Travelogue Yogyakarta: The Ancient Temple of Borobudur

There are moments in life that are simply unforgettable : Looking at your newborn for the first time, achieving a high point in your career, or simply visiting a place that has been on your travel bucket list for a long time.

For me, one of those moments was finally stepping foot into the ancient Buddhist temple of Borobudur, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Built in the 9th century by the Hindu-Buddhist Sailendra dynasty, it was abandoned in the 14th century after the Javanese embraced Islam. It wasn’t until the 1800s that British explorers, on the advice of natives, rediscovered the temple and gradually reclaimed it from the jungle growth. Today, Borobudur is Indonesia’s single most visited attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

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**Photo Courtesy of Marriott Yogyakarta 

Borobudur has always been a place I wanted to visit ever since I was a kid, after reading about it in books. The night before, I felt like a kid again anticipating a big trip – and despite going to bed early, was unable to get any sleep.

We departed the hotel at 2.30AM. From Yogyakarta City, the temple is some 40km away, a journey that takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours.

The temple opens at 4 AM for the Sunrise Tour, and you take a 15 minute walk to the grounds in chilly weather, armed only with tiny torches. As we approached the temple, we were greeted by the sight of a gigantic, looming shape in the darkness, and a clear sky of beautiful stars. It was breathtaking, to say the least.

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The stone steps are high and uneven in places, so caution is advised. Depending on when you’re visiting, the sun might come out earlier or later. We planted ourselves to face the twin volcanoes of Mount Merbabu and Mount Merapi in the distance, and waited.

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Our guide told us it was actually a ‘quiet’ morning with a lesser number of tourists. Apparently, on busy days, there can be thousands of people in a single sunrise tour!

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When the sun finally came out, I was mind blown. It rose right in between the twin peaks, the rays forming a stunning V-shape. The colours – pink, blue, orange – contrasting against the dark silhouettes of stupas, was ethereal.

The crowd collectively oohed and ahhed and snapped millions of pictures. I took a few, stood still, and let the powerful emotions wash over me. Its difficult to put into words – I felt truly blessed to be alive, to be in a place that has withstood the long passage of time.

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As the temple is gradually bathed in the morning light, details that were cloaked in darkness become visible : the stupas and reliefs, the statues, the intricacy of its structure.

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The most magical thing, for me, was how different the surroundings looked from different directions – standing at the Merbabu/Merapi gate, everything was a blazing gold and orange, but walk a couple of steps to the other gate and you see an amazing sea of blue and green, shrouded in mist.

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In daylight, visitors will see that the temple consists of nine stacked platforms – the bottom six of which are square, and the top three circular, topped by a big central dome. When viewed from above, it resembles a mandala, which in Buddhism and Hinduism, represents the universe.

We were extremely lucky to get a knowledgeable local guide, who was able to explain to us, in detail, about the history and meaning behind many of the temple’s reliefs and symbols.

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**Photo Courtesy of Marriott Yogyakarta 

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Perhaps the most unique thing about Borobudur is that its more like a giant storybook etched in stone, since there are no shrines or chambers like other temples.

The temple’s bottom levels represent the ‘mortal’ realm, or ‘realm of forms’, which are decorated with thousands of reliefs depicting tales of Buddha’s life, the life of his disciples, and legends and figures from Buddhist mythology.

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Following the principles of Buddhism, the top three levels represent achieving ‘nirvana’ – moving from ‘form’ to ‘formlessness’ as we become free from suffering and the mortal cycle of birth, pain, old age, and death. Here, visitors will find 72 perforated stupas, each housing a statue of a stone Buddha within. The central dome on top represents the final state that all beings should strive for, ie Nirvana.

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The main material or building blocks of the temple are volcanic stone, extracted from the nearby volcanoes, hence the grey colour. Its close proximity to the volcanoes means that the temple is often under threat from eruptions. In fact, several years ago, Borobudur was closed for several months to facilitate a cleanup, after Mount Merapi erupted and covered the entire complex in a layer of volcanic ash.

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Old stone (left) and new stone used to restore parts of the temple that were destroyed in multiple eruptions over a thousand years. Some of the reliefs are, in fact, faded beyond repair.

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Conventionally, one will visit from the bottom levels to the top, but since we were already on the upper levels, we made our way down instead. Although one will see many Indian elements, Borobudur incorporates touches that are uniquely Javanese, blending with the local mythos and architecture.

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One of the most fascinating explanations that our guide provided was that of Kala-Makara, the monster that sits over archways (above).

A ravenous demon lion known as ‘Kirtimukha’ in Hindu mythology,  it was created by Lord Shiva and is a representation of the god himself, devouring everything in its path. Although I can’t find any research online to back this up,  our guide said that it was representative of time – which, to me, was an apt description.Time devours everything and reduces even the mightiest kingdoms into rubble.

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There are thousands of reliefs within Borobudur. Some are depicted in continuous chapters – like pages of a book, you explore each as you make your way around the square platforms. Others tell a story within a single panel. One can’t help but marvel at the level of detail and the excellent craftsmanship of Borobudur’s artisans and builders. They did not have the tools and technology that we have – and yet were able to produce such amazing works of art that have withstood the test of time for over a millennia.

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Scene of Buddha as a deer in its past life.

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Similar to the gargoyles of Europe, Borobudur has water spouts shaped like mythical creatures such as monstrous lions and makara (a type of sea monster), which were used to drain water from the structure when it rains. As for Buddha statues, there are about 504 statues within the complex, although originally there might have been more.

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A makara waterspout

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Clearer picture of the tiers in daylight

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Even for someone living in the 21st century, an era of skyscrapers and giant buildings, Borobudur still took my breath away – so I can only imagine how it must have felt for visitors and pilgrims in the past when they first laid eyes on this magnificent structure. The temple is still an important place for Indonesian Buddhists, and is where they have a grand Wesak Day celebration every year to commemorate the birth of Buddha.

Entry for the sunrise tour is 450,000 IDR (RM128 – USD30). You can also opt for a day trip at a cheaper price.

Tips: Wear proper shoes and bring a scarf! It gets quite chilly in the morning.

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The package included breakfast at Manohara Restaurant, which is where we set off for the tour earlier. The kuih-muih (cakes) and fried banana topped with cheese was awesome after all that walking!

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Hearty fried rice meal with sausages, crisps and side of salad.

GETTING TO BOROBUDUR 

By Public Transport: From the city, take the Trans-Jogja busses 2B and 2A to Jombor Bus Terminal in northern Yogyakarta. There, board a bus that goes directly to Borobudur Bus Terminal (trip of 60 – 90 minutes). From there, walk 5 minutes to reach Borobudur Temple.

By Minivan: Some tour operators offer packages that take you directly to Borobudur, or may stop at attractions along the way.

 

Travelogue Japan: Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

One of our last stops in Kanazawa was Nagamachi, a former samurai district located at the foot of Kanazawa Castle. Since the castle was an important centre of administration for the ruling daimyo, it was natural that a residence catering to the upper echelons, namely the samurai, sprung up within close proximity.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Entering the area was like taking a step back in time, to a feudal era several hundred years ago. We took a stroll through its quiet, cobble-stoned alleyways, flanked by high earthen walls, large wooden gates and private entrances. Some houses are still occupied, apparently by descendants of the samurai who used to be retainers of the powerful Maeda clan.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Like many historic sights within the city, Nagamachi retains its authentic charm, the buildings intact from bombardment suffered in other Japanese cities throughout World War II. I found the earthen walls to be especially intriguing. At each corner of the street was a low, squarish stone. Our guide, Mariko-san, explained that these were used by people to get rid of snow on their shoes by tapping the side of the stone with their feet before entering a home.

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There are two canals running through the neighbourhood. The sound of flowing water lends a feeling of tranquility. Coupled with the fact that there is a low density of vehicles in the area, Nagamachi makes a nice, peaceful excursion away from the throng of tourists at other attractions.

Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

One of the places you can visit is Nomura-Ke, a former samurai residence turned museum which houses exhibits of artifacts, equipment and daily household items used in that era. The Nomura family were a rich and powerful samurai family, until, like many retainers, they lost their wealth and prestige during the Meiji restoration.

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The Kyu-Kaga Hanshi Takada Family House, once the abode of the Takada family, has a beautiful landscaped garden – reflective of the clan’s standing and influence.

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We ventured into an old house-turned-musuem for a quick walkabout.  Rooms were made to look exactly like the original, with tatami-ed floors and sliding doors covered with thin washi paper.

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Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

The kitchen area had wooden floorboards and traditional cooking stoves that used firewood.

GETTING TO NAGAMACHI SAMURAI DISTRICT 

From Kanazawa Station, take the Kanazawa Loop Bus from the East Exit and get off at Korinbo bus stop. From there it is a 5-minute walk to Nagamachi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting Kenroku-En: One of Japan’s Three Most Beautiful Landscaped Gardens

Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture is relatively unknown among foreign tourists – perhaps due to it being off the beaten path of the Shinkansen (bullet train) – but the place is a popular destination for domestic travelers, and for good reason. If you’re looking for well-preserved examples of art, culture and history from Japan’s feudal era, Kanazawa has, perhaps, one of the best you’ll find in Japan.

Departing from Nagoya in the early morning, we arrive at the modern-looking JR Kanazawa Station an hour later. It was a rainy day – not surprising, since the city is known as the ‘Seattle of Japan’.

Part modern metropolis, part ancient capital, the city is an interesting blend of old and new, as seen from the giant wooden archway at the station’s entrance that stands in stark contrast to the place’s squeaky clean tiled floors, glass and steel railings and concrete facade. Known as a cultural and artistic hub, the city has a rich history that dates back hundreds of years, and was lucky enough to escape bombings during World War II. This makes Kanazawa the best place to see Edo-era buildings in their original form.

After dropping our items off at the hotel, our first stop for the day was Kanazawa Castle. 

* Since it was raining I had to keep my DSLR in the bag most of the time. The photos I took with my phone weren’t too good so here are some from the Japan National Tourism Organisation. Photos watermarked are my own. 

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Kanazawa Castle was built in the 16th century as the homebase of Maeda Toshiie, a local daimyo (ruling warlord of a district). Japan’s feudal era was characterised by war and military insecurity, so it was natural for Toshiie to construct a castle town with which he could defend himself. As a result, nobles and samurais flocked to the place, as did the merchants, blacksmiths, carpenters, entertainers and geishas. Wars and several fires ravished the castle, resulting in its destruction in the 19th century, but the building has since been restored to some measure of its former glory.

A unique feature of the building’s architecture is its white-tiled roofs, said to be made from lead which could be melted down in times of war to make bullets.

Credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

We skipped a tour of the castle and proceeded to the adjoining park instead, which is almost as old as the original castle itself. Kenroku-en, or the ‘Garden of Six Attributes’, is widely considered as one of the most beautiful landscaped gardens in Japan, so called because it combines the six qualities that make up a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views.

Spanning over 11.4 hectares, the garden is home to over 8,000 trees from 183 species of plants, with artificial ponds and streams found throughout the grounds. Look out for the unique two-legged lantern called a Kotojitoro (above, right) which has become a symbol of the gardens.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Since I was visiting in summer, the trees and plants were a bright, verdant green, bursting with colour and life. It is said that a visit to the Kenroku-en throughout the seasons offers a different experience each time: in spring, cherry blossoms abound, in autumn the leaves turn to vivid gold, red and yellow, while winter sees the trees tied down with long wooden contraptions to keep their shape and protect them from heavy snow.

The gentle patter of rain subsided halfway through our park tour, although the sky remained grey and overcast – a pity, since the place would have otherwise made great photos. Still beautiful though. I can imagine the lords and ladies of old in their fancy kimonos strolling through the bridges and walkways before settling down to a nice warm tea whilst taking in the views.

Some not so nice photos from my phone.

We spotted the ‘oldest fountain in Japan’!  It’s not that impressive at only 3.5m high, but considering that people in the olden days did not have the technology we have today, this was quite a feat. The spurting water was achieved by applying natural water pressure.

One of my favourite spots, which had an ‘island’ in the centre of a pond. I thought it looked rather like a turtle in the water with trees sprouting from its back.

One can easily spend the whole morning walking through the place. Not sure on good days when its sunny, but we almost had the whole garden to ourselves! It was serene and quiet.

Lunch was at a restaurant called Miyoshian, replete with low dining tables, tatami mats and sliding partitions for privacy. Ordered soba noodles again (but hot this time) with chicken in a creamy sauce on top. It also came served with a boiled prawn, sweet egg roll (tamago) and condiments.

GETTING TO KENROKUEN/KANAZAWA CASTLE PARK 

Board the tourist oriented Kanazawa Loop Bus and stop at numbers LL9 and RL8. The Kenrokuen Shuttle Bus stops at number S8. It costs approximately 200yen and takes 20 minutes. Alternatively, there are Hokutetsu buses that run between Kanazawa Station and Kenrokuen, which takes 15 minutes and 200 yen one way.

Entrance fee to Kenrokuen: 300 yen (RM11)

Opening hours:

  • 7AM-6PM (March to October 15)
  • 8AM – 5PM (October 16 – February)

 

Ancient Art of the Iban :Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu

What is Pua Kumbu? 

Literally translated to mean ‘blanket covering’, pua kumbu textiles are made through a complex and intricate process spanning many months, using tie-dye resist methods. The cloth is used for sacred ceremonies and rituals by the Iban people of Sarawak. 

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I got to drop by University Malaya’s Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu exhibition. Combining classic anthropology research with innovative media, the exhibition is an interactive and immersive journey for visitors to better understand this ancient form of art, and the way of the Iban.

It took two years under the University’s High Impact Research project to put everything together, but I have to say the result is awesome. The team had to go to the longhouses in the Sarawakian jungles, to better understand pua kumbu, its origins and the heritage of the people who make them.

You see, pua kumbu isn’t just some pretty cloth….

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We begin our exhibition journey with a classic documentary explaining the origins of the Iban, and an introduction to their history and culture. The live footage was mostly gathered from the uni team’s visits and were not taken from anywhere else.

Then we come to the actual pua kumbu.

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The Iban believe in a spirit world that exists alongside their mortal realm, and the pua kumbu is a reflection of that connection.The weavers, who are all Iban women, weave their dreams and observations onto the cloth – so you are looking at actual stories in each piece, even though it might not make sense to people who do not know its history. The really old pieces are deemed to have immense power, while those featuring certain animals or figures can only be woven by expert weavers lest the pua does harm because of its potency.

Weavers are revered as poets, chemists and historians. I was told that the sacred puas come from dreams and are very powerful. Today, as the women are more involved in craftmaking, some pua pieces have become commercialised and involve simple designs such as snails and patterns that hold no sacred meaning.

Visitors can download and scan a QR code instead of reading static descriptions. All you have to do is wave your phone or tablet over the code for the info. How innovative! I only expect this sort of tech in museums overseas, so this was very encouraging. The mistake with Malaysian museums and exhibitions is that they tend to be super static and boring, or if research is done it is presented to a niche audience through talks and conferences. This is the way to go if they want to attract public interest.

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The cloth is either cotton or silk, and is dyed with a variety of plants found in the jungle or cultivated by the Iban in their compounds. For example, yellow dye comes from ‘akar penawar landak’ (fibraurea tinctoria) while indigo is sourced from rengat (marsdenia tinctoria).

A dream is considered sacred because the Ibans think of them as messages. When a weaver has a dream and intends to weave it into a pua, they cannot reveal the dream until the cloth is complete. The one on above is called ‘Rebor Api‘ and came from a dream of the weaver’s longhouse on fire. But before she could complete the weaving, the dream came true. Interesting.

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A piece called Ijau Pumpong.

 

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Away from the entrance is a small room with a TV set playing a video clip of Bangie Anak Embol, the master weaver of the Iban community in Rumah Garie in Kapit. She is in her 70s and revered as an expert in pua weaving and an excellent craftsmaster, recognised by our Malaysian government.

Bangie explains the stories in Iban on several pua pieces, coupled with beautiful flash animation done by UM’s digital team.

There were many fascinating stories behind the different pua – it’s almost like a storybook in cloth form.

One of the more interesting ones was called “Keling and Kumang”. They are very important mythical figures in Iban culture. Keling is a strong, brave and handsome warrior, while Kumang is his beautiful and gentle wife. The dream came to Bangie almost 15 years ago but she only weaved it much later when the time was right.

Kumang is bathing at the well when she was spirited away by a spirit called Bunsu Ribut. Awaiting for her in vain, Keling decided to search for his wife by climbing up a tall tree. On the way, he meets many animals such as monkeys, pheasants, hornbills, fish and dogs who help him in his journey. They finally find Kumang on a middle branch and she is rescued, and the couple live happily ever after.

It is even more fascinating to know the story because you can see the figures represented in the cloth.

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They use sliding Ipads on both sides of the Keling and Kumang piece, with character sketches and explanations popping up as you slide along the display. Really cool.

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Another piece by Bangie, called Pun Nibung Berayah. This came to her in a dream where she was lost in a nipah forest – hence the thorny patterns on the pua.

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Character concepts by the digital team, which were eventually translated into beautiful flash animation. I really liked their animation because it captured the essence of the Iban through simple tribal designs and elements.

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The story of how Pua came to be. It was said that the first pua was a bird belonging to a goddess, and an Iban warrior shot it down; whereby said bird turned into an exquisite piece of cloth. The goddess took the warrior up to heaven where they had a child, but he returned to earth later and with him came the knowledge of pua making.

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‘Tangga Beji”; literally Beji’s ladder. If any of my readers are Iban, correct me if I’m wrong because I can’t remember the exact story now and the only internet searches are in Bahasa Iban.

Beji had a brother who climbed up a very high place and ascended to where the Gods live. He stayed there for a long time. His younger brother Beji wanted to look for him, so he built a tall ladder using tree trunks to try to reach the heavens. Unfortunately it broke, and Beji fell back to the ground. He gave up on his quest, and since then the people and their Gods became distant, only communicating through dreams.

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Red is a common colour for pua kumbu pieces.

The one on the bottom left has an interesting history. It is one out of only four pieces still known to exist. ‘Rang Jugah’, or ‘skull basket’, was presented by the wife to a husband for his first successful head hunt (the Iban were fierce warriors and head hunters). Of course, this piece cannot be reproduced today.

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Motifs like serpents and crocodiles couldn’t be woven by just anyone, because the Iban believe that while they exist in the real world, they are also spirits in the spirit world and are very potent. If you’re a newbie you can’t simply weave these things coz it might harm you.

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The exhibition also features 80 selected photographs from over 2,000 photos they took during their research. You can view some of them here. It chronicles the production process from collecting the yarn, dyeing, soaking, weaving as well as rituals for the making of pua kumbu.

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There are about 30+ pieces of pua, with the oldest being more than 200 years old. Some are newer and others are heirlooms passed down through the generations. The UM project involved 32 weavers.

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Natural dyes using cultivated plants and jungle produce. There’s a video showing the process – they are usually mashed to a pulp and then boiled in high heat before the yarn is soaked in it for the colour to stick.

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Replica of a traditional longhouse. Ibans live in longhouses (the name itself is explanatory) where entire communities live under one roof. There are smaller rooms and a long communal area where they gather, eat and have festivals.

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Burung Ruai or pheasant bird. See the tail in the design at the bottom and top? 🙂

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Souvenirs such as clothing, bead necklaces, shoes and scarves for sale at the foyer.

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The weaver women are earning a good income from the commercialised pua, thanks to researchers who are also helping them gain more exposure. The pua are often very well sought after because of their beauty and quality. A big piece can cost up to RM10,000. But at the same time, the weavers are still holding steadfast to their more sacred beliefs, lest the meaning is loss in commercialisation. It’s a balance between livelihood and ancient traditions.

I enjoyed myself so much at this exhibition I spent nearly three hours there, even though the floor space isn’t very big. It was definitely a very insightful look into the Malaysian Iban culture. As someone living on the Western Peninsula, I’m ashamed to say I have never gone to East Malaysia (it’s a 2 hour plane ride)… 😡 This has really intrigued me to explore more of my homeland and to experience its culture to the fullest.