Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Preview: Borobudur

Sometimes the best way to save something is to forget all about it.*

The Buddhist pyramid temple of Borobudur is a good example, being lost for over a thousand years in the jungle of Java, Indonesia, but beautifully preserved as a result. Losing the biggest Buddhist temple in the world after spending three generations building it may seen like a careless thing to do, but they did things differently back then; besides, it's amazing what a little volcanic ash and jungle growth can do.

Underneath this millennium of jungle and ash, it was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who uncovered it, in 1814 - or, rather, a Dutch engineer called H. C. Cornelius who was sent on his behalf. Although Raffles' name is now more closely associated with Singapore's Raffles Hotel and its Singapore Sling cocktail - neither of which he had anything to do with (the hotel was founded by Armenians, the cocktail concocted by a Chinese barman, both over fifty years after his death) - Raffles the person was in fact a little less decadent than this gin-and-pineapple legacy would imply. Known mostly for being the founder of Singapore, he was an enlightened governor of various south-east Asian territories, and although the British Empire and empire-building in general may not be in vogue so much these days, there's little doubt that Raffles was a force for good. He systematically abolished slavery wherever he went, improved conditions, and took a close interest in the people of politics of the region, including learning the language. This would be enlightened by today's standards - most expats (in the oil industry, at least) I meet extend their local interest as far as swearing in the native language and drinking a local beer if the Heineken has run out - but by early 19th Century standards must have made him seem like a raving liberal nut.

In the case of Java, it was an approach that led to the rediscovery of Borobudur. He had developed a good relationship with the local rulers, and had convinced them that instead of the slave children they were offering, he'd be more impressed if they could give him ancient documents or historical works. This way, murmurs of an ancient temple in the jungle filtered through to him, and H. C. Cornelius (the H. C., incidentally, stands for Hermann Christian but he preferred to go by his initials, O. J. Simpson-style) was sent to investigate.

What he found was so lost, so overgrown, and so hidden that it had been mistaken for a hill for centuries, and only closer investigation revealed that this hill was actually a giant, ramshackle stone temple. Raffles himself visited the location less than a year later, and began the long process of excavation and figuring out what the hell this big stone building was. It took two hundred men two weeks to clear the initial jungle growth from the surface of the temple, to reveal an edifice 42 metres high and 123 metres wide, covered all over in ornate sculptural reliefs (a sculptural technique where the background is cut away to make the image stand out in the third-dimension, kind of like an embossed effect with stone).

Architecturally unique and unlike any other building in the world, and without any written documentation about who made it or why, Borobudur is somewhat of an enigma. The 504 Buddha statues and 2672 sculptural relief panels featuring scenes from Buddhist cosmology make it quite evident it is a Buddhist building, but only extensive archaeology and scholarly extrapolation over the following two centuries have hinted at answers to the many unknowns surrounding the 1300-year-old building.

An early photo of Borobudur, after clearing and cleaning, but before full UNESCO renovation

Ironically, the biggest threat to Borobudur came after its rediscovery, and especially in the various wild attempts to reconstruct and restore it, mostly from the Dutch, including early 20th century efforts involving concrete injections, and plans to build a giant forty-pillar-supported iron umbrella over it - because how better to enhance an ancient stone temple than with a massive iron umbrella? Fortunately, the world community in the form of UNESCO have since relieved the Dutch of their responsibilities and between 1973-83 performed a comprehensive restoration programme that, for the time being, has saved it from collapse.

Borobudur these days, if you're in a helicopter

These days, as with many of the ancient monuments I'm due to visit, one the biggest ongoing threats is that of modern tourism. Two-and-a-half million visitors a year is always a bit of a strain on the elderly. It does seem as though Borobudur's problems only began once it was found: when it was still lost in the jungle pretending to be a hill it was managing just fine. Poor old Borobudur's best chance at survival may just be for everyone to forget about it all over again.

I'll be visiting Borobudur in mid-to-late September, and will give a fuller account of its construction and its mysterious history and purpose, as well as my own impressions.

*does not work for relationships

Reviewed on 3rd October 2011.

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