INDONESIA – AN ODYSSEY OF THE SOUL by Bernard VanCuylenburg
An alternate title for this article would be “Beyond Bali” since this resplendent island blessed with the bounties of nature is a favourite travel destination for many Australians. I have friends who have visited Bali more than once and can never resist the temptation of repeat visits ! However, Bali, is only a very small jewel in a large crown of a country, which nature has endowed with landscapes and scenery of soul stirring beauty and majesty. And that country is our neighbour to the North – Indonesia.
Indonesia with 99.6 million hectares of lush green rain forest and the myriad islands that constitute the country, are the emerald isles of South East Asia. The waters that surround the country’s pristine beaches and the remarkable sky which is nothing but endless shades of blue have long been among the archipelago’s main draw cards. Apart from the larger islands of Borneo, Sumatra and Java, over a thousand islands make up this enchanting land, and there are foot prints of history adding character and charm to this exotic country.
My visit to Java can best be described as a journey of the soul which commenced in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. The city is not a primary tourist destination, but what surprises await the traveller ! Beautiful tree lined avenues, well manicured lawns, parks and gardens with a profusion of flora that delight the eye and the senses, and the lush vegetation which envelopes this city gives it an air of enchantment. Conversely, there are gridlocked streets, high rise buildings, and as in any Asian capital, the low socio-economic areas. But there are some good museums, swanky shopping malls, and areas which offer the visitor a deep insight into the capital’s long history. The name ‘Jakarta’ was originally “Jayakarta” meaning ‘city of victory’ the name given after the Portuguese were driven out in 1527. Following Dutch occupation at the beginning of the 17th century, the city was named Batavia. But Dutch rule ended in 1942 with the Japanese occupation and the name ‘Jakarta’ was restored. In summary, the city today is driven by a surging economy, and there is an air of optimism that is palpable.
On a sunny morning seven of us brimming with eager expectation – one American, a family of three from Belgium, and three Aussies yours truly included – set off from the capital on a 1500 kilometer journey across the island of Java – a many splendoured land as I was soon to discover. After four hours on the road we arrived at Bogor the first stop on our itinerary. Sir Stamford Raffles the founder of Singapore described Bogor as ‘a romantic little village’ when he stayed here during the British interregnum. The most endearing place in Bogor is the “Kebun Raya” or Great Garden. Developed by Sir Stamford Raffles, it is a wonderland of over 15000 species of trees and plants plus 400 varieties of palms. There are ponds with giant water lilies over one metre, and while drinking deep of natures bounty, one can also observe the deer, monitor lizards and exotic bird life. The orchid house has over 3000 varieties and the entire complex is a botanist’s dream. A haven of repose in the gardens is the Dutch cemetery with many Dutch headstones and nearby there is a memorial to Olivia Raffles, the wife of Sir Stamford Raffles who died in 1814.
Nature surprised us at every turn. From Bogor we headed for the Puncak Mountain Pass resort driving through stunning mountain scenery, tea plantations, and onto Bandung. Famous in political circles for the Bandung Conference, the Asia – Africa conference held here in 1955 during the rule of President Sukarno, this city was once known as ‘The Paris of Java’. But that was then, and this is now because any romantic notions of colonial glamour have long disappeared.
Bandung today is one of Indonesia’s mega cities with highly congested polluted streets and a population of 8 million. The cafe and restaurant quarters pulsate with life, and there are grandiose art deco buildings and shopping malls. In sharp contrast the surrounding countryside has high volcanic peaks, hot springs and sprawling tea plantations. The next day a scenic drive took us through the beautiful Lembang hills, right up to the volcanic crater of Tangkuban Prahu. There are other craters in the area still active. Bursts of steam and the smell of sulphur bear witness to the volcanic activity latent beneath the surface, but well worth a visit whether you are a hiker, tourist, or research scientist ! The beautiful variety of flora and fauna plus many scenic waterfalls, simply add to the beauty of this little Eden. The following day we crossed the border into Central Java at Tasikmalaya and drove through rubber and teakwood plantations straight to Baturaden for the night.
An archaeological treasure awaited us the next day at the Dieng Plateau which we reached through the town of Wonosobo. The drive to the plateau is by itself a documentary in the making, not only due to its elevation, but the astounding mountain scenery which hits you at every turn in the road. This area is a Shangrila to artists, nature lovers and photographers, and simply intoxicates ones senses. The lofty volcanic plateau of Dieng which means “Abode of the Gods” (I remember thinking that only Gods could dwell in places like this !!) once had about 400 Hindu temples dating from the 8th century which were abandoned and forgotten. Fortunately for posterity, these archaeological jewels were rediscovered in 1856 by a Dutch archaeologist. In splendid isolation, they stand today in mute testimony to the glory of a past age, over a thousand years ago. Our stay overnight was at one of Indonesia’s most famous cities – Yogyakarta (Yogya) which is Java’s premier tourist city with its numerous hotels, restaurants and many attractions. A visit to the Sultan’s palace which is the cultural heart of this fascinating city is recommended. Built in 1755 it is structurally the finest example of Javanese palace architecture with luxurious halls, courtyards and pavilions. I was disappointed to find however, that the treasures are not well labelled and poorly displayed resulting in a paucity of information.
Disappointment however surrendered to eager anticipation at the thought that I would soon feast my eyes on two archaeological treasures not far from Yogya, one of which was the main reason why I decided to visit Java in the first place. I am referring to the BOROBUDUR TEMPLE which one travel writer called a “feast of stone”, and I refer to as “poetry in stone”. I had read about it, seen documentaries of it, even dreamed about it and yearned to see it over the years but other destinations beckoned and the road took me to other lands. Now my dream would turn into reality……
Having reached the site, I made my way to the temple and stood transfixed, at a loss for words at the site which greeted my hungry eyes. All the cliches, all the superlatives, and phrases of description in the English language failed me because I was looking at a vision from another world, a vision almost ethereal. Built from two million blocks of stone, the Borobudur temple looms before you from dark green paddy fields, a profusion of trees and palms, and looks as enigmatic and beautiful as it once was 1200 years ago. The whole scene is a fairy tale. The beautiful landscape is overlooked by soaring volcanoes and when I commented on this idyllic paradise in which we found ourselves, my guide stated that locals called this area ‘The Garden of Java’. Work on this temple complex at which the world today hold its breath in collective wonder, began in 750 AD during the Sailendra dynasty when King Samaratunga the 1st ruled the island. The name means ‘The Temple on the mountain’ and it predates Angkor Wat in Cambodia by three hundred years.
Records indicate it took 75 years to build and King Samaratunga died before his ‘piece-de-resistance’ was complete. Sixty thousand metres of stone had to be hewn, transported and carved during its construction. It has been hailed as the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world, unsurpassed in artistic merit with each scene a masterpiece. The brilliant architects and builders who conceived this monument took genius to another level because they built Borobudur as a Buddhist vision of the cosmos in stone, starting in the everyday world and ending in the Buddhist heaven. Borobudur represents the transition from reality through ten psychological states towards the ultimate condition of Nirvana – spiritual enlightenment. Reverting to the earlier line that its builders took genius to another level, Borobudur is actually a visual image of the teachings of the Buddha because it is a visual “Dhammapada” manifested in reliefs and statues and unveils Lord Buddhas teachings, by reading the temple relief. IN OTHER WORDS IF ONE FOLLOWS THE DIRECTIONS INDICATED, THE DEVOUT BUDDHIST CAN ACTUALLY READ THE TEACHINGS OF LORD BUDDHA. Of the many Buddhist sites I have visited in Asia, Borobudur stands out as the supreme jewel in the crown, and merits pride of place in the UNESCO World Heritage Listing.
I made notes and observations on many aspects of Borobudur which are impossible to detail within the constraints of this article. With the decline of Buddhism in Java and the end of the Sailendra dynasty, Borobudur was abandoned and lay forgotten for centuries. Until in 1815, Sir Stamford Raffles when he was governor of Java gave credence to rumours he had heard spread by some villagers about a buried temple in thick jungle. It was only when the site was cleared that the expertise and skill of the ancient builders was revealed to the world which was stunned by the sheer magnitude of the complex. For the record, a museum east of Borobudur has a priceless collection of 4000 original stones from the building site. I left Borobudur with an ache in my heart. I saw it, embraced it and fell in love with it. Or rather, Borobudur with its air of mystery took me to its bosom, and the parting was not easy.
The spectacular Prambanan temples which made the UNESCO World Heritage Listing in 1991 lie 17 kilometres from Yogya, and are the best examples of Java’s Hindu culture. All the temples in the Prambanan area were built between the 8th & 10th centuries when Java was ruled by Buddhist Sailendras in the south and the Hindu Sanjayas in the north. What a splendid lesson in co-existence and religious tolerance sadly lacking in today’s world ! In fact during the second half of the 9th century, there is a beautiful love story in which a Hindu prince of the Sanjayas married a beautiful princess – Pramodhavardhani – of the Sailendras. And this according to archaeologists, explains why many of the Prambanan temples have elements of Shivaite and Buddhist elements in architecture and sculpture. The stone carvings, the sheer size of the temples, the vibrant scenes carved on the temple walls, the artistic genius and the sheer beauty of the entire complex make these temples equal to any I have seen in India. The German traveller Johan Scheltema in his book “Monumental Java” published in 1912 echoes my sentiments when having visited Borobudur and Prambanan, he wrote “I felt the the touch of heaven when tranquil love descends in waves of contentment and unspealable satisfaction….” And I can only add my hope that somewhere in time, the beautiful Pramodhavardhani and her handsome prince Rakai Pikatan are still wrapped in loves warm embrance………..The world loves a love story !
We then drove to Malang, a town which has the reputation of an old colonial retirement town with leafy green parks and colonial era boulevards. North of the town centre is Malang’s millionaires row, a boulevard bordered by mansions from the Dutch era. It is a cultured city with many universities, but I noticed the colonial grandeur is giving way to more modern developments which I suppose is the price of progress. Having spent a night here we drove to Kalibaru the next day, stopping for lunch at the town of Jember en route. The operative word here is “stopping” because since leaving Jakarta, we stopped at wayside fruit stalls many times to relish the variety of fresh fruit. There were guavas the size of tennis balls, king coconuts, mangosteens, mangoes, bananas and papaws of all shapes and sizes, and a fruit familiar to Sri Lankan readers – “Jambus” the size of pears, not to mention the ubiquitous durian !
Our last stop on the island of Java was Kalibaru, a benign hill station with spice and coffee plantations and orchards of fruit as far as the eye could see. We spent two nights at The Margo Utomo Resort which has a resplendent garden. Here they produce their own jams (including nutmeg jam), mozarella cheese, a variety of breads, and make full use of nature’s munificience. They also show you what happens to a coffee bean before it reaches your cappucino cup ! We were taken to a huge spice garden and at the end of the visit were treated to various blends of coffee and hot chocolate from coffee and cocoa grown in the garden.
Bali was our final destination and the next morning we crossed the Bali Straits by ferry and reached the original magic isle in two hours. Writers have waxed lyrical on the beauty of this island for decades which saves me the task. But I was entranced by the fabulous landscape and mesmerizing culture. Green rice terraces which seem to defy gravity, streams cascading down mountainsides, stretches of beaches with pulse pounding surf, volcanoes shrouded in mist, and enchanting Hindu temples, some dating back to the 8th century, all make for a cornucopia of the multiple blessings of the Gods and nature. For years artists, poets, writers, musicians, dramatists, actors , actresses and members of the intelligentsia came here to visit and never left. They settled down, worked and died among the rice fields and temples, reluctant to leave their Garden of Eden. While Java today is largely Muslim, Bali is Hindu. One cannot get away from religion in Bali. Every village has a temple, and every field and house has a shrine . Perhaps this is because the Balinese believe that there are spirits everywhere. Many homes and shops have a statue of a deity. Hindu influence spread under the reign of King Airlangga who ruled from 1019 to 1042 AD.
The first Europeans to set foot in Bali were the Dutch in 1597. When Captain Cornelius Houtman the ships captain planned to leave, some of his crew refused to sail with him. Like the modern traveller today, they had fallen in love with the island. High in the hills, the village of Kintamani offers the visitor a stunning panorama of three mountains Gunung Batur, Gunung Abang and Gunung Agung. Spread over hills and valleys blessed with lush forest cover and terraced rice fields, beautiful Ubud has become Bali’s cultural heart. Artists studios and galleries abound in Ubud which continues to grow in popularity. The streets are packed everyday with tourist buses. As for Bali, there are marvellous hotels, restaurants and villas, and budget type accommodation to suit any traveller and tourism has soared, raising concerns about congestion and pollution. I am not saying for a second that this is not a good thing and many of the hotels are world class. But they are not the reason to visit Bali. BALI ITSELF IS……Not the man made concrete things, but the carved and crafted things, the artistic and intellectual things and the creative and natural things. The world should not forget this.
To conclude, Indonesia offers the visitor infinite diversity, and what puts a human face to this country are her people. To the Indonesians, hospitality to a stranger is second nature – a beautiful land with beautiful people, for whom smiles are second nature and they are happy to share. What makes this country particularly fascinating is the enduring quality of its culture. And the spiritual forces that shaped the country in the past will continue to be a major determining influence well into the future. To quote travel writer Ryan Ver Berkmoes, “This unique land may well be the last great adventure on earth….”