On photographing Borobudur for National Geographic Indonesia

National Geographic Indonesia finally publishes a feature story I have been photographing in the last twelve months, about the Buddhist temple Borobudur in Central Java, Indonesia. They even put a photo I shot in March 2009 on the cover of the March 2010 edition.
(Read the article written by Cahyo Junaedi and Rieska Wulandari here in Bahasa Indonesia; see the photographs taken by me and Dwi Oblo here with captions in Bahasa Indonesia.)

It started with an informal meeting with Rieska Wulandari, who proposed the story to the editors at National Geographic Indonesia. I was having coffee at Taman Budaya Yogyakarta with photographer Dwi Oblo, whom Rieska already made an appointment to meet up with. Rieska was at that time a reporter for the Indonesia bureau of a Japanese daily publication. Previously she had written a story about clean water crisis in Jakarta for National Geographic Indonesia. After the editors had approved her proposal, she started her research in Jakarta by meeting several archaeologists from universities in Jakarta. From the information she had gathered there, she then came to Borobodur in Magelang via Yogyakarta. She came with a friend, Octaria Ineztianty. That was how we met in February 2009.

I then accompanied Rieska going around Borobudur and meeting people for her research, which was really good, as I also learned many things about the ancient temple. Located about 45 km northwest of Yogyakarta, Borobudur temple was built in the ninth century A.D. by King Samaratungga of Medang Kingdom, also known as the Ancient Mataram Kingdom. The temple was built from about two million blocks of basalt from Merapi volcano. Its walls and balustrades have over 2,670 relief panels, 1,460 of which tell seven stories from Buddhist holy book and depict the Javanese society condition during the time of construction.

The temple was long unheard of—it was believed to have already been abandoned by the fourteenth century, probably because of Merapi volcano eruption. It was brought to international knowledge in 1814 by British Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles who at that time ruled as the Governor General of the East-Indies (now Indonesia), after being told of its location by local Javanese. He then ordered for the ruined temple to be cleaned. The first major restoration of Borobudur took place from 1907–1911 under the supervision of the Dutch army engineer officer Theodoor van Erp. The second major and largest restoration was undertaken by the Indonesian government with international help through UNESCO between 1973–1983. UNESCO then listed Borobudur as a World Heritage Site in 1991.

Foreign tourists enjoy sunrise at Buddhist temple Borobudur in Central Java, with the great Merapi volcano seen in background. Dutchman W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp believed Borobudur was built in the middle of a lake which no longer exists, probably covered with volcanic materials from Merapi as it frequently erupts. (Photo: Budi Dharmawan © 2009)

Foreign tourists enjoy sunrise at Buddhist temple Borobudur in Central Java, with the great Merapi volcano seen in background. Dutchman W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp believed Borobudur was built in the middle of a lake which no longer exists, probably covered with volcanic materials from Merapi as it frequently erupts. (Photo: Budi Dharmawan © 2009)

Few days after Rieska went back to Jakarta, I got a call from National Geographic Indonesia’s photo editor, asking whether I would be available for a photo assignment for them. I was surprised because until that time I thought the assignment would certainly go to Dwi Oblo, as one of their frequent contributing photographer. Later, Dwi Oblo told me that he was already assigned by National Geographic Indonesia to work on a book about Bengawan Solo with photographers Feri Latief, Eddy Purnomo, and Tantyo Bangun. The photo editor said he’d seen my work from my old blog, but he still wanted to see more as I didn’t put stories there. So I sent him two stories from my portfolio and waited anxiously. Few days later the editor called me again and officially assigned me. That was how I got my first National Geographic assignment in March 2009.

I then started to research more and did some more interviews with the experts I had met before when I was accompanying Rieska. I met Helmy Murwanto, geologist from Universitas Pembangunan Nasional Yogyakarta; Mrs. Nia, archaeologist from Universitas Gadjah Mada Yogyakarta; Laretna Adishakti, architect from Universitas Gadjah Mada Yogyakarta who is actively involved in heritage conservation activities; Marsis Sutopo, the head of Borobudur Heritage Conservation Office; Agus Canny, marketing director of Borobudur Temple Tourism Park; Suparno, Borobudur documentation staff; Hatta and Jack, and all friends from Borobudur tourism network; the Central Java Ancient Heritage Conservation Office, among others. I also met the UNESCO consultant from Japan who proposed the Borobudur zoning system during the conservation in the 1970s, Mr. Iwasaki when he revisited the temple in 2009.

The idea of the story was to prove Dutch painter-architect Wijnand Otto Jan Nieuwenkamp‘s 1931 highly arguable theory that Borobudur was built in the middle of a hypothetical lake, like a lotus in the middle of a pond in Buddhism teaching. That ancient lake has no longer existed for a few centuries now. In short, photographically speaking, a mission impossible. Many historians and archaeologists reject that theory since there is no single inscription that mentions any lake. However, the names of villages around the temple still suggest that the area was once somehow wet: Bumisegara (segara = ocean), Tanjungsari (tanjung = cape), Sabrangrawa (rawa = swamp), Tuk Sanga (tuk = spring), etc. Moreover, recent geological findings also suggest the land around Borobudur was once underwater.

Borobudur temple at sunrise seen from nearby Menoreh hills. The foggy lowlands are where the ancient lake once probably was. (Photo: Budi Dharmawan © 2009)

Borobudur temple at sunrise seen from nearby Menoreh hills. The foggy lowlands are where the ancient lake once probably was. (Photo: Budi Dharmawan © 2009)

Helmy Murwanto, geologist from Universitas Pembangunan Nasional Yogyakarta has been researching for evidence of the ancient lake. A native Muntilan, not far from Borobudur, he knows the temple and its surrounding area like his own backyard. He took me to an outcrop on the bank of Elo River, just few kilometres from the temple. The outcrop clearly shows layers of soil typical to lakebed, buried under tens of metres of volcanic soil from Merapi volcano. From drilling done on seven spots around the temple, he found trapped salt water under tens of metres of soil. To show the area of the hypothetical ancient lake, we both agreed that we needed a photograph shot from a high angle. The photograph shows that Borobudur was built on top of a high hill; the surrounding lowlands could’ve been where the lake once was.

The other thing that I thought was also important to investigate was the condition of the society at that time, particularly the relationship between the Hindus and the Buddhists, as both religion flourished during the same period. In fact, the Buddhist king Samaratungga who built Borobudur temple in Magelang, northwest of Yogyakarta, had a Hindu son-in-law who then built Prambanan temple near Klaten, east of Yogyakarta. This son-in-law, Rakai Pikatan also built a Buddhist temple Plaosan, near Prambanan, for his beloved wife, which has many Hindu ornaments. On the ground of the Buddhist temple Mendut, a few kilometres from Borobudur, archaeologists excavated several large linggas, considered sacred for Hindus, and left them in situ.

It was also interesting to note that in Plaosan, there are inscriptions that mention about tributes from the people for the king in effort to build the temple. It made me think, was Borobudur built the same way? Or if not, did the king fund the construction on his own? Or was it built with forced labour? But for sure, it must have taken a whole lot of labour. Another interesting theory to note was one suggested by Dutch philologist who did a lot of important work in Java, Johannes Gijsbertus de Casparis. He argued that Borobudur might have been white when it was built, not black as we see it now. He based this argument on Buddhist temple Kalasan in Yogyakarta, built a century before Borobudur by Rakai Panangkaran, the great-grandfather of Samaratungga. The white colour of Kalasan temple was from an ancient lime composite called vajralepa. But there is no proof however that Borobudur was coloured using the same composite.

Tawur Agung Kasanga procession at Prambanan temple in central Java, a day before the Hindu holy day of silence. Prambanan temple was built by Hindu king Rakai Pikatan, the son-in-law of the Buddhist king Samaratungga who built Borobudur temple. (Photo: Budi Dharmawan © 2009)

Tawur Agung Kasanga procession at Prambanan temple in central Java, a day before the Hindu holy day of silence. Prambanan temple was built by Hindu king Rakai Pikatan, the son-in-law of the Buddhist king Samaratungga who built Borobudur temple. (Photo: Budi Dharmawan © 2009)

In doing this assignment, I did a series of return trip from my home in Yogyakarta to Borobudur temple in Magelang—sometimes accompanied by either Hermitianta P. Putra, Brama D. Ramadhan, or Suryo Wibowo. I usually woke up really early in the morning, even earlier than the sun, around three or four in the morning. Then I went either to Borobudur or the nearby Menoreh hills to get a shot of Borobudur at sunrise. Later the magazine printed a photograph of Borobudur at sunrise, not by me but by photographer Dwi Oblo, as it actually shows the sun. Out of hundreds of photographs I took, not one shows the sun as it was always cloudy and foggy—or raining. During the day, if it was not raining, I would either venture through the villages around the temple or circle the temple in order to find and photograph specific reliefs. I usually worked the whole day and had rest at Suparno’s noodle stall while having dinner (Suparno is a photographer who documented the Borobudur restoration in 1973–1983; his wife cooks delicious Javanese noodle). I got back home usually around ten or eleven at night. Transferred and reviewed the day’s shots, then zzzzz. Almost similar sequence everyday.

It took one whole year since National Geographic Indonesia assigned me in March 2009 until they finally published the story in March 2010. I worked intensively from February to April 2009, then I went to Borobudur for Vesak in May. I went to Borobudur again in July for a trip organized by local Green Map community. I still sometimes went back there during the last months of 2009. After the final review, the editors sent me back in January 2010 to complete the story. I guess the editors were editing and the designers were doing the lay-out in February, before they finally published the story in March. One year of work was kind of paid off when I finally saw it in print, and saw people buying and reading it. ∎

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