town is Mendut temple; small and insignificant in comparison to its mighty neighbour, but hiding within its walls lives a truly striking statue of the Buddha, towering overhead and sitting unconventionally in a Western-style posture, with both feet on the ground.  Visiting after dusk, we were grateful to be the temple’s only visitors.  As we climbed up the steps towards the narrow door, gold light flooded out from within the internal chamber, projecting an enchanting glow into the night’s encroaching darkness, and drawing our eyes immediately to three immense statues within.  The interior was exquisite, its high walls and ceiling adorned with Hindu-Javanese carvings, mesmerising to the eye.  Amidst the beauty there was also a tranquillity I haven’t experienced in other temples, mostly due to crowds.  It would be an easy place to lose oneself in prayer or quiet reflection.

But for our own inward-focus that evening we were especially privileged: for a small back-hander the guards allowed us into the neighbouring monastery where we sat in a vast, empty room behind a single chanting monk, and meditated to the sound of his voice and the insects outside.  Once the monk’s incantations had finished, we walked the grounds.  A number of simple buildings were dotted around a lovingly designed garden of lotus flowers, trickling water features, Buddha statues and benches for quiet contemplation.  The monastery was gently lit, and beautifully still, but I took no photos.  A feeling of complete serenity will be my only souvenir.

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