In Indonesia, watching the sun rise with 504 Buddhas

In Indonesia, watching the sun rise with 504 Buddhas
Mt. Merapi rises in the distance behind the forest of stupas at Borobudur, Indonesia. The stupas are perforated to allow glimpses at the Buddha figures inside. (Susan Spano / For The Times)

Four a.m. is a terrible time of day, too late for night owls, too early for early risers. The exception is 4 a.m. at Borobudur, waiting for the sun to rise over the Kedu Plain in central Java with 504 figures of Buddha.

The temple is one of three great religious sites in Southeast Asia, but it's older and more esoteric than Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It was begun in the 8th century by the Sailendras, a dynasty of Buddhist kings who ruled central Java for almost 200 years until their power waned and the temple was abandoned.


The stepped pyramid rises in nine levels to a single bell-shaped stupa surrounded by galleries. The pilgrims walk around them, meditating on stone reliefs that tell the life story of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince who transcended life's pain and became the Lord Buddha.

You can circle the monument with them or climb to the top, but only by looking at a diagram can you tell that the temple is shaped like a mandala, a mystical scheme of the Buddhist cosmos. The three levels denote states of consciousness, from human suffering to enlightenment. Little is known beyond that, leaving the cosmos locked shut while Borobudur reigns, silent and solitary, over the volcano-ringed garden of Java.

I told friends I was coming to Southeast Asia in fall 2010 to see Angkor, a mission accomplished. But for no reason I understood, my real objective was Borobudur, less well known and off the beaten track in the world's most populous Islamic country and a feared breeding ground for Al Qaeda.

Not only that, but Indonesia is also prone to natural disasters. The 9.0 earthquake off Sumatra on Dec. 26, 2004, launched a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in 14 countries across South Asia. A few days after my visit to Java, Mt. Merapi, over whose shoulder I saw the sun rise from the top of Borobudur, erupted.

The trip was, despite everything, surprisingly peaceful, even dreamy. It was organized by Borobudur Tour & Travel, which offered a three-day itinerary in central Java, including a van, a driver and hotels, for $375, no deposit required.

The rainy season had just begun when I flew from Singapore to Yogyakarta, about 35 miles southeast of Borobudur. The name of the town's airport, Adisucipto, seemed to me almost as imponderable as that of the province's sultan and elected governor, Hamengkubuwono. Fortunately, I had an easier time with my driver Noor, whom I spotted in arrivals holding a sign that said "Spano," presumably a name as baffling to Indonesians as theirs were to me. He had been told to meet a couple from Spain instead of a single female traveler from the U.S.

Noor, a soft-spoken, amiable man, was unfazed. He was a reliable driver, and as a guide, he was good at pointing out aspects of everyday life. For instance, more than half the 230 million people of Indonesia live on the island of Java, which, at 50,000 square miles, is about a third the size of California but has more than three times the people.

Indonesians tend to marry as early as 14 and have lots of children, which has prompted the government to promote a two-children-per-family policy. Indonesian men are allowed up to four wives. Noor had only one. I liked that about him.

From the airport we took the traffic-clogged, two-lane ring road around Yogyakarta, passing cottage industries making wood furniture and replicas of temple statues. We saw a boy riding a small merry-go-round mounted on the back of a bike and greengrocery huts with exotic produce such as snake-skinned salak fruit piled high. Children bathed in an engorged river, and women in colorful head scarves did the wash. Rice paddies were filled to the brim with water and set like cloudy cut opals in the blazing green landscape.

For a warmup, we stopped at Prambanan, a temple complex close to Yogyakarta built shortly after Borobudur, but architecturally more like Angkor Wat with a central artichoke-shaped stupa surrounded by four smaller ones. The compound, seriously damaged in 2006 by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake and partly covered by shaky bamboo scaffolding, looks as though it could collapse with the next tremor.

Noor said, "Hati hati," which means "be careful" in Indonesian, then waited while I climbed the main stupa and paid my respects to a 10-foot-tall statue of the Hindu god Shiva. Together with Buddhist Borobudur, this chiefly Hindu place of worship is a testament to the theological melding that took place in the Middle Ages on Java. The two faiths borrowed from each other until Islam, brought by Arab traders, took root around 1400.

The Yogyakarta region, with a population of about 3 million, is the only Indonesian province still ruled by a sultan, a special status recognizing the role the region played in the war for independence against the Dutch. The city is now home to several major Indonesian universities, which gives it a smart, young air. But its center remains Sultan Hamengkubuwono's palace (or kraton), a walled, whitewashed compound with open-air pavilions. A 175-piece gamelan orchestra, an ensemble of wind, string and percussion, performs here. It has its own bank, a 2,500-man military garrison, a museum of mostly hideous gifts given to sultans, 20 vehicles in the royal garage and 75 bird cages.

On a tour arranged by Noor, an official palace guide pointed out the décor's myriad male and female symbols; even the cages have male and female birds, a feature that prompted the guide to divulge an interesting theory about the present sultan, who has just one wife and five daughters, unlike his father, another Hamengkubuwono, who had 21 children with four concubines. The sultan's sad lack of a male heir, the guide suggested, stems from the sexual aggressiveness of the queen consort, a condition that produces girl children only.

Reflecting on that, I took a bicycle cab (or becek), the most common, cheap and practical form of transportation in teeming Yogyakarta, down the distracting hurly-burly of Malioboro Road. Lined by tightly packed rows of buildings with Dutch stepped gables, New Orleans-style balconies, galleries full of food and souvenir vendors — all cheerfully suffering the effects of recent earthquakes and tropical torpor — this main street quickly became one of my favorite places to shop in the world. I bought light cotton shirts and trousers for about $5 each at the Matahari Department Store, a bouquet of camellias from a flower stall, cheap batik scarves on the pavement and a basket in the local market where salesmen stacked comestibles I couldn't identify in tall pyramids.


One of them spoke enough English to ask where I was from. When I told him the U.S., he beamed, saying that President Obama had lived in Indonesia as a boy. Later, I saw another instance of effective American diplomacy in newspaper photos of the first lady wearing a stylish head scarf, a relaxed form of head covering increasingly adopted by Islamic Indonesian women who until recently had gone unveiled.

I stayed two nights at a hotel on Sosrowijayan Street just off Malioboro, an enclave for scruffy-looking backpackers. Pedestrian alleyways off Sosrowijayan were full of countertop tour agencies, cheap guest houses and cafes selling secondhand copies of the late Erich Segal's "Love Story," Rick Steves' 1986 guide to Europe, Western-style breakfasts and uniformly terrible coffee. Unwilling to accept that I couldn't get a good cup of joe on the island of Java, I roamed the soulful, animated city, never finding it but filling my new basket with additional treasures.


Finally, we got to the main event: Borobudur, a few hours by van from Yogyakarta. Near a ramshackle village strung along a bumpy road, it is one of the least touristy UNESCO World Heritage Sites I've visited. I didn't see a hotel until we entered the temple gate and parked at a cluster of low buildings set around beds of orange cannas. This was the Manohara guest house, originally built for researchers and architectural historians that completed a major renovation of the temple in 1983. Now open to travelers, it provides a welcome drink ofCoca-Cola with tamarind, modest rooms, good food in an open-air dining room, a video introduction to Borobudur and easy access to the temple, especially for people who want to see it at sunrise.

We arrived in the late afternoon, just as the skies were threatening. Nevertheless, I headed straight for the temple, hidden by trees until the very threshold. Then Borobudur made its appearance, a great layer cake of mottled gray stone supporting a mountain of needle-pinnacled stupas.

The arched staircases from level to level are treacherously steep, overlooked by gaping-mouthed gargoyle water spouts, nymphs (or apsaras), dancing arms akimbo, and niches enshrining Buddha figures, each with hands in different symbolic poses (or mudras). His life story unfolds on the middle level, starting at the left side of the eastern entrance with stone panels of great vividness, recalling the medieval Bayeux tapestry in France. I ran my hand over a carving of Queen Maya in a carriage headed for Lumbini Park, where she gave birth to the Buddha.

Just then a clap of thunder thwacked à la Macbeth, and guards began herding visitors to a gate far from the one I'd entered. When I told one of them that I needed to get back to the Manohara, he offered to take me there on his motor scooter. I figured I'd crack Borobudur's meaning the next morning. Meanwhile, I let fly on the ride of a lifetime around the temple.

That night, I watched the Borobudur video, had a satay dinner at the restaurant, accompanied by gamelan music, and claimed a flashlight at the front desk for my sunrise visit to Borobudur. I slept soundly, without the interruptions I normally experience on the eve of a great event.

Dawn was an hour away when I joined a small group of guests in the lobby and followed a guide across the lawn to the temple. He made no comment; there was nothing to say — except perhaps hati hati.

This time, I climbed to the top levels, which are round, not rectangular, and bare except for their forest of stupas, perforated to allow peeks at Buddha statues inside. Experts say that Borobudur's more abstract upper precincts, especially its empty central stupa, reflect nirvana, a state of being beyond human consciousness.

But how could they know? How could anyone know, even sitting atop the temple watching the pinkness of sunrise pool in a halo around soon-to-erupt Mt. Merapi, where the mystery of the cosmos remains secure? But if there is a keyhole to it anywhere, I'd wager it's at Borobudur.