While Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world by population, it has sizable Hindu and Buddhist minorities. In the 1970’s, these groups all peacefully coexisted. My new radiologist friend and co-worker in Solo, Marjorie, turned out to be a walking encyclopedia of Southeast Asian art, culture and mythology. I remain indebted to her for opening my vistas about fields of which I previously had little or no knowledge. She had an infectious enthusiasm about life, people, history, art and the whole world around us. She seemed excited by finding someone to educate about her passions with being the least bit pedantic or condescending. We spent a weekend visiting first the Prambanan Temple Compounds, a World Heritage designation of a group of Hindu temples near Yogyakarta, built around the 8th or 9th century. The temples, mixed in with a number of Buddhist temples, became neglected and fell into disrepair after the capital and political power was moved to eastern Java in the 11th century. Later, it was buried in volcanic debris, damaged by earthquakes, and collapsed after a massive quake in the 1600s. It was rediscovered in the early 19th century, and after World War I, reconstruction of parts of the temples was started by the Dutch. After WW II, reconstruction continued, but only of the temples where at least 75% of the original stones remained. We visited the main Shiva temple in the Prambanan complex, which wasn’t completed until the early 1950’s, when Sukarno came to power.
To this day, I remain confused by the myriad Hindu deities, as well as their multiplicity of names referring to the same god. Marjorie sketched a useful schematic for me to help try and keep the names straight, but sadly that cheat sheet got lost in one my many subsequent moves. She did, however, help me appreciate the intrinsic art of the temple builders, as well as ground me in the Ramayana story, essential to so much of the art and culture of this region of the world. Seeing these structures in person, as opposed to in photographs, gave me a totally different perspective and appreciation of Hindu art and culture.
For those who visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the archeological sites in this region of Indonesia provide a comparably rich experience. Located not far from the Prambanan is Borobadur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Of all the amazing archaeological places I have seen in the world, this was my most memorable. Built in the 9th century, like the other temples in this region, it was mostly abandoned and reclaimed by the surrounding jungle, and not rediscovered until the earlies 1800s by the then British ruler of Java, who was informed by local Indonesians of its location. Following a mix of indigenous ancestor worship and the Buddhist concept of reaching Nirvana, the temple is built of stacked platforms, topped with a central dome. Decorated with over 2500 relief panels and over 500 Buddha statues, it’s difficult to visualize this vast complex. What made the visit so memorable for me is that the year I was there, they had just started the project of recovering the buildings from the jungle that kept it hidden over hundreds of years. Giant vines were still wound around most of the edifice, and tree roots grew freely between buildings. It looked like the set from an Indiana Jones movie, except before those movies were ever made. Seeing how nature had almost completely reclaimed this gigantic complex of buildings was a powerful image that remains with me to this day. Complete with monkeys running around, and an almost complete absence of tourists, I was transfixed by the spectacle of Borobadur. Marjorie was almost jumping up and down with excitement as she led me from one panel to another, explaining the meaning of each scene. Even though she was almost twice my age, she ran around the place like an excited girl, to the point I was struggling to keep up with her.
I’ve seen recent photos, and the jungle has been beaten into at least a temporary retreat, and the whole complex has now been uncovered for visitors to see. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia on my part, but I wish they had kept at least a part as we found it in 1975, peeking out behind giant leaves and vines, shaded by jungle canopy. It remains a popular place for Buddhist pilgrimages, and I hear it’s the single most visited tourist site in all of Indonesia.
George, you are immortalizing the teachings, history, cultures and experiences of those who shared their thoughts and souls with you. Thank you for passing them on!!! 🙂
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