The monumental Borobudur

After posting yesterday’s post I thought I would write a post about writing that post.

In my mind I have written so much in April but it turns out I have just managed one post – the one posted yesterday. So with apologies for the meta-post, here is April’s second post.


Walking into Candi (or chandi) Mendut was a revelation and the memory etched by it can only mean that time did stop to allow me to take so much in. Like many bookish kids of my generation I had already ingested most of CS Lewis as well as The Hobbit and, although I had these stories and all the wonderful places constructed as absolutely real in my mind, I was reluctantly accepting the difference between the imagined world of a child and the tangible, visible world where adults seemed to live and breathe.

So when we entered this part of Java and I realised that these worlds were not just works of fantasy but that adults had laboured over carving such enchanted universes out of stone, it was a sublime proof of my right to dream as well as believe in other realms.


The Buddha – one of the 1460 bas reliefs encased in the passageways of Borobudur – of these 160 reveal Karmic law and are purposely covered by stone at the foot of the monument as they represent the world of human action and its consequences.                                                Watercolour and Ink (C) 2017 Chas Spain

Of course much later I understood that only classical scholars like Lewis and Tolkein had the depth of knowledge necessary to turn human wisdom traditions and mysticism into works of English literature. We also appreciate now that these apparent great works of originality are the brilliant translations by both authors of human epics which have been told and retold through many languages and in many cultures and were re-crafted into a form safe enough to be read to an English child by their nanny.

Mendut and Borobudur literally enshrine an extraordinary period of human experience and civilisation; from the richness of Javanese animism, to the folkloric oral traditions (the princes banished under the great Mountain of Merapi still forging their swords and erupting in anger), to the intertwined legends of Hinduism and Buddhism. Any part of these worlds would quite fairly take a lifetime of scholarship to begin to comprehend.

So when I read Clifford Geetz’s near life work ‘The Religion of Java’ a few years ago it was in the naïve belief that I would come away fast tracked onto the path to enlightenment (sic!). But the book mainly covers the religious culture of one township of central Java and so can only hope to provide the reader with the smallest opening in a doorway to this field of scholarship.

Now add to this the physical dimension of Java and the fact that Borobudur is in the geographical heart of the island between two pairs of volcanoes and the meeting of two rivers. And now consider that this incredible network of religious infrastructure was part of a great propagation which spread out from India for hundreds of years and thousands of miles to China, the Middle-East and South East Asia, creating an extraordinary cultural and aesthetic landscape.


The beautiful landscape around Borobudur is now preserved as a Heritage and National Park

At this point the poor western Christian brought up on Saturday broth and Sunday roast starts to feel completely overwhelmed.  Imagine then poor H.C. Cornelius, the Dutch engineer who was sent by Raffles to uncover the overgrown hillside and rescue Borobudur from its near abandoned state in the 19th Century. He was followed by Theodoor van Erp who began the first formal restoration in 1911 in true European style – (at one point the head stupa of the temple was topped with a tea house). How must they have felt about the wonders uncovered in this ‘new’ world.

When we arrived in 1973 as a group of strangely dressed Australians, the site was once again falling into disrepair, but the full UNESCO restoration had thankfully started.

The extraordinary account of the restoration is given in the report by an international team of experts with main recognition going to Dr Soekmono who acted as project manager from 1971 when international negotiations with UNESCO began, through to 1983. The documentation was also monumental in its undertaking and Dr Soekmono died in 1997, many years before the report’s publication in 2005.

By the end of the full restoration Borobudur had been almost completely disassembled, with every stone labelled to be returned to its rightful place, and the monument was literally rebuilt from the ground up. (While the committee made a pragmatic decision not to be so precise with the rough stones which formed part of the foundation, the repatriation of Borobudur’s stones and carvings is an unfinished story.)


Borobudur – The interlocking blocks along the passageways would have challenged the most able jigsaw master.

To read the whole document may be a challenge but the few passages in the introduction provide a fascinating insight into the meaning and rebirth of Borobudur for the Javanese and then for the post-war independent Indonesian nation.

A snippet from this section gives a sense of the monument’s abiding cultural meaning despite its apparent ‘disappearance’ :

“A kind of mysterious fear replaced the old understanding, but the spiritual value of the chandi as a cultural heritage secured the ties between the past and the present. The chandi is considered a ‘pusaka’ … (an heirloom of special significance).”


Borobudur today with the processional avenue to the candi fully reinstated. For me this strangely made a significant difference to the experience of visiting in 2016 compared with an earlier visit in 2012 when access was via the side stairway.

2 thoughts on “The monumental Borobudur

  1. I suspect Borobudur is one of those transcendent experiences which is composed of sight, sound, awe and an overpowering sense of being utterly surrounded by the history of a thousand years. The photos and prose are beautiful, but you have to be there…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kate absolutely – words can’t come close to the experience. It’s so fortunate that the heritage team at Borobudur have finally been able to reposition the entrance and reinstate the processional approach (which they have tried so hard to do for Stonehenge for the same reasons). The slow walk toward the monument is very different to just turning up in your car and randomly strolling about – I certainly had the sensation of being transported and becalmed despite the thousands of visitors on the site. It was – in the true sense – wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

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