Lions and Monuments



We were down town in Jogja having our evening meal at a rumah makan run by a friendly Chinese man – it was becoming a habit to eat and talk with him. He was born in Surabaya, had spent all his life in Java, but curiously thought of China as home. He saw his people as a race apart with important traditions they must struggle to keep. It seemed a philosophy of co-existence rather than a merging and sharing of common experience. We spoke of our meeting with Yasir Mazuki and were lamenting the fact we had not arranged to see him again when, at that moment, Yasir passed the restaurant, caught sight of us and he made noisy exclamations of greeting.   We happily drew out a chair for him to join us. He had been celebrating his first day’s shooting on the restoration of Borobudur and was on his way back to the site, a good hour’s drive from Jogja where shooting would recommence at daybreak. He was elated to be directing this documentary, for his book `Namo Buddhaya’ tells the story of his love affair with Borobudur and of his research on this most famous and greatest Buddhist monument, `a tremendous structure where not a single stone is accidental, where all is symbolic, with a well-planned purpose. Subtle yet demanding if one is to share its secrets’.

Our talk with Yasir made us keen to visit Borobudur; and of course a visit is a must on any tourist program.

`What did you think of Borobudur?’ is a stock question and a certain conversation starter. Not to see the shrine is tantamount to closing your eyes as you pass the Statue of Liberty. But we didn’t want the guided tour for fifteen U.S. dollars each, which included the comfort and isolation of the air-conditioned travel coach. Thirty dollars could be put to much better use and our visit spread over three months and included wide travel through Indonesia. We found we could make the trip, with a change of bus route, for three hundred rupiah each, (there were four hundred and fifteen rupiah to the U.S. dollar).

Heeding Rormon’s insistent warning `beware of pencopet (pickpockets), we kept our bags slung to the front as we melted into the crowd struggling for a seat on the bus. We were travelling by public transport, Indonesian style, and although the journey may be a bone-shaker, it is guaranteed to be a colourful, entertaining, maybe exciting event.

We struggled into narrow seats, the backs positioned to keep the spine rigid; three passengers on the right of the aisle, two to the left, and any number standing rump to rump. If the central back-door couldn’t close, well, there’s room for a few more, hanging on by fingers and toes. Bulky baggage is tossed on the roof, but no-one complains if fowls in a bag sit and blink at your feet. Vendors with baskets of hard-boiled eggs, fruit, pastries, sweets and cigarettes, do a brisk trade, as they offer their decorative displays at the bus windows. The boy with his `Es, Es, Es’ or ‘Telor, Telor, Telor’, (ices, eggs) is popular.. Close your eyes and listen and it’s a choir, superbly resonant and vocal.

We slid from the depot without a sound, sailed into a downgrade and round the block, but the driver hoping the battery would connect with the engine was disappointed. A boisterous group of boys gave us a final push back to our starting position. We waited and heard the pushing and prodding going on in the bus’s belly and then at some mysterious signal, I never found out what, we rose in a body, transferring in a scramble to reassemble in a new bus whose battered appearance gave visions of a past heroic effort.

We jolted and lurched from the starting position and gathered speed as we took to the streets of Jogja. Out into the country we flew taking the route to Borobudur forty-one kilometres northwest of Jogja. Our eyes took in every shade of green and colour of earth and sky as we looked to the volcanic range thrusting its peaks and uneven spurs to a near horizon. We were out in the country of a country more densely populated than any other in the world. There were always people. It’s no wonder people like people in Java.

Half-an-hour from Jogja, we swept over a long low bridge, crossing a wide sweep of river which had broken into a series of swift-flowing streams, cutting deep into the grey sand and black volcanic rock. I saw men at work, squatting in the dry river-bed, chiselling bricks from the black stone. I could hear their rhythmic tapping above the noise of our engine. The sun was hot, beating down on their bodies protected by coolie hat and short sarong. Many men were working, carving bricks from the stone and my mind leapt back to about 800A.D., when a similar scene must have been taking place. Thousands of men, coolies, masons, sculptors, painters worked for more than twenty years to gather the materials, transport them to the site, and build the giant grey, stone stupa that is Borobudur.

We ground to a halt on the far side of the bridge. Judging from the gesticulations and exclamations of the passing parade, it was obvious we had some spectacular trouble with the right front wheel. Again without a word, but by common instinct we rose as a body and deserted the bus. I saw that the wheel had come adrift and lay skewwhiff embedded in the sand.

People straggled away in different directions; we were the only Europeans and a good-looking Javanese boy befriended us. He escorted us back across the bridge and to a nearby village where he put us on a bemo headed in the right direction. He bargained with the driver and then, with wonderful generosity, insisted on paying the fare.

The man-made mountain rising from the Javanese plain of Ketan seemed unreal at first; but there it was, terrace upon terrace, each supporting many small stupas. Tourists, mainly Indonesian, Japanese and Indian, swarmed the central stairway, hundreds of high steps of uneven tread, reached the summit and spread on to its supporting terraces.

Real life was on the plain below. At the base of Borobudur, loudspeakers blared instructions and the latest hit song; beggars sat in the sun, sweating as they sang. Tourists haggled over the prices of hats and souvenirs in the dozens of small stalls that line the route to the Buddhist dream. Over and above was the haunting sound of bamboo spinning tops, humming in treble, alto, tenor, and bass. Singing bamboo tops, skilfully spun on canvas. We bought a dozen.

Then we struggled to the top of the man-made mountain, reached our arms deep into stupas to touch carvings of the Buddha, noted the restoration in progress since 1907 and gazed at the reliefs and carvings to do with the life of Prince Siddhartha on his way to becoming the Gautama Buddha. His previous incarnations and episodes from the life of the Bodhisattva Sudhana are also recorded there. We stood on the summit of the man-made mountain and looked to the real mountains beyond.

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