(Whoever might read the following should know that my motivation for visiting Borobodur is both academic and personal. I use it in classes as an example of how religion benefits from global networks, from those established in the 8th century CE to the casual tourism that dominates the scene today. There will be passages with copious details, so don’t think I’m being overly compulsive! And personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the site’s rich symbolism and venerable age, and so one might say it was in a top 10 list of places to visit.)
I got a glimpse of the temple from afar the morning I arrived but did not venture closer due to my weak knee and the importance of keeping it iced, which the Manohara hotel staff kindly helped me to do. On my first full day, how could I not hobble forth into this 8th century wonder of Mahayana Buddhism and one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites?
There is a “sunrise tour” run by the Manohara, where a visitor pays about $30 for early access from 4:30 to 6:00. Since there had been rain the previous two mornings, I opted for a 6 a.m. entry. The Manohara is actually within the grounds of Borobodur proper (not sure why, except that it may have once housed international experts who contributed to the reconstruction efforts that began in the mid 1970s) which gave me direct and unimpeded access to the entrance gate. I was 15 minutes early and told to wait. Rather than just stand around, I wandered over to the north side where I found the main exit unstaffed and so could head up the steep stairway, feeling a little conspicuous since I was the only one without a sarong (worn as a sign of respect, even though this is no longer a religious site but one run by the government).
Standard operating procedure for visiting a major temple (in this case, a combination stupa and ancestor shrine) is to circumambulate in a clock-wise manner. To go in the opposite direction is thought to be a tantric practice (more on what this means later) that creates both spiritual opportunities and potential dangers for the pilgrim. So I went up the north stairway to the first tier, then backtracked to the eastern steps, the entrance around which the temple/monument is designed, and headed straight to the top.
To my surprise and delight, no one was there except me and a number of life-size statues of the Vairocana Buddha, deep in meditation. The lower levels are rich with carvings about the life story of the Buddha and what it takes to become a bodhisattva but the upper terraces are completely open to the surrounding landscapes. I had a few precious minutes to myself and, though it was starting to sprinkle, could light incense, positioning it in between the volcanic blocks that form the big stupa on top–the one that is said to evoke a non-attachment to forms, names, concepts, and so forth. As I made a single bow, my wish was for all sentient beings not to suffer. I sensed the moment very clearly, unimpeded by thoughts or anxieties; my two little feet firmly planted on the ancient volcanic stones, water in slight depressions reflecting rain clouds in the sky. That moment was enough, and I could have never returned and still feel satisfied.
After 6:15 a.m., a great swelling of sound and bodies deposited two large student groups on the upper terraces of the monument. Their motivation was not Borobodur but to catch a foreigner speak English to help the students prepare for examinations when they return to Jakarta.
I did my duty, answering questions from w/ a pretty young woman in hijab, her partner, and a young man with an intense expression who wants to go abroad. Rain sprinkles had started even before I climbed to the top, and gradually increased to a downpour as we chatted about their studies, interests, and my trip itinerary. They were happy to continue but I excused myself and headed back to the hotel, soaked but happy, and absolutely delighted that my knee had held up. Breakfast ensued, then an hour with an ice pack that was both relief and therapy for future excursions.
The rest of the morning I read a large format book in my room titled Borobodur: Prayers in Stone, edited by an archaeologist named Soekmono who had spearheaded the reconstruction efforts in the 1970s, and who lobbied the United Nations UNESCO for consideration of World Heritage Status.