Borobudur’s sheer size and epic grandeur – temple spires sprout of the Kedu Plain valley floor against a backdrop of countless volcanic peaks – floor even the most jaded traveler upon visiting. The wily English despot Thomas Stamford Raffles uncovered Borobudur in 1814 and named it after the nearby village of Bore; Raffles was unable to discover any written records when researching his History of Java. Borobudur has remained a mystery to the Javanese and the world at large ever since.
If you climb to the peak of nearby Mount Merapi – as long as it isn’t erupting violently and showering cinders and ash down upon the island – you’ll see that Borobudur resembles a Buddhist mandala, a representation of the nature of mind, time and space as well as a whole host of Buddhist cosmological beliefs. As I played among the 2,672 relief panels, the 504 Buddha statues and hundreds of fierce gargoyles, I spied a young monk likewise ascending to the main dome. I watched him stop at one of the western balustrades near a large stone statue of the Buddha, legs crossed and hands folded neatly in his lap. This mudra, or position of the hands, symbolizes concentration and meditation. The abhaya mudra represents fearlessness and courage – it embodies the Javanese spirit. I wondered if the young monk were discovering Borobudur for the first time, like me, and like Raffles did nearly 200 years ago. It felt so quizzically coincidental that I wondered what the Buddhist cosmonauts would have to say.