Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment and Death: How Wesak Is Celebrated Around The World

May 7 marks Wesak (or Vesak) Day, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha, a central figure in Buddhism. It is one of the most important days for Buddhists around the world. Unlike Christmas, which has a set date each year, Wesak falls on the full moon of the month of Vesakha according to the ancient Indian calendar, which is typically between April and May.

While Wesak is celebrated in many different ways, with some practices intertwined with the local culture, one common aspect of the festival is paying homage to Buddha and observing the Buddhist precepts of kindness to all living beings. As such, Buddhists will usually eat vegetarian food, go to temples to offer prayers, practice loving-kindness and donate to charity. Many temples around the world will also organise talks on dharma (the Buddhist equivalent of the gospel – ie Buddha’s teachings) and activities such as bathing the Buddha, a symbolic ritual which involves pouring water over a small Buddha statue to cleanse one’s sins.

MALAYSIA

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At 19.2% of the population, Malaysia has a significant number of Buddhists – and Wesak is considered a national holiday. During this time, temples are usually packed with devotees, who come together to donate to the needy and light candles, incense and joss sticks as offerings. The Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple – one of the most prominent Sinhalese Buddhist temples in Kuala Lumpur – turns into a bustling hive of activity on Wesak Day, as thousands converge to chant sutras together and pray for the wellbeing of all living beings. The highlight of the celebration is a large procession through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, with lighted floats of Buddha and the deities accompanied by devotees holding prayer candles.

NEPAL 

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Buddha was believed to have been born in Lumbini in Nepal, and every year, thousands of pilgrims gather at this pilgrimage site (as well as the surrounding Kathmandu Valley) on Buddha Jayanthi (Buddha’s birthday), to attend religious processions and chant Buddhist scriptures. Similar to other parts of the world, kind deeds and acts of charity are observed, such as donating food and clothes to the needy, providing financial aid to schools and monasteries, and taking part in blood donation drives. Some people dress in white (to symbolise purity), and observe a vegetarian diet.

SRI LANKA 

Piliyandala Vesak Thorana 2016
A Pandol for Vesak. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Varuna Harshana / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Wesak is a major event in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, with celebrations lasting for a week. The sale of alcohol and fresh meat is prohibited during this period. Aside from alms-giving and prayers, Wesak celebrations in Sri Lanka take on a slightly festive mood – with public displays of electrically-lit pandols (a temporary structure which illustrates stories from Buddhist scriptures) as well as colourful lanterns called Vesak kuudu hung along streets and in front of homes, to represent the light of the Buddha, Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community). There are also organisations and groups that go about singing bhakti gee, or Buddhist devotional songs, much like the Christian practice of carolling.

SOUTH KOREA 

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service/ CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

South Korea celebrates the birthday of Buddha, or ‘seokga tansinil’, on the 8th day of the 4th month in the Korean lunar calendar. Besides being a religious celebration, it is also very much cultural, with traditional performances, folk games, parades, and more. The world-famous Lotus Lantern Festival, which dates back over 1,000 years, is held in conjunction with seokga tansinil. Seoul hosts the largest event of its kind, featuring grand parades, floats with Buddhist figures and cultural icons such as dragons and phoenixes. Parade participants carry lotus-shaped lights (Buddha is often depicted seated on a lotus) – a symbol of purity and wisdom.

THAILAND 

Candle Light Vesak day ceremony at WatYai Chaimongkhol Temple, Ayudtaya, Thailand
Candle Light Vesak day ceremony at WatYai Chaimongkhol Temple, Ayudtaya, Thailand. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Leelaryonkul / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Another Buddhist-majority country, Thailand’s Wesak celebrations are massive. Many Thais are deeply devout (young men are encouraged to be ordained as monks for a certain amount of time as a rite of passage into adulthood) – so temples will usually be full of devotees offering prayers to gain ‘merits’ (in millennial terms – they’re kind of like a points system in Buddhism: do good stuff, get good merits, do bad stuff, get demerits) in order to accumulate good karma.

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Image via Wikimedia Commons – ผู้สร้างสรรค์ผลงาน/ส่งข้อมูลเก็บในคลังข้อมูลเสรีวิกิมีเดียคอมมอนส์ – เทวประภาส มากคล้าย / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

The Buddhism in Thailand is mainly of the Theravada branch (there are several differences between the two major branches namely Theravada and Mahayana), so devotees observe the Five Moral precepts according to the branch’s tradition – by refraining from harming living things or consuming intoxicating substances. Bars and clubs are closed during this period as a sign of respect.

INDONESIA 

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Waisak (as Vesak is known in Indonesia) celebrations at Borobudur. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Aditya Suseno / CC0

Indonesia once housed powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, with many ancient structures that have stood the test of time scattered across the region. One of these is Borobudur near the city of Yogyakarta, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. It is an important site for Indonesian Buddhists as well as pilgrims from around the world, who gather here for Wesak Day celebrations. Something unique to Indonesia’s Wesak Day celebrations is Pindapata, a ritual involving thousands of monks walking around the structure as well as on the streets, whilst praying to receive charity and blessings for the Indonesian people. Sky lanterns are also released into the night sky, which makes for a magical display against the backdrop of the full moon.

LAOS 

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The Rocket Festival being celebrated in Yasothon, Laos. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Takeaway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Wesak is known as Visakha Bouxa in Laos, where Buddhism is the predominant religion. As Visakha Bouxa falls during the transition between dry and wet season, Laotians celebrate it with Boun Bang Fay, or the Rocket Festival. Villages compete with each other to send large homemade rockets into the sky in an attempt to convince celestial being to send down rain. The rockets can be rather dangerous as they contain a large amount of gunpowder and can sometimes reach several hundred metres. The rocket launching is preempted by parades, musical shows and dance performances. These practices are also apparently quite prevalent in the northern Thai region of Isan.

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Locals performing as part of a street parade for the Yasothon Rocket Festival. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Takeaway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

 

 

 

 

Exploring Wat Pho, Bangkok : The Birthplace of The Traditional Thai Massage

One of Bangkok’s oldest temples, Wat Pho is a must visit if you love architecture. Built in the 16th century, this vast royal temple complex boasts a splendid design, with towering spires, colourful glazed-tile roofs and grand halls. The temple is home to the largest collection of Buddha’s images in Thailand (over 1,000), the most famous being a 46-metre-long giant reclining Buddha. It is also the birthplace of the traditional Thai massage, which is offered to visitors as a communal experience at an open-air pavilion.

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The temple complex covers over 80,000 square metres, so it’s best to allocate several hours if you wish to fully explore the place. There are numerous pavilions, hallways, shrines and prayer halls to within, so tourist maps (located at various points throughout the temple) come in handy !

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The ordination hall, or Phra Ubosot, is where monks perform rituals. The hall looked absolutely stunning, with maroon and gold floor to ceiling motifs and a glittering gold and crystal dais, upon which was seated a gilded Buddha dating back to the Ayutthaya period. The statue was ‘shaded’ by a golden, tasseled nine-tiered umbrella, a symbol of Thailand. The ashes of the ruler Rama I can also be found under the pedestal.

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Making our way around the temple complex, we could see influences from various cultures, such as these Chinese-style stone pagodas. There were figures and statues of Chinese deities as well. The colour of the tiles on the roof differed from building to building, but most had orange/gold as the primary shade, accentuated by blue, red, white and green.

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Chedis are an alternative to stupas in Thailand, and there are hundreds of these within the temple grounds. The smaller ones rise up about five metres, and are decorated with floral or geometric motifs from the base to the top.

Beyond being just a religious place, Wat Pho was also intended as an education centre, so visitors will find murals and engravings on granite slabs throughout the complex with texts and illustrations depicting subjects such as history, medicine, health, custom, literature and religion.

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Marble towers called Phra Prang, which are found at the corners of one of the main courtyards.

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Aside from the Reclining Buddha statue, I found the Phra Maha Chedi Si Rajakarn – a grouping of four large chedis – to be most impressive. Located within a courtyard, their sharp spires towering over their surroundings, these 42-metre-high chedis are dedicated to the first four Chakri kings: Rama I, Rama II, Rama III and Rama IV. The chedis each have a distinctive look and are covered in beautiful tiles, in green, yellow, white and blue.

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Inside one of the buildings called Viharn Phranorn, we finally came to the temple’s famed golden reclining Buddha. It was humongous, filling up one entire side of the hall, the statue’s long legs stretching from one end to the other. There were nooks all along the passageway for visitors to stop and take photos, while on the right were bowls where devotees can drop coins as part of a prayer ritual. The walls were decorated from top to bottom with elaborate murals, and there were artists doing touch up on places where they had faded.

 

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The feet are decorated with laksana, Sanskrit symbols and texts, some of which have been inlaid with mother of pearl.

Wat Pho is located right next to the Grand Palace, so you might want to pair your trip with a visit there. The entrance fee for the Grand Palace is quite pricey, which is why we opted not to.

Address: 2 Sanam Chai Rd, Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200, Thailand

GETTING THERE 

Take the BTS Skytrain to Saphan Taksin, then a Chao Phraya express boat at Taksin pier to Tha Tien Pier.

There is an entrance fee of 200 baht to get into Wat Pho.

Opening hours: 8AM – 6.30PM (daily)

 

We Went To A Taoist Medium In Selayang

Despite being Buddhist, my family has never been devout. We have an altar at home dedicated to Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy), and make offerings at temples during religious occasions – but they mostly stem from tradition, because these were practices handed down by our ancestors.

Lately, my mother has become increasingly spiritual. She is going through a hard time, what with old age, illness, and the inability of medicine to help alleviate the pain. I’d like to believe that religion has given her some comfort – but we’ve also advised her on the dangers of superstition, as there are many charlatans out there preying on the desperate.

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On the recommendation of a friend, she went to seek blessings for an upcoming surgery from a medium in Selayang, Kuala Lumpur. The ‘temple’ turned out to be a double-storey terrace house in a quiet neighbourhood, hardly distinguishable from the rest of the houses if not for the giant brick furnace outside (for burning offerings) and several small shrines within the compound.

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The place didn’t look much like a temple, aside from baskets of paper offerings in a corner. There were several couches at the waiting area and a large wooden altar with Buddhist and Taoist deities. I recognised the main one as Guan Yu, the general-god, and Guanyin. The altar was furnished with the usual trappings; platters of fruit, oil candles, a reflective mirror (for repelling evil spirits) and a tapestry depicting heavenly scenes.

My dad got there at about 7.30AM to get a number, as the medium is very popular. The temple opens at 9.30AM, after which the medium will see you according to the number you have written.

 

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The medium was a curly-haired lady, not much older than my mom. She had a stern face but kind eyes, and a mole almost at the centre of her forehead, like a third eye. If I passed her on the street, I would have assumed she was just another auntie going about her grocery shopping.

By the time 9.30AM rolled around, the temple was already filled with people eager to get a reading, or ask for advice and blessings. I thought that it would mostly be people my mom’s age, but there were many young people as well, some younger than me. Because most of my close friends have agnostic views towards religion, I just assumed that the younger generation did not care much for spirituality. I was obviously mistaken.

The medium here is Taoist and channels Ho Sin Gu (He Xiangu), one of the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology and Taoist beliefs. She is the only female among the eight immortals, and in mythology, carries a lotus flower that is able to improve one’s physical and mental health.

The medium first invited the deity to enter her body. There wasn’t much pomp aside from some clapping and praying, which was very different from the deity I remembered visiting as a child, when I had seizures. The medium/deity sat at a ‘consultation’ table (reminded me of a doctor or a physician, really). There was an assistant on hand to translate, since the medium spoke in Hakka Chinese.

 

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Mom was third, and she asked for blessings for the operation to go smoothly. The medium advised that she should go for it, but it wasn’t going to be all hunky-dory because she foresaw ‘a long and difficult time’ for my mom’s illness(es), and cautioned her to be mindful of her health, avoid stress and look after her intake of food. She then proceeded to write on some talismans in red ink; some of these were to be burnt and consumed, one was to be kept on my mom’s person.

During our consultation, parents with children brought their kids to the medium for blessings. They seemed completely at ease, even going up to the medium and hugging her like a favourite grandma, so I think they come here pretty often. The medium then blessed them with a pat to the head and a stamp of Chinese characters in red ink (presumably a talisman or amulet of sorts?) to their backs.

The consultation took less than five minutes, and there was a token fee – kind of like a consultation fee when you go to the doctor’s. My mom was also advised to consume some pearl powder for recovery, which she bought at the temple.

If you’d like to ask for a reading / blessings, the temple is located at 7262, Jalan Len Omnibus, Taman Selayang Baru, Batu Caves, Selangor. 

Thoughts 

I’m an INTP, and despite my love for theories (which are intangible), reason often rules the roost – so faith is something I seriously lack.  It is not that I don’t believe in the supernatural or a higher power, it is simply that I don’t believe in much of what makes up organised religion. The reason I call myself a Buddhist is because Buddhist teachings centre around morality, rather than reliance on a higher power. My favourite quote is about how the Buddha only “points the way; but it is you yourself who must walk the path.” There is no ‘if you don’t believe in this, you go to hell’, or ‘you must pray to god to for salvation’. Buddha’s philosophies are about leading a mindful life.

Taoism, a relatively new religion rife with Chinese culture, Buddhist teachings and Chinese folk beliefs, requires a faith in the supernatural which I do not have. That being said, visiting a medium was still an interesting insight and experience, and it is heartening to see the solace and comfort many people find in their beliefs. If it makes things more bearable for them, then why not?

My mom often chides me about my non-belief. “I was like you when I was younger. I felt like I didn’t need god. But when you’re closer to death’s door, you will understand.” Perhaps, but that time has not come. In the meantime, I’m quite content just following what I feel is best, doing and practising good deeds.

PS: Mom had her surgery and is in recovery at the moment.

 

 

 

Miaw Yuan Chan Lin Cave Temple, Ipoh

Ipoh is known for its gorgeous cave temples, and there are many tucked within the state’s beautiful limestone hills. Some of the more well known ones include Kek Lok Tong and Kwan Yin Tong, which are popular with tourists. There are also many smaller ones that are slightly off the beaten path, like the Miaw Yuan Chan Lin Cave Temple.

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We stumbled upon this place entirely by accident while looking for another attraction nearby. I can see why it’s not on the radar of the usual tourist hotspots – it’s a little out of the way, and to get there you have to go through a housing area and a small dirt road. We were actually a little confused as to whether this was the tourist attraction we were looking for (Qin Xin Ling), because there weren’t any signs! With not many visitors, the temple grounds were tranquil, shaded from the sun by a large outcropping of rock. I believe they also have facilities for those looking for a meditation retreat, as there were showers and what looked like rooms for guests.

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A shrine with a very realistic, larger-than-life sculpture of a monk. As the temple is dedicated to Thai-Buddhism, there are many Thai elements to its design, such as naga figures and the use of gold.

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The main area, tucked within the limestone cave. The inside was extremely cooling, and you can hear the steady dripping of water from the stalactites.

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(Right) A sleeping figure of Buddha carved into the limestone; a colourful painting of deity (?) in blue next to it; joss sticks and offerings

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Further in was a golden laughing Buddha statue which was surrounded by water, which devotees can use for ablution, as well as a colourful shrine decorated with neon lights, housing seven Buddhas with different postures (one for each day of the week – a common sight in Thai Buddhist temples).

If you’re looking for a quiet temple away from the crowds, or if you’re on the way to the Qin Xin Ling attraction, the Miaw Yun Chan Lin Cave Temple is worth a visit.

MIAW YUN CHAN LIN TEMPLE  

22, Persiaran Pinggir Rapat 5a, Rapat Setia, 31350 Ipoh, Negeri Perak

Visiting Tsukiji Honganji: Why Is There An Indian-Looking Temple In Tokyo?

There are plenty of beautiful traditional Buddhist and Shinto temples around Tokyo – but one, in particular, piqued my curiosity as I was Googling for places to explore around Tsukiji. Located not too far from where Tsukiji Market used to stand, Tsukiji Honganji is a Buddhist temple of the Jodo Shinsu sect, the largest in Japan, with a history dating back to the 16th century. What is notable, however, is the temple’s appearance, which is modelled after ancient Hindu / Buddhist temples from India.

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Physically, there’s nothing left of the ‘original’ temple, which was totalled in the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. The current building was completed in 1934, and features many elements common to Hindu temples in India. Rather than the usual red typical of many Japanese temples, the Hongan-ji has a granite-brown hue; as well as dome-like shapes, elaborate carvings and even a pair of stone lions guarding the staircase to the main hall.

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The main hall, aka Hondo.

Japan is known to be more culturally homogenous than many other countries around the world, so it was amazing to see the blend of different cultural elements at the temple. While the interior features many Japanese elements, it also had foreign touches as well, such as a towering 2,000-pipe organ from Germany, and stained glass windows. I also felt it quite unusual to be in a temple with so little red – an auspicious colour for many East Asian cultures – but instead has lots of elegant black and gold.

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The main altar, with a Buddha at its centre. The temple also houses several important artifacts, making it a popular pilgrimage site.

 

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Getting There 

The temple is a 2-minute walk from Tsukiji Metro station.

HONGAN-JI 

3 Chome-15-1 Tsukiji, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan

Opening hours: 6AM – 5PM

Visiting Senso-ji, Asakusa – Tokyo’s Oldest Buddhist Temple

Buddhism came to Japan very early – around the 6th century – and the archipelago is dotted with ancient shrines and temples. Unlike regions where the rise and fall of kingdoms have resulted in a change of the major religions (think the ancient Indonesian kingdoms which used to be Hindu, then Buddhist, and now Muslim), Buddhism in Japan has survived the influence of outside forces. Today, many Japanese practice either Shinto-ism or Buddhism, or a blend of both, as the principles tend to complement each other.

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One of Tokyo’s most important Buddhist temples, also its oldest, is the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa. Completed in 645, it is dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon, or Avalokitesvara, who is depicted as the female goddess Guanyin (the goddess of Mercy) in Chinese Buddhist beliefs.

The story of how the temple came to be goes that two fishermen found an Avalokitesvara statue while fishing near the river. The chief of their village built a shrine for it, and it slowly grew into a magnificent temple, with worshippers coming from far and wide. During the Tokugawa era, it was even proclaimed as the main temple for the Tokugawa clan.

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Entering from the South end, visitors will first pass through the outer gate guarded by two kami (Shinto deities) – Fujin and Raijin,gods of wind, lightning and storms – and the Buddhist gods Tenryu and Kinryu on the east and west, respectively.

The temple grounds house dozens of stalls selling everything from souvenirs and food to toys and clothes. After a long stretch, you will be greeted by the Hozomon, ie the ‘Treasure-House Gate’, or the inner gate before you enter Senso-ji’s main courtyard. Towering  two-storeys high with a wide berth, the structure is impressive to look at, and features giant lanterns hanging down each of the archways. We arrived right before a typhoon was forecasted for the night, so the main lantern had been rolled up and tethered for safety.

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The main temple is quite a sight, but what we’re seeing is actually a reconstruction – albeit a very accurate one. The original temple was bombarded by air raids during World War II,\ and much of the grounds and its buildings were destroyed. The roof, for example, is made from titanium, but retains its traditional architecture.

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Booths where you can get a fortune reading.

 

 

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Before entering the temple, you can cleanse yourself at a basin by scooping water up with a ladle. There is a proper way to do this with instructions written at the site, but I can’t recall – I think you’re supposed to wash your left hand, then your right, your mouth and finally the handle?

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The main hall, with the goddess Kannon in the centre. The original statue is kept hidden, similar to the one I visited in Nagano. You can make an offering by placing some coins in a large wooden container at the front, before paying your respects.

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SENSO-JI

2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan

Getting to Senso-ji 

The temple can be reached by the Tokyo Metro, by exiting at Asakusa Station. The temple is a one minute walk from the station. Alternatively, take the A4 Exit at Toei Asakusa Station, which will take you two minutes, or the Tobu Asakusa Station, which is 3 minutes away.

Opening hours (temple): 6AM – 5PM (Daily). Note: The temple grounds can be visited at any time.

 

Visiting The Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple In Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur

Many Buddhist temples in Kuala Lumpur follow the Chinese tradition, so it’s common to see cultural decorative elements such as dragons and phoenixes in its design. The Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple in Brickfields is more ascetic, so it might not be a draw for tourists – but it is still an interesting place to visit if you’re in the neighbourhood and want to learn more about Theravada Buddhism. If you come during major celebrations such as Wesak (Buddha’s Birthday), the place transforms into a colourful and bustling hive of activity.

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Established by the immigrant Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) community in the late 19th century, the temple now encompasses several buildings and shrines. Dharma classes and talks are held weekly, and vegetarian food is served at the canteen after.

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The main shrine in the middle of the compound. It used to be a striking red colour, but has since been painted over in white.

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Buddha statues and ornate decorative tiles adorn the walls.

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Modern building where events and classes are held.

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Free books and CDS (on meditation, dharma talks, etc.) on Buddhism are available in various languages.

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Another shrine houses a small museum of sorts. You can observe Buddha statues from different regions and the different art styles. The statues are accompanied by helpful information on the rise and establishment of Buddhism in countries such as India, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.

We were pressed for time so we didn’t get to visit a lot of places in Brickfields, but if you’re ever here, do visit the other religious abodes around the area as well, such as  St Mary of Theotokos (A Syrian Orthodox church), Sri Kandaswamy Kovil (Hindu temple), Church of Our Lady of Fatima (Catholic church) and Sam Kow Tong Temple (Chinese Buddhist temple).

BUDDHIST MAHA VIHARA TEMPLE 

123, Jalan Berhala, Brickfields, 50470 Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur

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Walked to the Little India neighbourhood nearby and got a Henna tattoo for RM15!

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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.