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  • Fly to: Yogyakarta, Java

  • Internal Transfer:Drive to Semarang Java

  • Visa required: Yes if British, visa on arrival

  • Currency:Indonesian Rupiah

  • Time Zone:+7hrs GMT

  • 5 Quick Facts:Click here

The Temples of Java - Indonesia

2010 seems a lifetime ago but whilst learning 'Sangye Menlha' at a retreat in Glastonbury, I stayed at a B&B called the Lynch Country House in Somerton. One evening, the proprietor's partner gave me her computer to submit photos for a travel article.

Whilst I was sat attaching images she began reminiscing over her own travel encounters. The Trans-Siberian Railway, Mongolia...but then all of a sudden, with the same speed with which it had started her dialogue tailed off, her posture surrendered and her eyes drifted as if rediscovering some inner refuge. When our gaze re-connected she spoke in a calm, soft breath which exuded an unwavering affection; what she spoke of were the temples of Java.

I recall that moment with such clarity now, but at the time it merely passed me by as I was somewhat preoccupied with the faltering internet connection. Roll on six months and imagine my astonishment when an opportunity was presented to visit those very same Javanese temples; temples which until that point I had never even heard of.

So there you have it, how all of this came to pass but enough about that, let's talk Java, or more specifically, the temples of Java.

Java is the fifth biggest island in Indonesia and is home to Yogyakarta, one of the most attractive and ancient cities on the island. Yogyakarta was established in 1755 when Prince Mangkubumi built the Kraton Palace, called himself Sultan and created the most powerful Javanese Kingdom since the 17th Century. Today, it still remains a symbol of resistance to Dutch Colonial Rule, as well as the centre for classical Javanese art and culture, including batik, Ramayana ballet, shadow puppetry and music.

Located in the vicinity of Yogyakarta are two of the world's most elaborate temple complexes, Borobudur and Prambanan.

Borobudur

Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site Borobudur is perhaps best known for being the largest Buddhist temple complex in the world. Built in the 8th Century (778 - 850 AD) by the Sailendras of Sumatra, it stands on a hill surrounded by volcanoes. At the pinnacle of this immense multi-layered structure is a mighty stupa (bell shaped monument) which towers 40metres (128ft) above the ground.

Borobudur was built as a single large stupa, and when viewed from above takes on the form of a giant Tantric Buddhist Mandala, which simultaneously represents Buddhist cosmology as well as the nature of mind.

The foundation is a square, approximately 118metres (387 ft) on each side. It has nine platforms, of which the lower six are square and the upper three are circular. The upper platform features seventy-two small stupas surrounding one large central stupa. Each stupa is bell-shaped and pierced by numerous decorative openings, inside of which sit statues of the Buddha.

The monument is both a shrine to the Lord Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimage. The journey for pilgrims begins at the base of the structure and follows a path circumambulating the monument. In the process of ascension the pilgrim passes through the three "realms" of Buddhist cosmology, namely 'the world of desires' (Kamadhatu), 'the world of forms' (Rupadhatu), and finally 'the formless world' (Arupadhatu).

It is believed that ordinary sentient beings live out their lives on the lowest level, the realm of desire. Those who have burnt out all desire for continued existence leave the world of desire and live in the world on the level of form alone; they see forms but are not drawn to them. It is only full Buddhas who go beyond form and experience reality at its purest, most fundamental level, the formless ocean of nirvana.

During the circumambulation, the monument guides the pilgrim through a series of stairways and corridors which contain 1,460 narrative wall panels. In addition to these there are also 160 independent carved panels. These panels do not however form a continuous narrative, but instead each panel depicts one complete illustration of cause and effect.

There are blameworthy activities, from gossip to murder, with their corresponding punishments. There are also praiseworthy activities, which include charity and pilgrimage, along with their subsequent rewards. The pains of hell and the pleasure of heaven are also depicted, along with scenes of everyday life, complete with the full spectrum of samsara (the endless cycle of existence).

Prambanan

Built in the 9th Century, Prambanan is the largest temple complex in Java and the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia. Shortly after its completion the compound was deserted, possibly owing to the eruption of nearby Mount Merapi; though this correlation has never been validated.

In total, the complex houses 224 temples. The inner square contains 16 temples, the most significant being the 47metre high central Shiva (Destroyer) temple which is flanked to the north by the temple of Brahma (Creator) and to the south by the temple of Vishnu (Preserver). These three ancient masterpieces of Hindu architecture are locally referred to as the Prambanan Loro Jonggrang Temple (Slender Virgin).

Situated opposite these three temples are three additional temples dedicated to the animals which served these great deities; the Bull Nandi for Shiva, the Swan Hamsa for Vishnu and the Eagle Garuda for Brahma (though nowadays the latter two contain no statues). To this day Garuda still remains the national symbol of Indonesia.

Originally the Shiva temple held four statues; at its centre, the statue of Shiva; in the north chamber, the statue of Durga Mahisasuramardhini (the invincible); in the west chamber, the statue of Ganesha (remover of obstacles), and in the south chamber, the statue of Agastya (a Tamil/Vedic Sage). Inside the Brahma temple there is a statue of Brahma, and in the Vishnu temple, a statue of Vishnu. The Vishnu temple also houses the carved story of Kresnayana, while the Brahma temple houses the continuous story of the Ramayana (Hindu hero Rama).

According to Hindu tradition, Rama was an incarnation (Avatar) of the Hindu Preserver God Vishnu. The main purpose of this incarnation was to demonstrate the righteous path (dharma) for all living creatures on earth.

The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, whose wife Sita was abducted by the demon king of Lanka, Ravana. The Ramayana is no ordinary story, but instead contains the teachings of ancient Hindu sages; presenting them in a parable inclusive of both philosophical and devotional elements.

Just like Borobudur, Prambanan also recognises the hierarchy of the temple zones, spanning from the less holy at its base, to the holiest at its pinnacle.

The above writing, as I'm sure you can appreciate, is a relatively brief synopsis of these two phenomenal feats of human skill, creation and perseverance. By simply scratching the surface, one can soon see why the temples of Java represent such an important piece of global history; a history that continues to span both time & belief. These are majestic structures built by the callused hands of skilled craftsman. To this day, the Javanese temples symbolise so much, least of all what it truly means to be devoted.