Holy Yogyakarta!

I feel bad about shortchanging the magnificent temples we visited Friday; I mentioned them so briefly in my last post. Steve says the one at Borobudur was the most impressive religious structure he has seen anywhere. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I’d put it at least in the top five. To make up, here are a few postcards from the day.

We spent the morning at Borobudur, built more than 1100 years ago and woefully vulnerable to the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that regularly devastate this area. For centuries it survived only as a pile of rubble buried by jungle. People started reconstructing it about 200 years ago, and although that’s still a work in progress, the largest Buddhist temple on earth has now been largely resurrected.

We lucked out by being assigned a great guide. Hatta grew up playing hide and seek with his friends in the ruins almost daily. Today he’s great at explaining Borobudur’s sophisticated architectural design, essentially a pyramid composed of several distinct levels. Thousands of carved stone panels line the lowest ones, and they tell the complicated story of Siddhartha — how the Indian prince become the Buddha and how his teachings reached Indonesia. The structure thus functions like a gigantic graphic encyclopedia, rendered three-dimensional in volcanic stone.

As you climb up the stairs through all the levels, they become shallower, another lesson: the more one learns, the easier it becomes to progress. At the top two final levels are filled with a forest of stupas, each stupa sheltering a Buddha, except for the huge one that crowns the whole magnificent construction. (It contains nothing.)

Nowhere in the complex is there any place to sit and meditate. Meditation takes the walking variety, weaving through the stupas, where the mind quiets and turns to the surrounding landscape, a mix of vibrant green life and potential violent death.

Now I’m going to short-change a temple again, this one Prambanan, the complex we visited in the afternoon.

It’s also more than 1100 years old. Its buildings are enormous. Some say they’re the most beautiful Hindu temples on earth. That may be so, but it was the Buddha’s stone cathedral that stole my heart.