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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.