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DateLine Sunday, 5 August 2007

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Borobudhur :

The Buddhist complex in the world

Hunting for some superlatives? Here are two. Indonesia, alas now more famous for a spate of natural disasters as volcanoes and earthquakes, is said to be the largest archipelago in the world, comprising some 1700 islands.

And Borobudhur sited a considerable distance from Jakartha (referred to in the Rajavaliya as Jagadara) is according to many the largest Buddhist shrine in the world. Well. One is inside the other. I mean Borobudhur is in the archipelago of Indonesia, today a major Moslem state in the world. Complexes as this leave some strange imprints, imprints of a completely different past. Otherwise how can one explain this paradox?

These islands had once been a part of an Indian Buddhist empire and later of an Indian Hindu Empire for which the massive Prambanan Hindu shrine in Borobudhur's proximity bears witness. But luckily this gigantic complex has been spared the fate that the Bamian staues were subject to.

The Indonesian Muslims do not enjoy razing to the ground these historical and religious monuments and they seem to be proud of them. The day we visited Borobudhur there was an equal crowd of men donning fez caps and veiled women. Of course they were not there for religious ritual but were there to wander and wonder.

There is so much to wonder in Indonesia, once a Dutch colonial hold. It was the first time I was there but as we sat outside a beach fringed hotel facing the ocean, a rather familiar sight caught my eye. ... familiar from history books, that is. A mass of sailing vessels just kept floating around. White sails against reddening evening skies.

We were told that they are on show for tourists, a gimmick some call it. It was certainly a peep into history when Jakartha was Batavia, the headquarters of the Dutch. Ships and galleys and caravels started from these shores and even reached our shores.

The times were the 17 th and 18 th Centuries when the Dutch East India bearing the acronym VOC conducted their naval operations, ambitiously sailing to and fro trying to expand their colonial empire in the East.

But it never fell to the lot of the Dutch to discover the massive religious edifices that whispered the country's past. It was a Britisher, Raffles who in 1814 had discovered Borobudhur. By this time Britain had vanquished Holland as a major power in the East.

Renovations began but it was too late in some instances. The complex is one mass of Buddha statues, a myriad number and some were headless by this time. Decapitation by non-Buddhists' No, explains a travel guide, the neck is the thinnest part in a statue and when strong gales blow the neck is broken.

Murals depicting Jathaka tales adorn spaces between the Buddha statues and a member in our group observed that the men and women in these statues resemble the Sinhalese perhaps impling the fact that in scuplting these Sinhala craftsmen with their knowledge of Jathaka tales had gone over.

I remebered then reading a book on Angkor Wot in Cambodia written by a visiting English writer who had this cute remark to make.

"Up on those shrines, on the fanatsic murals depicting Buddhist tales are the same men and women and children walking down below." The artist mirrors what he sees around him or the figures he has got used to observing.

I have not still traced the route to Borobudhur. Driving along miles and miles of flat swathes of and from Jakartha where still remain traces of Dutch rule one comes on to Jyogjakartha and then one almost springs into a valley surrounded by a concetric circle of rings.

This is the Menorah mountain range facing the volcanoes Sumbing and Sendaar that had got activated by the Tsunami. Almost by miracle Borobudhur had been saved which according to some sources is a result of certain innovations carried out by the Indonesian govt. to strengthen its base. And what a base, just expansive beyond one's imagination.

Now we come to the issue as to who built this tantalizing Borobudhur, Avast netted complex of stupas and statues interspersed by balustrades, guard stones, friezes and archways. A typical Buddhist complex moulded by generations of Buddhist tradition.

You cannot expect a Moslem state to build it with its antipathy to idol-worship. Again, it needs reiteration, it definitely belongs to a pre-Islamic era, a time phase preceding the Muslim invasions that swept Asia.

The complex is surmised to have been constructed in the 9th Century by a king of the Sailendra dynasty, most probably a member of an Indian royal dynasty of Buddhist faith.

It had been a time period when Indian kings suffused with the faith of Buddhism were putting up huge and glorious edifices in honour of the Blessed One.

It was a time when Buddhism was flourishing not only in these states towards the East of Asia but in many states of Central Asia between China and India, all along the Snowy Mountain trail.

Here too during the times of the monk travellers of China who visited India in search of books on Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism was rearing its head.

Yet even these travellers tales narrate how huge buildings in honour of the Buddha were coming up commemorating places connected to His life as places where evil forces were vanquished, feats orchestrated in our own island. There seems to have been no apparent indication of it succumbing its place to Hinduism in a few centuries to come.

In Cambodia had come up the Bayon and Angkor Wot. The Sailendra kings perhaps tried to outdo Cambodia or the Kamboja state as it was then called. Though humans had not been cruel to these shrines nature had wreaked havoc on them in many ways.

Volcanic eruptions and other eruptions had played their own role but repairs at periodical intervals had kept them from total ruin and total eclipse.

The area when Borobudhur domineered the landscape had once been known as Central Java, from which later during the Dutch period a set of people who had already embraced the Islamic faith had come over to our island, some of them never to return.

The shrine of Borobudhur, a gigantic masterpiece in Buddhist sculpture and described as the largest Buddhist complex in the world, today looms safely in a country of a different faith. Such are the strange quirks of history.

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