Friday, 12 December 2014

Old Pictures: Borobudur

Borobudur, in central Java, is a 9th Century Buddhist temple kind of thing. It doesn't really know what it is, because it's also a bit like a pyramid, and a bit like a hill. It's a one-off. Our guide described it as a book made out of stone. Whatever it is, these days it looks like this:



That's now, in the 21st Century, twelve centuries after it was built. Pretty good condition, isn't it? In fact, this is a substantially restored version of Borobudur. When it was discovered in the early 19th Century, it looked like a small hill. Weeds, trees, grass, and presumably some nice shrubs covered it, and it took rather a lot of digging to sort it out. I've searched but can't find any pictures or drawings of Borobudur as it was back then. The very earliest picture I've managed to find dates from around 20 years later, in an 1838 sketch by a Dutch artist called H. N. Sieburgh.


You get the idea, but it's not too helpful.

The thing is, Borobudur is absent from recorded history before its rediscovery. No Javan or Buddhist records exist that mention it, let alone leave behind any nice full gloss oil paintings or architectural blueprints. It's all post-discovery stuff. I'm sure some older sketches must exist, but Sieburgh's is the oldest I can find.

The next oldest drawings I can find are by somebody called F. C. Wilsen, dating from 1849 and 1850 respectively.



Again, perfectly pleasant, but a little skimpy on the details. These exist, though. Wilsen was a Dutch engineer commissioned to do the drawings, and he focussed on the sculptural detail. He did a pretty good job too, when you compare what he drew to the real thing.


What his entire-temple sketches reveal is that by the mid-19th Century, all the shrubs appear to have been removed. Though just to confuse matters, another drawing, which appears to have been part of a French encyclopedia between 1886 and 1891, seems to suggest the bushes have returned. I suppose they might have grown back.


By now though, we're well into the age of photography, and as we know, the camera never lies (except when it does). I can't get a precise date on these photos, but they all appear to be mid-to-late 19th Century. They give a clearer picture as to the real state of post-discovery, post-weeded Borobudur.






Yeah, Borobudur was pretty run down, which is what happens after a thousand years being consumed by trees and shrubs. It had still maintained its shape, which was a decent effort, but everything was a bit wonky. Nobody seemed too bothered. You might have noticed a hut-like structure in the second photo in the above sequence - it's a teahouse. The Dutch thought it would be a nice idea for visitors to enjoy a spot of tea, and where better than the very top of the ancient, crumbling temple? It dates the photo to as early as 1844 - when photography was still a form of scary magic - and I can't find a date for when the teahouse was finally taken down.


By 1900, at the absolute latest, it had gone, as that's when Borobudur enjoyed some restoration attempts, helping everything look a bit less drunk. Unfortunately, being the early 20th Century, the restoration was somewhat crass, using concrete and causing more lasting damage. One of the problems about clearing the undergrowth from an ancient structure is that it suddenly becomes more susceptible to weather. When it's then crudely fixed up with concrete, which is heavy, causing parts to further sag, it can spell a rapid deterioration. Fortunately, the superheroes of restoration, UNESCO, came to the rescue. Between 1975 and 1982 they dismantled the entire structure and put it back, piece by piece, brick by brick. Cost - a bargain $6.9 million, about the same as four months' wages for Wayne Rooney. Which is why today, Borobudur looks good as new. And given we don't have any original 9th Century pictures, perhaps even better.


Some sources
http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/boro_nav/bnav_level_1/2revealed_borofrm.html
http://www.namaste.it/brbdr/drawings/xc5.htm
http://www.namaste.it/brbdr/drawings/xc7.htm
http://www.oldbookillustrations.com/pages/borobudur-temple.php?lng=en
http://www.borobudurtrips.com/history.php
http://luk.staff.ugm.ac.id/Borobudur/resk/063.html

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