The most-visited tourist attraction in the district of Yogyakarta is an ancient temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. My first visit here was neither well informed, nor well timed. I was mystified by the lack of an entrance anywhere (there is no interior), while the late-morning arrival subjected me to the full heat of the equatorial day, with no shade. It was quite an ordeal. Well, “ordeal” is not incompatible with a pilgrimage to a holy site, but I don’t need another one. This time, we leave the hotel at 5 a.m., to arrive minutes before sunrise.

If we had left an hour earlier, we could have joined the elite “sunrise tour.” Apparently, the temple is a great place from which to watch the sunrise on Mt. Merapi, the area’s dominant volcano. Getting little glimpses of it as we drive along, I can see why this might be worth a special trip: the plume of moisture boiling off the peak as the first rays of the sun hit it makes a dramatic scene.

But then we approach the temple from the east, just as the dawn-light reaches it, and that is nice, too.

Having a comfortable temperature while climbing the mountain is very helpful, and now I can take time to stop and admire a few of the thousands of panels of carvings that cover the temple walls. I’m informed that there are three main stages to the journey, through the worlds of desire, form, and formlessness. Still at the “desire” level, the first frieze I notice is a clear depiction of musicians:


First, I’m perplexed as to why musicians appear at the “desire” stage: music, to me, is a bridge between the experience of form and the yearning for formlessness; or at worst, a dedication to an aesthetic interpretation of the world of form. But I don’t have the context to even guess what is meant here. Then there’s the observation of what instruments the musicians are playing. Above, a row of drummers; below, strings and flutes. Are they two different ensembles, intended for different purposes? Or, could this be something like a jazz orchestra, with a rhythm section and a melody section? But even more provocative: the characteristic instruments of ancient Java, the gamelan gongs, are missing entirely. Did Buddhism arrive with some kind of cultural imperialism, that pushed the older musical traditions aside? Again, I don’t know. Just a bunch of questions to pique my interest.

On the opposite side of the same level, I encounter a panel with more drummers, or maybe one drummer leading a line of dancers. And here is a very feminine Buddha figure, surrounded by praying women. The ancients had no problem with women in positions of respect.

We proceed up the stairs to the level of “form.” The friezes depict many scenes of mundane life, with an endless row of Buddha figures above. The Buddha that you see is just another form. The way that can be named is not the eternal Tao. That’s where my mind takes it, anyway. And these Buddhists were Mahayana, which suggests that they got some of their ideas from China. (Any historians reading who want to fill me in?)

Ascending to the upper tiers, and come into a veritable ocean of bell-shaped stupas.


How do you represent “formlessness” in stonework? The visual recursion here is one way–a form that is reiterated to (implied) infinity defies being contained as a form, as it hints at a meta-. But another cunning device is in the detail. The stupas are not solid, but built in a grill pattern, half-revealing the empty center. In the center of each cone is another Buddha. But this time, we cannot see the Buddha as such; peering through the crack, only bits are revealed. (In this photo, for example, the eyes, and one foot). Isn’t that how Enlightenment comes about?

B3-hidden Buddha

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