Thursday, June 26, 2014

VESAK DAY AT BOROBUDUR TEMPLE III - INDONESIA

crowd at the gates
As I watched magnificent Borobudur temple during the storm and rain from the safety of my hotel during the night of May 14th, I decided to go back down since I flew to this event specially all the way from Europe. Luckily the rain had stopped around 9pm and I asked for a driver in the Hotel's lobby. 

Several people were scheduled to go down at 10:30pm and I joined them. Our driver tried to let us exit at the west gate but we were denied entry. We were told that nobody was allowed into the inner temple grounds until mid-night and that we had to go to the more busy eastern gate. 

Reaching the eastern gate around 11pm we could see masses of people gathering at the gates. I made it all the way to the front and waited until it was almost midnight. At that time there was no way I could have made it to the gate because of the huge crowd. However, the police forces started to build up with all kinds of uniformed and armed guards. They made announcements in Indonesian language but of course I did not understand anything. Only when I saw the guards forming a line with their police batons dawned it on me that they wanted us to move back, which was really impossible due to the mass of people behind us. 

They finally informed us that we had to walk one by one towards the check points, show our ID tags and open our bags. Several guards kept checking me and their own nervousness made me nervous, despite the fact that i was on the proximity of one of the most important Buddhist temples. 

I finally made it in as one of the first persons and for sure one of the first non-Indonesians. Just what I had hoped for, since taking photos of Borobudur at night during Vesak festival and without any people on it was just like a dream come true!

I had seen the temple in the dark morning hours, during sunrise and sunset and during day time but at midnight in the fog and clouds had a special touch to it. 

Most people started to gather on the west side of the temple at the same spot where we had the opening ceremonies in the afternoon. The lawn was damp from the rain and fog yet people used mats and plastic covers to sit down. 

A Chinese Buddhist nun and a Buddhist lay women opened the chanting and prayers while another lay woman stuck the ceremonial bell with a beam suspended on ropes. All of this started in the early morning hours of the 15th May, after we had been in ceremonies and processions all day long. The timing of Vesak day ceremonies is what confused many people I had met during the day. They were all thinking that the ceremonies will happen in the afternoon and evening of May 15th, but in fact it was all starting the day before and went well into the early morning hours of the next day.

To the sound of rhythmic beating of the drum and the hanging bell, the monks slowly started to appear group by group and getting seated on the stage before the big Buddha statue and Borobudur temple. It was difficult for me to follow the ceremony since all of it was done in Indonesian language but the ritual opening of the night time ceremonies went underway with an official chorus and opening prayers. 

I am more familiar with the Theravada side of Buddhism, so I could follow the prayers and chanting of the Theravada monks which followed the chorus. By then the whole lawn in front of the stage was filled with thousands of people. Behind the stage and around Borobudur temple many hundreds of people took their seats on the ground, many of whom were photographers with their tripods strategically positioned. 

At 2am 15 minutes and 37 seconds, following a long meditation of the Buddhist sangha and lay people the official Vesak ritual started to take place. Again the ceremonial bell was struck in a rhythmic way, followed by the drum and chanting. The full moon was standing right over us and Borobudur temple as the fog and clouds moved through. Luckily no more rain!

Chanting and prayers were conducted by each Buddhist group. Theravada Buddhist monks started again, followed by Chinese Buddhist monk chanting and by what I call "Himalaya region" prayers, since I am not too familiar with the various Buddhist schools of Mahayana Buddhism.

The chanting went on for several hours, way beyond the initially scheduled lighting of the ceremonial lampions, which was said to happen at 2:30am. Our driver was scheduled to pick us up an hour after sending the lampions into the night sky, thus around 3:30am but it actually happened much later, around 4:30am. 

The ceremonies and chanting in the proximity of the temple
was one of the most intense experiences I have ever been part of and it was well worth all the effort to fly halfway around the world. The lampions which were ascending into the night sky was something I had seen many times before at various festivals in Thailand though. Many people seemed to come specially for this or to enjoy it at the end of a very auspicious day. It didn't see that many lampions, certainly not thousands, but it might have been less due to the earlier rain or the foggy weather in the early morning hours. However, it was an amazing experience which takes place in the largest Muslim nation on earth. A bit more information in English would have helped, but would also take away the "surprise" factor of an already awesome experience.





 

Monday, June 23, 2014

VESAK DAY AT BOROBUDUR TEMPLE II - INDONESIA

Reaching the magnificent Borobudur temple after the 4km long procession, we were all exhausted from the heat but at the same time excited to finally see our first glimpse of the temple through the trees. The procession split up between the various groups, monks and other lay people and we were routed around to the temple's west gate. Military and police presence was overwhelming but necessary, given the constant security threat at the temple over the past years. 

At the west gate it finally paid off to be in possession of my "attendee" badge as I was checked at least three times by security forces. Several followers were turned away because they decided to just join the procession along the way without a badge.

To the western side of the temple the organizers had set up a large area for the ceremonies with a huge golden Buddha statue. This is where most monks from all the various Buddhist schools gathered after the procession for an opening prayer

Many followers gathered in their own group tents to the east of the temple, but some people also decided to walk up to the top, which was actually open for visitors. I was told that the temple was closed, so I also climbed up the stairs to enjoy this overwhelming temple from the top platforms again. 

Several groups of monks also made it up here to get their own photo and group photos taken. A few groups of monks and female lay persons, dressed in white with heads shaved, circumambulated the temple's top platform three times while chanting Buddhist prayers. Having visited the temple several times, this today had something very special to it! The whole area was filled with spirituality and positive energy. Maybe a lack of the usual tourist masses which hang out screaming and poorly dressed here during a normal day, but the presence of thousands of people who share the same believe gave the temple it's real purpose.

After several incidents in the past years some of my Indonesian friends told me that photography was not going to be allowed this year. However, this was not the case and being very sensitive to this subject myself after many years of temple visits, I found most people to be respectful. If at all, I observed mostly Indonesian press members to be disrespectful and pushy for their shots. 


In the late afternoon most people started to gather in their respective group tents. Since most of the speakers spoke in Indonesian language some of us western visitors were a bit lost. The main stage which was said to be used for the "ceremonial" seemed to be reserved for VVIP (VIP) only and were blocked off by security guards. So, i decided to join my Theravada monks in their tent for the prayers and chanting. Since some of them recognized me, I was kindly offered water and other drinks and had a relatively sheltered place to stay during the prayers. 

However, looking outside of the tent, I could see that the sky turning black from rain clouds. The wind picked up quite a bit and with no real options on where to go, I decided to take a break from the festival for a short time and retire in my nearby hotel. Big rain drops started hitting my face as I sat on the back of a motorcycle taxi and I made it just back into the hotel before it started to rain cats and dogs. 

From the safety of my hotel restaurant I could see nature's forces coming lose over the temple and the valley below me as it became dark. Borobudur temple was illuminated by huge spot lights for some time, but then even those came off. Obviously the electricity went down due to the rain and storm down below. 

Susan, a fellow hotel guest offered me on her way down to the temple to give me a call and let me know if it was OK to return back to the temple later. With the main ceremonies and the official timing for full moon and thus the official time for Vesak, I had a bit of time to wait out the storm, over a nice meal and drinks. ...Continue reading what happened in the early morning hours in the next posting.










Wednesday, June 18, 2014

VESAK DAY AT BOROBUDUR TEMPLE - INDONESIA

A year ago at Vesak Day, Buddha's day of birth, enlightenment and death, I attended the ceremonies in Bangkok's Sanam Luang Square. I had missed the right date again to make it to Java's Borobudur temple. In fact, I failed on several attempts. A few years back there were two full moons in the month of May, one at the beginning and one at the end of the month and I picked the wrong full moon. Another time, Merapi, the Volcano, did not want me to fly there. So I kept my fingers crossed for this year's celebration and planned well in advance. 


It's like the chicken and egg question (which one came first?) when planning Vesak Day at Borobudur since you can never be fully sure which date it is going to be held on until you get closer to the date. However you need to book a flight and hotel well in advance. So, I took a risk and booked a flight early on. With the hotel I got lucky and reserved the last available room very close to the temple. 

Given that there is almost no information in English available and only a few reports on web sites about past events, I contacted all my friends in Indonesia to keep looking for an events schedule. Vesak, or Waisak as it is called in Indonesia, is celebrated on different dates all over Asia and could have happened on the 13th, 14th or 15th May 2014. Give it a day more on both ends and a day or two to travel, I needed to book a week at this auspicious location.


I met tourists at the Borobudur temple the day before the celebration who said "did you know that it is Buddha's birthday tomorrow?" but since they didn't know in advance, they already had to be somewhere else the next day and missed the event. Even contacting the Indonesian tourism office and the Borobudur Park just weeks before the event, I got very vague information. Vesak was to be held on the 15th May, that was for sure! But I met many people who thought it will be during day time or evening of the 15th May and they were dead wrong!

Only after I checked into my hotel at the temple did I get my hands on a time schedule for the event - in Indonesian language! Nothing was available in English, despite this being such a big event with many thousands of people attending. Luckily the marketing manager of my hotel translated every single word for me, so I was able to start making my own plans. 

Ceremonies actually start several days before at various locations with bringing the sacred fire and water to nearby Mendut temple. 


Mendut temple, older than Borobudur and just a few kilometers down the road from the big temple is also where ceremonies start. I had seen it the day before during a visit and saw that tents had been set up for the festivities. However, again no information was available, neither in the ancient temple building nor in the modern living temple next to it. So, I could only plan to attend the opening ceremony and prayers at Mendut in the afternoon of the 14th May.  However, when leaving the Hotel, I learned that the roads were closed as of noon time, so I had to arrange for an alternative transportation, going with a motorcycle on back roads. 

I arrived shortly after noon and there were thousands of people around Mendut temple and many lining the street which leads to Borobudur. Somehow I got into the ceremonial grounds without being checked, but only through good luck and karma did I find out that I needed a pass to attend the ceremonies, for which I had to register at an office with my ID. Just in time did I receive my badge which officially made me an "attendee" or a "peserta" in Indonesian. 


Prayers with monks from various Buddhist lineages started in the tents behind the ancient Mendut temple. I recognized several monks from Thailand and asked them if they knew what is happening next but they also said, they could not understand the announcer and just followed their interpreter. They said, just follow us!  Which was not really possible since all monks started lining up under ceremonial umbrella's shading them from the sun and which were carried by festival staff. 


Outside the temple and the ceremonies, bands played marching music and thousands of people gathered to join the procession. Heavily guarded security forces on motorcycles guarded the procession along with many other unformed officials. 

The long procession started leaving from Mendut temple on a 4km long path zick-zacking westwards to Borobudur temple, led by music bands, officials, flag carriers and ceremonial staff. The monks followed on foot behind them on a long sweaty walk through the mid-afternoon heat of Java. 





I stayed close to the monks, which I knew and kept following the procession. To my surprise it was not a praying and chanting procession. Recorded chanting was only to be heard from the loudspeaker of a truck carrying higher level monks but it really was lost in all the chatter and it occasionally drowned in the calls for prayers by the mosques we passed. Two Buddhists which I met along the way, a friendly girl from Paris and a nice guy from Melbourne were surprised about this too. We all thought it would be a more "meditative" walk, so we made the best of it, carrying our ceremonial flowers until we reached the temple grounds of Borobudur.  

Read about what happened after we reached the temple on the next post.















Thursday, June 12, 2014

BOROBUDUR TEMPLE - A BEAUTY CARVED IN STONE

My second planned visit to the magnificent Borobudur temple in the past couple of years has just finished. And while I have been in and out of the temple several times I seem to not be able to get enough of it. It is so impressive, with such powerful energy, that even a Muslim friend with whom I visited the temple said that he can feel the strong energy which exists here. 

I've been in the temple at all times of the day, sunrise, daytime and recently even at midnight and early morning hours during Vesak Day holiday (next blog). It's breathtaking at all times to be here and explore the 9 different levels of the temple. 

It's best seen (and photographed) in the early morning hours, theoretically before the masses arrive by bus. But you will never really have it all by yourself. Sunrise is awesome, even though you cannot really see the temple itself at sunrise but rather magnificent Merapi volcano in the distance. 

If you are willing to spend some money, you can even see the temple during sunrise from one of the excellent resorts nearby though. 

Whatever way you chose to visit, just remember that this is a temple. It's a religious structure with a lot of meaning for us Buddhists. It's not a museum or merely a tourist site. So, please dress appropriately (unlike the photo below) and behave appropriately - just like you would at your own place of worship! With that said, I will leave you to some of the impressions which captured me during my past visits.