It was some while before 5 a.m., and as is usual for this time in the tropics it was still night, as dark and as soft as velvet. The air was cool, faintly scented with cloves and woodsmoke from early cooking fires. I cycled down the long hill, free-wheeling, shivering a little. A muezzin was already wailing his first morning prayer, his minaret invisible. A cockerel crowed in a distant kampong, and as I passed an old woman lighting an oil lantern she smiled across at me, her teeth glinting unevenly in the guttering lamplight.
A few minutes later I was at the foot of the hill and outside the largest Buddhist monument in the world—the eighth-century Javanese temple known as Borobudur. I found my way through the darkness, past the fences, across the dew-damp lawns, around the clusters of sleeping dogs. With the speed characteristic of these latitudes, a pale gray wash began to limn the edge of the eastern sky. A crisp breeze sprang up, and there was the tinkle of a bamboo chime. The dogs behind me began to stir, and I could hear them uttering small yelps of greeting to one another. Through the steadily gathering light I perceived the vague outline of a hut, and from its doorway a figure emerged. A match flared, and I could see the glow of a newly lit kretek cigarette. Its owner began to climb toward me, and I could see him adjusting his sarong as he picked his way over the stones. The East was waking up: Another cool summer's dawn was coming to Java.
The man arrived, slightly breathless. He extended the traditional Muslim greeting and then whispered, "You are from Amanjiwo?" I nodded. "Good," he replied. "Then I will unlock for you." He smiled, reached under his sarong for a tiny brass key, undid the bolt, and opened the little lich gate that barred my way. "Go up, my friend. You are lucky. It will be a good dawn today." And he left as silently as he had come.
I climbed steadily up the temple-pyramid of dark stone terraces. A fine conjunction, I thought: a Muslim leading a Christian into a Buddhist monument—into the biggest stupa ever made, standing in the middle of the world's most populous Mohammedan nation. The conjunctions of Java invariably have to do with religion, for although there is little that is doctrinaire or fundamentalist or intolerant about the country, it is a place that has been steeped in godly beliefs of one kind or other for thousands of years. The effects of all that worship and devotion linger—like the faint and unmistakable scent of cloves from all those cigarettes—in the Javanese air.
At last I reached the top—a plateau of gray andesite paving-blocks, with just the rounded bell shapes of six dozen small latticed stupas, from inside which Buddha figures gazed impassively out over the forests. It was utterly peaceful, totally quiet. I sat on a ledge of volcanic stone and faced toward the ever-brightening east. Before long I was quite settled, rapt in a thousand-yard stare, waiting for the magical moment of what I had for years heard was the finest sunrise in the world.
It is seldom that the simple fact of staying in a hotel offers a truly spiritual experience. However seductively their marketers might wish to persuade us otherwise—that the costlier inns are themselves temples to self-realization—it is quite idle to suppose that they are much other than commercial entities, designed mainly to separate you from large quantities of cash.
Yet Adrian Zecha's new Amanresort in Java, Amanjiwo—which is just a short cycle-ride away from the most lovely of Eastern temples—is, to a limited extent, an exception. During its construction a remarkable deal was cut—one that truly does offer the guest an opportunity for a moment of real spirituality. For those who stay at Amanjiwo are allowed in through the still-closed gates of Borobudur each morning while it is dark, long before anyone else, and are thus able to see the dawning of the day as it should, at least once in a lifetime, be seen.
And all I had ever read about this moment turned out to be quite true: Dawn seen from one of the top terraces of the Borobudur temple is so blissful as to have a value far beyond price.
To the east of Borobudur, and dominating the flat and fertile Kedu Plain, stand two volcanoes—sturdy 10,000-footers called Merbabu and Merapi, the latter still active and puffing pale smoke from its summit. It is in the low curving col between them that the sun always appears first. If the weather is fair—as it was on my first morning—it starts with a slow, teasing glow, when the whole world turns from gray to salmon and pale gold, then through a long fabulous array of purples, reds, and oranges into daybreak itself.
There are many things that make witnessing the actual moment of dawn here unique: being on top of a 1,200-year-old monument is one; the fronds of mist lying in the folds of the plateau another; but the most memorable, 10 minutes or so before sunrise, is the appearance of what seems to be a sort of mirage. Two golden sunbeams, wide diverging bands of bright yellow that spear directly up into the skies, announce what is shortly going to happen with luminous fanfare.
As the beams appear the few Javanese who are up on the temple-plateau, chattering, fall silent. A reverential calm envelops the temple. And there is no sound, not even a cockerel-crow, from the mist-shrouded kampongs below.
Quite suddenly, a thin curved line of unbearable brightness blazes on the lip of the col, a scimitar-blade caught in a flash of lamplight. Swiftly it thickens, first to a broad curve of brass, then to a semicircle of gold. There is a sudden rush of heat—and in the same instant a flood of yellow light bathes the entire temple, and all the eastern Buddhas have their faces lit up as they stare calmly into the bright disk of the sun. The stupas behind change color in the same instant, as though washed by golden paint; the old stones that seemed so cold and lifeless before dawn suddenly become warm—sternly impassive and dignified still, but now quite clearly alive.
The watchers gaze, awestruck, until the sun starts to climb up the sky and it becomes too hot to linger. Down below the first of the tour buses grinds in, and you hear the sounds of ticket-punchers and excited Javanese and Sumatran chatter as the biggest stupa in creation is thrown open for business.
Amanjiwo—the name means peaceful soul—is the fifth in the Aman family to be built in Indonesia, and the first designed with an idea of offering access to a specific site, not just the opportunity to luxuriate in some marvelous tropical setting.
Architecturally the hotel is quite fascinating. It has been designed to harmonize with the temple, so there are domes that look like stupas, columns that look as though they might be worked into the temple galleries, and two parallel semicircles of suites that look serenely templelike, as though each might house at least a bodhisattva, if not a fully enlightened Buddha.
It is strangely beautiful, the sand-colored stones and empty spaces almost Nordic in their sparseness. The room interiors and pools and gazebos and the two restaurants will be quite familiar to those who travel often and have come to recognize the Aman signatures. The rooms, styled to meet local tastes, are as exquisitely spare and elegant as always. The staff, brought from the local villages and dressed in simple robes of batik, have a sweet innocence about them: Their mere presence, as they pad about, silent and catlike, only adds to the hotel's drenching sense of peace.
But it is the view from within the property that is the most haunting aspect of the place. It is first seen within moments of arrival. The car grinds up the foothills to where Amanjiwo stands, a couple of hundred feet above the forests of the plain, crosses a narrow bridge, and heads down a steep slope toward a rotunda modeled after a monumental stupa. A gaggle of young men and women are on hand to open the doors. One European manager is present to provide an anchor of familiarity: As you climb the few steps up onto the rotunda's great stone floor, Javanese children in costumes of gold and maroon toss rose petals and cry welcome, to remind you, if it was ever in doubt, that you have been transported into the realm of the exotic.
And then there comes the view. The architect has cunningly provided a frame for it, a stone-walled defile that splits the property in two, and which is aimed, arrowlike, directly at the temple below. It takes a moment to realize: The forest, which unrolls like a deep-green carpet, looks seamless, untouched, unsullied. Then a helpful someone points it out, dead center: a dark pyramid of stone rising above the foliage, as it has for more than 12 centuries.
Borobudur is placed cleverly at the center of every panorama that a guest at the hotel will see. And so—you lie in your bed and gaze through the French windows and over the pool or out under the gazebo—there is the temple, a perfectly delineated specter of godliness, directly in the cross-hairs. You swim, come up blinking into the sunlight, and there it is, as central to what you see as the sacred Mount Meru—the mythological peak on which some say Borobudur was modeled—is central to the concept of Buddhism. And it is indeed the very centrality of the temple, its constant presence—hovering, lurking, reminding—that makes Amanjiwo so spiritually uplifting a place to be.
The extraordinary setting of the hotel makes it different from its other Aman siblings in Indonesia (which are deliberately sited remotely and offer their guests peace and privacy alone) and its rivals, none of which are at all close to Borobudur. Amanjiwo, by contrast, lies just a few hundred yards from the temple and but a few cyclable miles from a pair of subsidiary temples, Mendut and Pawon. And it's been placed just below the misty Menorah Hills and at the southern edge of a plain of such rampant fertility that few guests will want to linger in their suites or by the pool.
The central message of Amanjiwo, and it is a unique message in the current Aman universe, is that one goes there to explore rather than to bask. One goes to marinate in Java's cultural essences rather than bake in her sunshine. One goes to use this exquisite little place as a base for informing oneself about the island's extraordinary ecclesiastical history.
Java, like Sumatra to her west and Bali to her east, stands four-square on the sea-route between India and China. With India long a traveling and trading nation, and China not, places that lay between the two would tend to benefit primarily from the osmotic effects of Indian influence—cultural, linguistic, and religious. So Hinduism flourished on the big islands, then retreated (though it remains dominant in Bali); Buddhism, also born in India, came next, flourished in both Sumatra and Java, then retreated (and is now practiced by only a small minority); and then Islam, promulgated by the Mughals when their courts ran India, flourished all across what is modern Indonesia, remaining supreme among the beliefs in the nation today. That the British came and ruled briefly, as did the Portuguese and Dutch and French and Japanese, did nothing to displace the primacy of Islam: It remains preeminent, but amusingly tempered by the curious animisms of old Javanese lore.
Borobudur was built during those few hundred years—from the eighth to the 10th centuries—when the newly proclaimed religion of Buddhism was claiming Javanese attention. During this time of intense intellectual activity the ruling families of the island erected scores of temples, most of which have long since vanished. But one family in particular, the Sailendra, evidently thought Buddhism substantial enough a faith to require an unimaginably substantial memorial: So they had 60,000 workers haul more than a million blocks of stone from the hillsides, place them to cap a small natural rise on the plains, and cut and carve them with a brio equaled by few other temples in the world. These were not primitive Javanese aping the styles of the influential Indians nearby: The Sailendra kings were of a high and distinct culture. Borobudur is uniquely Javanese, a reliquary well worthy of the island on which it for so long lay hidden.
It was in 1811 that a visitor came to Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the lieutenant-governor of Java, in Semarang to tell of a giant ruined temple lying in the island's interior forests, not far from the great kraton (palace) at Yogyakarta, Java's cultural capital, about 25 miles south of Borobudur. Later that year Raffles sent a Dutch engineer, H.C. Cornelius, to explore: His party found, buried by volcanic ash and undergrowth, the ruin of a colossal terraced pyramid. It was square at the base but circular, like a Tantric mandala, at the top. Nearly a thousand years of neglect had left their mark: The temple was half-ruined by subsidence and creepers, with many of its treasures missing, probably long since stolen. But once it had been cleared and wholly revealed, by hundreds of men working for years, it proved to be an utter marvel; it now stands—especially after a $25 million UNESCO-supported restoration begun in 1975—as one of the East's undisputedly greatest monuments.
The sheer magnificence of what Cornelius found and Raffles demanded be restored purged the European mind of any lingering prejudices about what was considered to be the primitive state of Asian culture. Borobudur led to the dispatch of other expeditions, including that of Alexandre-Henri Mouhot to Cambodia some 50 years later, which was rewarded by the unearthing of Angkor Wat. Borobudur and Angkor derive their architecture from that of India. With Mahabalipuram, Vijayanagara, and the Taj Mahal, who would ever dare suggest that the East could not build?
There is a particular similarity between Angkor Wat and Borobudur in that both have the essential shape, at least in cross-section, of a mountain—the sacred Mount Meru. But Borobudur (the word is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit Bhumian Bhara Bhudara, or "Mountain of Virtues of the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattva") is a great deal more than this: It also presents a saga—carved in a million blocks of volcanic stone arranged in terraces—that was to be told to all who ventured through the forests on pilgrimage.
There are nine terraces (the sacred Buddhist number): The three circular plateau terraces, from where one watches the Java dawn, are built on the top of six others, each square in plan, the middle four containing on their perimeters half-enclosed galleries. Today's traveler, like the pilgrim of a thousand years ago, climbs one of the narrow staircases and on reaching the first of the galleries turns left. On the walls on either side of him is the entire story of the Buddhist cosmic vision, told in thousands of carvings incised into 1,460 panels that stretch along a mile of continuous walkway. The visitor circumambulates the first complete terrace (clockwise, as in all Buddhist monuments), then reaches the staircase, climbs to the next gallery, turns left, and starts walking again—returns to the staircase, ascends again, more walking, and so on until he reaches the summit.
And in doing so, even the beginner notices what the Buddhist architects of a.d. 750 planned should be noticed (though it was a Russian scholar named S.F. Oldenburg who made the first "translation"). On the lower terraces the tablets, superbly carved, are dominated by images that involve trade and passion and desire and the earthly needs of man. There are ships, elephants, galleons, camels, warriors, dancing girls. Then as one rises, gallery by gallery, the story becomes less earthly; the number of human figures diminishes; the imagery is more concerned with holiness and asceticism and enlightenment, and with the journey toward Nirvana that only Buddha himself properly achieved.
While down on the lower levels there are carvings that represent anger, war, and suffering, all the misery diminishes steadily as one ascends; upward through the temple the carved faces achieve ever greater serenity of expression; and close to the summit are scores of bodhisattvas, the Buddhist term for humans as learned and enlightened as mere mankind can ever become. They now dominate the imagery. Finally, on the topmost terraces, there are no galleries at all, no tablets, no story: just 72 Buddhas, each sitting calm and serene inside his stupa of stone latticework, each gazing out over the countryside, contemplative and content. Otherwise, nothing: but the nothingness that is the essence of Buddhist enlightenment. The topmost stupa goes even further: Unlike the others surrounding it, the stupa is quite empty. It has nothing at all at its core—a perfect symbol of what a truly spiritual person seeks to achieve: everything and nothing, inner peace and intimate self-knowledge.
My guide, who came from a nearby kampong and spoke near-perfect English, stood aside as I reclimbed Borobudur later that day. He explained what he thought I needed to know but otherwise held his tongue, perhaps hoping I would come to understand the general imagery of the temple without hearing from him the fine and overwhelming detail. When at last I stood at the summit in the heat, close to the place where earlier I had shivered in the dawn, he led me to the south side of the terraces. I thought that he was going to show me Amanjiwo, which sprawled at the base of the range of hills. Instead he pointed at the hills themselves, which, so much smaller than the volcanoes behind me, were lined with rice terraces but otherwise of little obvious merit.
"Look carefully at the summit ridge," he said. "Let your imagination wander."
And so I did; and just as with the temple tablets, I realized the meaning in this vision. For the Menorah Hills, in silhouette, have the appearance of a man lying on his back, head to the north, sleeping with an expression of perfect peace on his face. I turned to my guide, who was smiling with pleasure at my new discovery.
"He is called Gunadharma," he said. "He was the divine architect of this temple. And now he sleeps. Your hotel is in the shadow of where he is sleeping—between him, and what he made.
"So let us go. It is uphill. If you bicycle, you will be tired when you get back. So maybe you will sleep as well. Between the temple and the man who made it. A thousand years ago." He smiled again, lit another kretek, and in the steamy clove-filled air we slowly cycled home.
Simon Winchester wrote about the Canadian Arctic in the May/June 1997 issue of Departures.