Early in the Christian era, Indonesia came under the influence of Indian civilisation through the influx of Indian traders and monks. Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms appeared in Sumatra and Java.
The seat of the Buddhist kingdom of Sri Vijaya (seventh century or earlier–thirteenth century) was Sumatra. The Sri Vijayan Buddhist temples of Borobudur in central Java were founded c 800.
Then, in the late thirteenth century, power shifted southeast to Java, where the Hindu kingdom of Majapahit (1293-1527) had arisen; for two centuries Majapahit controlled Indonesia and parts of the Malay Peninsula.
Arab traders (or were many of them Indian?) arrived in large numbers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They established Islamic sultanates. By the end of the sixteenth century, Islam had replaced Buddhism and Hinduism as the dominant religion in the islands. Today, Hinduism survives mainly on Bali.
The Anglo-Dutch Java War (1810-11) brought Java under British administration (1811-16). The governor, Lieutenant Governor-General Thomas Stamford Raffles, collected Javanese antiques. On a tour of inspection in 1814, he was informed about a monument deep in the jungle near the village of Bumisegoro. He sent HC Cornelius, a Dutch engineer, to investigate.
In two months, Cornelius and his two hundred men cut down trees, burned down vegetation and dug away the earth to reveal the monument. Hartmann, a Dutch administrator, continued Cornelius’s work, and by 1835 the whole complex was revealed.
There, there it is – that consummate work of Buddhist art which I have so often gazed upon longingly in photographs. The obliging pilot of the Garuda plane has gone out of his way to wheel round the stupa-crowned hill of Borobudur en route from Djakarta to Jogja. Though he is travelling as slowly as he can, the vision has come and gone in a flash; yet, even if I had been condemned to enjoy no more than this single Pisgah-sight, that would have repaid me for having come more than half-way round the World. Thanks, however, to the hospitality of the Gadjah Mada University at Jogjakarta, I am to see this Wonder of the World again, and this time from the ground; and when, two mornings later, we take the northward road by car, I find myself keyed up to a more thrilling sense of expectancy than at any moment on my present pilgrimage since my approach to Cuzco over the Andean watershed.
For the first four-fifths of our forty-kilometre drive, the cottages, nestling among cocoa-nut palms, jostle one another so closely along both sides of the road that one can hardly catch a glimpse even of the rice-fields behind their backyards. But at last we swerve leftwards out of the great north road that runs on to Semarang. The plain begins to undulate; and we are heading towards a range of mountains that rivals anything in Central Australia or in Greece for the beauty of its outline. The professor who is conducting us suddenly points towards the middle distance. And there is Borobudur again, standing in its natural setting, which neither air-view nor photograph can display, though the harmony between Man’s architecture and Nature’s landscape is the making of this masterpiece of artistry.
Borobudur is a four-sided pyramid, built up in tiers of balustraded terraces round a natural eminence. Each terrace runs between two continuous bands of reliefs, depicting scenes from the legend of the Buddha. Some of these are old and familiar friends – for instance, that square-rigged ship scudding before the breeze. But the reliefs must wait. Before I pore over them I must mount to the summit and view the whole monument as the architect meant it to be viewed, with the green lawns at its foot, the forest-clad mountain for a drop scene at the back, and the glassy rice-fields embroidering the fertile plain to the east. Wild Nature; Nature tamed by Man; the genius of the architect and the sculptor; the earthly life of the blessed Redeemer of all sentient beings: here is a comprehensive poem about the mystery of the Universe, a symphony of the inaudible music of the spheres.
How am I to convey this ineffable poetry to your mind’s eye? If your native city is Peking, try to imagine the Altar of Heaven magnified manifold without forfeiting any of its beauty. If you are a Londoner you must attempt a more difficult feat of imagination. You must transfigure the Albert Memorial by magnifying it, too, manifold and also transfiguring its hideousness into loveliness. [How hideous is the Albert Memorial?] Yet, do what one will, no prescription of mine can convey to you the interplay between the monument and the landscape. If only I could exchange soul and body with one of those Hindu-minded Javanese Muslims who spend night after night here in contemplation. Then I might be able to incorporate Borobudur into my innermost being and carry it with me as “a possession for ever” [Thucydides] – in defiance of the precepts of the Buddhist philosophy that Borobudur expresses. Which shall I choose? The detail of the reliefs or the panoramic view? Well, I can always go on studying the reliefs in a picture-book in my study in Kensington, so I will spend the rest of this all too brief half-morning in gazing alternately, from the summit of the stupa, at the rising mountain and the reclining plain.
Do you challenge my adoration of Borobudur? Do you tell me that its rhythm is ultra-baroque? Do you prefer the classic severity of the neighbouring Buddhist shrine at Mendut, or the animation of the reliefs round the Shaiva temple at Prambanan, where the hero is, not Gautama, but Rama? You might perhaps convince my mind, but you could never change my feelings. Borobudur holds my heart: it is a holy of holies for me, on a par with the Sacro Speco [St Benedict’s cave in Subiaco] and the Sainte Chapelle. As the stupa-crowned hill disappears behind the palm groves, I crane my neck round to take a wistful farewell look at it. In a trice I am engulfed among the 8,000 university students and the 40,000 secondary schoolchildren of Jogjakarta, all mounted, Dutch-wise, on bicycles. “Fled is that music: Do I wake or sleep?”
Keats, Ode to a Nightingale.
Toynbee visited Indonesia in August and September 1956.
Left to right: Borobudur by Isidore van Kinsbergen c 1873; two images where I have put the source in the title of the image; one from Wikipedia
East to West, A Journey Round the World, OUP, 1958