[Into the heart of the country] Tracing the footsteps of gods, spirits and followers

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[Into the heart of the country] Tracing the footsteps of gods, spirits and followers

One of 72 stupas, each holding a statue of Buddha, on the Borobudur Temple Compounds in central Java, Indonesia. The temple compounds, dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries, were inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1991. [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

One of 72 stupas, each holding a statue of Buddha, on the Borobudur Temple Compounds in central Java, Indonesia. The temple compounds, dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries, were inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1991. [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

Indonesian envoy talks connections with Korea on heritage

Finding one’s way to the largest Buddhist monument in the world can be easy if you know where to look for it, said Umar Hadi, ambassador of Indonesia to Korea.
 
“The Borobudur Temple has been a pride of the Indonesian nation for centuries, so it was only logical to have it enlisted on Unesco, not only to preserve it, but also to share its grandeur and intrinsic teachings and values with the world,” said Hadi.
 
The temple compounds — consisting of the Borobudur Temple and two smaller temples — are located in the center of Java, Indonesia. Dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries, the temple compounds were inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1991 and to this day still make up the largest discovered Buddhist monument.
 
The main temple is placed atop a natural hill and is three-tiered: It starts with a pyramidal base with five square terraces; on top of the base are three circular platforms; and the last tier is the stupa on the top.
 
The pyramidal base and the three platforms have walls decorated with fine reliefs, which altogether consist of some 2,520 square meters (27,125 square feet) in surface area. Some guidebooks recommend visitors walk in a counterclockwise direction to view and meditate upon the reliefs.
 
The circular platforms altogether hold 72 stupas, each of which holds a Buddha statue.
 
Reliefs on the walls of the Borobudur Temple Compounds [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

Reliefs on the walls of the Borobudur Temple Compounds [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

An archway at the Borobudur [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

An archway at the Borobudur [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

There is more than one explanation as to why Indonesia, a country that is home to the world’s largest Muslim population today, holds the biggest Buddhist monument in the world.

 
“The temple compounds were built when Buddhist kingdoms or empires were ruling the archipelago,” said Hadi. “We’ve had a few strong Buddhist empires throughout our history, and their influence was not limited to the Indonesian archipelago but stretched up to the Indochina regions. But then at a later point in our history, the kings and kingdoms embraced Islam.”
 
Across the centuries, parts of Indonesia came under the influences of Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Christian and even foreign rulings, so it’s not a surprise to find distinct heritages on culture and religious beliefs across its more than 17,000 islands.
 
That kind of history has resulted in a nation and its people for whom holding onto a belief in a greater being has become a way of life.
 
“Being religious is part of our national ideology — we have what is called the Pancasila, or five principles of what it means to be an Indonesian, and the first of the five principles is belief in God,” Hadi said.
 
The ambassador recalled how some of his fondest memories growing up involved visits to temples with his friends and families.
 
“My family do not adhere to Buddhism, but we loved visiting some of the Buddhist temples, located beautifully on hills or nestled in nature,” said Hadi.
 
And this is a connection he made during his four-year tenure in Korea.
 
Hadi and his family visited the Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, not long after his tenure in Seoul began in 2017. They also frequent the Jongmyo Shrine in central Seoul.
 
Seokguram Grotto made of granite holds a statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha and reliefs of bodhisattvas and disciples on the surrounding walls. The grotto, along with the Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1995. The grotto is considered a masterpiece of East Asian Buddhist art that flourished in Gyeongju, which was the capital of the Silla Kingdom in the 8th century. [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

Seokguram Grotto made of granite holds a statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha and reliefs of bodhisattvas and disciples on the surrounding walls. The grotto, along with the Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1995. The grotto is considered a masterpiece of East Asian Buddhist art that flourished in Gyeongju, which was the capital of the Silla Kingdom in the 8th century. [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

“We attend the annual ceremony at the Jongmyo Shrine, and I am especially taken by the traditional dance performed during the ceremony,” he said. “There is something about the traditional dances in both countries — they are a spiritual experience to watch and perform.”

 
The Korea JoongAng Daily recently sat down with the top envoy from Indonesia to hear more about the parallels he has drawn between the culture and heritage between Indonesia and Korea during his four years of tenure in Seoul, and to ask for his tips on planning a trip to the Borobudur Temple, for those making plans for a post-pandemic vacation, or even for those looking to do some armchair traveling.
 
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
 
Ambassador of Indonesia to Korea Umar Hadi speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the diplomatic residence in Seoul on July 23. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Ambassador of Indonesia to Korea Umar Hadi speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the diplomatic residence in Seoul on July 23. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Tell us about your visit to the Borobudur — what about the temple compounds has left an impression on you?
I was once there very early in the morning, around 4 a.m. Words cannot do justice to the magical feeling I had when the sun rose and the light hit the temple compounds. If you can plan ahead, do try to get to the temple just before sunrise or sunset.
 
Is there a specific accommodation one should stay at near the compounds to make the visit at dawn possible?
Magelang is a city closest to Borobudur, so you can get an accommodation there to try to get to the Borobudur before sunrise, or you can also stay in Yogyakarta, and enjoy other attractions in the city after visiting Borobudur. Yogyakarta has a vibe almost like the city of Andong in Korea. It’s a historical location, with the Sultanate of Yogyakarta also located there — you can visit the palace, as well as the Prambanan temples, also a Unesco heritage site, while staying in the city.

Another option is to look into homestays in the villages near the Borobudur. The local tourism office would have this information.
Monohara Hotel, one of the accommodations near the temple compounds. [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

Monohara Hotel, one of the accommodations near the temple compounds. [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

 
It sounds like Indonesia’s many islands and regions have temples and religious monuments dedicated to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and more. How would you say the religious diversity is displayed in Indonesia’s national identity, or mindset? 
Indonesia may hold a large Muslim population, but it is not an Islamic state. Yet it would be wrong to call us a secular state, because the Indonesians have, as far as we remember, been religious and spiritual.

Some Korean friends have told me about a Korean sentiment called han, which can be translated to mean a feeling of grievance, or suffering. And I heard that this may have to do with the struggles Korea as a nation had to endure in his past.

I mentioned this Korean example because I think there is also a type of Indonesian way of thinking, that may not be something that every Indonesian bears, but there is this spirit of acceptance, or surrendering, to a spiritual being. In other words, if something happens to you, you accept it and go with the flow of life. Even if what took place brought you suffering, you accept it as a cause of the higher being, thinking that God still loves you and this might be how God is testing your beliefs. Perhaps that is why people say Indonesians tend to smile a lot.
 
Borobudur Temple Compounds during a sunrise on a misty day [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

Borobudur Temple Compounds during a sunrise on a misty day [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

Tell us about your experiences visiting heritage sites in Korea.
I visited the Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju a few years ago with my family, and we attend the special ceremony at the Jongmyo Shrine every year. There is something about these structures of tradition and heritage, handed down from the ancestors, that gives you a feeling [that you are] taking part in something greater.

We especially love watching the traditional dance during the ceremony at Jongmyo. The traditional dances can be a spiritual experience. I learned how to dance some Balinese mask dances, and one that I am particularly fond of is what’s called the strong-man mask dance. The dance is designed so that the dancer, behind the mask, appears powerful, because of the moves and the rhythms involved. I heard that in Korea there is also a dance that used to be done only by men, called the crane dance. So you see there are some similarities in the way we have traditionally incorporated dances into our culture.
 
One example of Korean-Indonesian cooperation on heritage and culture may be the batik hanbok [batik is traditional wax-resist fabric dyeing technique of Indonesia and hanbok is Korean traditional dress]. Can you tell us more?
We actually got the idea from Blackpink’s performance on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," when they wore [reformed] hanbok. We got in touch with the designer, Dan Ha, who designed hanbok made with batik textile. We have more collaborations now between designers and artists — some of these products are available on IDUS [an online platform of products designed by individual artists].
 
Speaking of modern pop culture, Indonesia is known to have a large number of K-pop fans, not to mention an Indonesian singer who is currently part of a girl group in Korea. Have you had opportunities to engage with the fans and the singers across the two nations?
There are a number of interesting projects going on between artists of the two nations. There is a singer in Indonesia named Rossa, she recently released a song in Korean. I also took part in Seoul in some online K-pop events, and when the M.C.s asked me about who my favorite K-pop artist was, of course I said it was Dita of Secret Number — she is the first Indonesian to be part of a girl group in Korea.

I appreciate K-pop concerts, because they try to provide clean entertainment for teenagers. And oftentimes they carry a message on climate change or other global issues. I think the K-pop boom is thanks to the tremendous cultural innovation of the people of Korea, and I admire and appreciate their contribution.
 
The Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus has led to recent surges in cases in a number of countries including Korea and Indonesia. What’s the situation like on the ground in Indonesia in terms of vaccinations and opening up for tourism?
Indonesia’s plan is to reach herd immunity by September. Between Korea and Indonesia, we have what we call the Travel Corridor Arrangement, which facilitates essential business travel and waives the quarantine requirements. But in the recent weeks we’ve seen a surge in Delta cases, so the government has decided to limit the entry of even essential business travelers. Diplomatic, official state visits and visits for humanitarian purposes — such as for family reunions or health purposes — can still take place.

Our plan was to open Bali to Koreans by winter, but we’ll have to see how the situation develops from here.
 
Borobudur Temple Compounds [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

Borobudur Temple Compounds [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

Indonesia in brief 
• Capital city: Jakarta
Area: 1.9 million square kilometers (about 17 times the size of South Korea)
Population: 275.1 million (2021)
Main language: Bahasa Indonesia, English, Dutch, local dialects
Ethnic groups: Around 1,340 ethnic groups  
Religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism
National day: Aug. 17, Independence Day
Government type: Presidential republic
Currency: Indonesian rupiah
 
Travel tips
Best time to visit: Indonesia has two seasons — rainy and dry — and has warm temperatures all year long.
Recommended modes of transportation: Take a direct flight from Incheon to Bali, stay on the island for a while to enjoy its beaches and sunsets, and take a flight (about an hour) to Yogyakarta. Enjoy the historical sites in the city, take a bus or cab (an hour) to Megelang, a city close to Borobudur Temple.
Recommended accommodation: Stay at an accommodation at Megelang if you’re looking to visit the temple compounds at dawn to watch the sunrise. The local tourist offices will also have information on homestays with the locals living near the temple.  
What to eat: Sate ayam (skewered chicken) or sate kambing (skewered lamb), served with local sauces including peanut sauce, and beer. Be adventurous in trying different types of satays, including those made with young mutton, goat, veal and mussels. For those looking for vegan or vegetarian options, tempeh satays will also be available at some stalls.
Books to read before the trip: “Why Indonesia” by Bang Jung-hwan (Korean), “Funky Southeast Asia” (translation) by Kim E-je (Korean), and “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia” by Elizabeth Gilbert
Movies to watch: “A Perfect Fit” (2021) on Netflix and “Bali: Beats of Paradise” (2019)
Music to listen to: “'Bengawan Solo' Cover” by Lee Jung-pyo, which is an adaptation of Indonesian traditional song Bengawan Solo using gayageum (Korean traditional zither)
The temple compounds during a sunset [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

The temple compounds during a sunset [BOROBUDUR PARK MANAGEMENT]

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BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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