In the Shadow of Borobudur

First published in Garuda Indonesia Colours Magazine, August 2017.

Uncover the hidden treasures that lay in the mystical foothills of the Borobudur Valley

“Have you travelled around Borobudur temple much?” my guide, Agus, asks as I hop into the car on a beautiful, misty morning in Central Java’s Magelang.

“I’ve been to the temple more times than I can count,” I admit, “but this is the first time to be touring the foothills around it.”

But why is that, I ask myself. And I’d suspect the same goes for most tourists who have visited the temple. Borobudur, the largest Buddhist shrine in the world, dating back to the 10th century, is such a marvel and a Mecca to Buddhists from all over the world that it has the ability to overshadow the lesser grandiose attractions in the valley that it calls home.

The location for where this architectural marvel was built couldn’t be more spiritual. Borobudur sits in the middle of a valley with foothills and mountains protecting her from all sides; Mounts Merapi and Merbabu watch over from the Northeast, Mounts Sumbing and Sundoro from the Northwest, and the Menoreh hills from the South. The Borobudur valley is rich in Javanese culture and tradition, where the Majapahit era’s Hindu-Buddhism religion still lives and breathes. These foothills are steeped in mysticism, and when you know where to look, you’ll find treasures abound.

Agus drives us through village roads strewn with paper cuttings from the Idul Fitri celebrations just gone. I watch the smiley Javanese people going about their daily lives, most of whom live off the land, while others have jumped on the tourism bandwagon and built enchanting homestays to accommodate the budget savvy traveller. The small road twists and winds, and we’re met by enthusiastic calls made by local children. “Hello, mister!” they yell and wave, which we respond to with smiles and a honk from the car horn. We take a right turn at a small intersection, which takes us past padi (rice) fields, ripe and ready for harvest, and Agus breaks to let a row of adorable brown ducks cross the road.

“Look to the left,” Agus says.

I do, and in the distance, surrounded by rice fields and greenery as far as the eye can see, is Borobudur in all its glory, her stone stupas basking in the morning sunlight. I’d seen the temple so many times from up close, but the vision of her resting from a distance was awe-inspiring. I could imagine this landscape hadn’t changed much since the Majapahit kingdom she was born in. A horse-drawn cart (andong) jingles past us as I stand on the edge of the road taking photos of the temple, and it truly feels as though we have travelled back in time.

Down by the river

As we jump back in the car, Agus tells me I’m in for a real treat at the next spot. He takes us down some even smaller village roads, and I start to hear the sound of rushing water. Next on my Borobudur valley treasure hunt is a quirky yet charming art house on the edge of where two rivers, Elo and Progo, meet. Legend has it that Elo river is female and Progo river is male, and their union symbolizes the everlasting bond between a man and a woman in matrimony.

The Elprogo arthouse is owned by an eccentric, dreadlocked painter, who goes by the name of Sony. Although his sanctuary is rustic, there’s a kind of magic that lives here. Stepping out of the car, I’m greeted by a cool breeze in the shade of one of Pak Sony’s Bodhi trees – the same type of tree that Siddhartha Gautama meditated under and attained enlightenment, becoming the Buddha. Even if you’re not keen on learning how to paint, this place is great for a visit and a cup of local coffee perched atop one of the benches on the ravine’s edge, overlooking the white water in the river below.

After a coffee and a chat with the Pak Sony, he leads me down past his fairytale-like cottages towards his art gallery. This rustic space is like no other I’ve been to, and I spend some time admiring his life-like Borobudur relief paintings that adorn the exposed brick walls. The paintings appear to be three-dimensional and coming off of the canvases. It’s no wonder people travel from far and wide to learn how to paint from this talented artist.

Light streams in at the other end of the gallery, and as I exit, the view of a beautiful green-grassed garden appears before me. A peaceful retreat on the edge of the river, it’s here that I rest my weary legs and enjoy a picnic underneath the trees, looking on to where the two lovers, Elo and Progo, meet and are bound together forever.

Meditate

I wake to the sound of a gentle breeze and leaves rustling in the wind. Agus walks over and reminds me that we have one more spot to visit. “Mendut temple?” I say. I’d already been there several times before.

“Ah, but have you been into the Buddhist Monastery behind it?” he asks me with a knowing smile.

I’m not sure how I overlooked it in the past, but sitting right behind the 9th century Mendut Temple is a beautiful monastery open to the public, home to monks from all over the world, who come to study in what is considered one of the most prestigious monasteries of this faith. As we step through its gates, a feeling of calm sets in. This monastery is pristinely maintained, and houses two meditation rooms, a large hall where – during our visit – monks were gathering for a seminar, and statues and relics of the Buddha in his many depicted forms.

One particular statue, sitting underneath the shade of a Bodhi tree, catches my eye. It’s the Buddha, but not like other Buddhas I’d seen in the past. He is sitting in meditation, his stomach sunken in, his ribs and cheekbones protruding. We ask a passing monk what it means, and he tells us this is a depiction of Siddhartha Gautama at the end of his 49-day meditation without food or water, as he reaches enlightenment.

Feeling motivated by this beautiful vihara, I spend an hour honouring it in silent meditation. The late afternoon sun shines on my face as I exit the prayer room, and I decide to end my day with a visit to Mendut temple next door. I pay the small fee of Rp.3,500 ($0.40) to enter, and settle myself under the giant banyan tree that towers over this understated temple. As I sit here I remember the slight smile on the statue of the skinny Buddha resting in the monastery, and this image is the perfect way to end our day in this spiritual valley. I’m left knowing that no matter how many times I will visit this place again in the future, it will never cease to surprise me.

5 Senses: Sight

One of the most fun, and not to mention healthiest ways to tour the Borobudur valley is by bicycle. Most hotels and homestays offer bike rentals at very fair prices. Take a peaceful ride through the local villages and rice fields and soak in the sights that the shady, winding roads have to offer.

5 Senses: Sound

Observe Buddhist monks in daily evening (7pm) meditation at the beautifully kept Mendut Buddhist Monastery just behind the 9th century Mendut Temple. Sit in silence or join in prayer as the monks, who travel from far and wide to study in the shadow of their most sacred site, recite mantras in the hopes of freedom for all living beings.

5 Senses: Taste

One of this region’s local delicacies is ketupat tahu, also called kupat tahu. There are several tofu (tahu) factories in the valley, which are open to tourists. Try this zesty vegetarian dish made of sticky rice, tofu, peanut sauce, bean sprouts and soy sauce. I enjoyed a plate at a local warung, where a dish cost only Rp.8,000.

5 Senses: Smell

In the petite Mendut temple, incense always burns. Inside this pyramid cavern is where three large Buddha statues have rested since the 9th century. Light an incense stick, say a prayer whatever your faith, and watch the smoke unfurl and fill this ancient, dark stone room with the delightful scent of sandalwood, just as it’s been done for centuries.

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