Thursday, November 17, 2011

59. Borobudur Buddha Head (Indonesia, AD 780-840)

Java! Here’s a lovely head of the Buddha from the great ruined temple at Borobudur, on the Indonesian island of Java. I confess shame-facedly that I didn’t know about this temple, apparently considered one of the seven wonders of the world, before listening to this podcast. There you go, pushing back boundaries of what we know.

The Temple at Borobudur

MacGregor uses it because he’s interested here in trade in and around the world of the Indian Ocean, and 1200 years ago Indonesia was still a happening place. (Also, it sounds like he went there on vacation, because part of his podcast claims to have been recorded on location.) Buddhism, which got started up in northern India, of course spread around India and China and Japan, but it swept down through Sri Lanka and these places, too. There’s an irony—he remarked on it before—in advanced trade and fancy architecture making possible a glorification of a religion devoted to simplicity and nothingness.

The architecture of the temple itself is set up as a Buddhist journey; six square(ish) platforms topped by three round ones, and you journey up to the top as if you’re taking a quest in search of enlightenment. Apparently, it’s a pilgrimage site for Buddhists to this day. The whole thing is sprinkled with statues of the Buddha; the one in the British museum was brought back by Lord Raffles, who presided over the island in a brief moment of British ascendancy over the Dutch in the East Indies. Raffles apparently wanted to promote this site, and indeed all Javanese culture, back in the west as a worthy peer and alternate to ancient Greco-Roman civilizations. It seems like that work still continues. I’ll get there someday...MacGregor did.

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