Ancient, historical Yogyakarta and modern, pulsating Jakarta reflect the country's multi-cultural ethos

The bus from Yogyakarta rumbles to a stop in the midst of lava fields looped by a tent city of souvenir shops. The UNESCO-restored 9th Century Mahayana Buddhist Temple of Borobudur is a long walk, past well-laid out gardens, hedged in by morning glory. Finally, Borobudur comes into sight — a pageantry of umbrellas and sarongs marches past in the noon-day sun.

The restoration of Borobudur, ranked an equal of the Parthenon by Arnold Toynbee, was a meeting ground for ancient heritage and modern technology. Built by the Buddhist Sailendras over 80 years, the temple lay abandoned and forgotten for nearly eight centuries, shaken by quakes and lashed by torrential rains. In a 19th Century expedition that almost rivalled the search for the Holy Grail, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, then British Lieutenant-Governor of Java, heard of the ruins overrun by the jungle, and ordered it to be cleared of the undergrowth. The Dutch took over later.

Worth the climb

Getting to the top (105 ft) of the temple is like a hike from hell, but worth the effort. The andesite and basalt volcanic stones that make up the pyramid are at varying heights, and bas-reliefs (2,672) depicting the lives of the Buddha are strung like a rosary around the six square terraces. I jostle past tourists, worshippers, school children and heritage enthusiasts to journey through this Buddhist vision of the universe in stone. The birth of the Buddha, his enlightenment, elephants, dancing apsaras — scenes from the ordinary world swirl up to nirvana.

Seventy-two Buddhas in various asanas sit facing outwards in the top three circular terraces. Enclosed in perforated bell-shaped stupas, they surround a large central stupa encasing nothing. The view from the top is splendid — the valley glows green with paddy and bamboo copses, and in the distance beyond the overhanging clouds are the outlines of the active Merbabu and Merapi volcanoes.

I drive three km East to Candi Mendut, another Buddhist temple of the same period. Inside sit three magnificent statues — the Buddha flanked by Boddhisattvas.

Lunch is at a restaurant in the midst of rain-inundated fields. The wait for traditional Javanese fare is interrupted by a wayang kulit performance — flickering shadow puppets symbolising good and evil, dance to the music of the gamelan.

I arrive at Yogyakarta, 30-odd km away, and race past its rich culture-filled streets at sunset. The city was the capital during the revolution from 1945-49, but its history dates back to the 17th Century when it was ruled by the Sultan, and rose in revolt against the Dutch. As recognition of this bravery, the province enjoys the special status of a monarchy.

Old meets new

I fly into the Indonesian capital of Jakarta late on a weekend night with the city blazing with lights and people, and eons away from falling asleep. The following morning, I drive through streets tangled with traffic and lined with stores to the downtown harbour district which, Fatahillah, a Sumataran warrior, named Jayakarta after his victory over the Portuguese.

In 1619, the Dutch (under Jan Pieterszoon Coen) defeated the British and renamed the city Batavia. Over three centuries, from a well-entrenched fort they administered their far-flung colonial empire, mastering the spice trade. The Japanese named the city Djakarta during World War II. I walk around Fatahillah Square past The Museum of Fine Arts, a neo-classic building, and the Stadhuis, the City Hall built in 1710, now the Jakarta Museum. The quiet square belies its violent history — many Chinese were slaughtered here in 1740, forcing them to flee across the fort walls to Glodok where they continue to live in numbers. Across the Grand Canal lie Dutch-style houses reminiscent of Amsterdam.

From the past

A little ahead around Merdeka Square lies the Sekretariat, the porticoed white Presidential Palace, the National Monument with its gigantic flame, the West Irian Liberation monument, and an exquisitely-carved Arjuna Wijaya chariot statute with horses leaping and foaming at the mouth. The glacial Istiqlal mosque is a massive marble and glass structure, and lies across the road from The Church of Our Lady of Assumption, an ornate Roman Catholic neo-Gothic cathedral. It has an altar dedicated to St. Francis Xavier, who introduced Christianity to the Indies.

Like the saint, I have to journey to India, but not before I race through congested Jalan Surabaya shopping for barnacled porcelain dishes ferreted from sunken ships, Javanese puppets, batik fans, a mask and wood carvings.

A quarter of a globe away and couple of months since my travel to the Indies, I still glimpse shades of life from the archipelago — a carved Garuda from Bali threatening to leap off my bookshelf, a Sumatran mask scowling from the wall, a beatific Buddha smiling mysteriously and the aroma of cinnamon coffee wafting up on a winter morning…

(The writer was in Indonesia at the invitation of the Indonesian Ministry of Culture and Tourism.)

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