A Smartphone Pilgrimage – Borobodur

View from the Top

Laura Perry shares her experience of a recent visit to one of the world’s most beautiful Buddhist sites. 

The ancient temple of Borobudur is a 9th century Buddhist monument on the Indonesian island of Java. Granted world heritage status by UNESCO in 1991, it is the most visited tourist site in the country.

We arrive at sunrise, hoping to escape the crowds and photograph the complex without human imposition.

In the early morning light, mist hanging densely over the surrounding forest, Borobudur seems a sort of glazed tiered wedding cake. Its walls, ornately decorated with Buddhas and exquisite bas-relief, appear golden. At the top is a crown of sun-gilded stupas like turrets on a fairytale castle. It is somewhat humbling, as a Westerner, to think that all of this was crafted before most of Europe’s cathedrals were even imagined.

And it is hard to evoke in words the feeling of incredible inner stillness I, a dyed in the wool atheist, felt sitting atop Borobudur’s walls, no other person in sight, a line of volcanoes pricking the horizon, the pale morning sun on my back.

After this moment of contemplation, I set about capturing my own version of the defining Borobodur photograph; Buddha to the fore, Mount Merapi in the distance. It takes a frightening amount of engineering to present the fallacy that there definitely are not fifty other tourists tripping over their sandals trying to get the same shot, so I’m glad we made an early start.

Later, as more people start to arrive, something unexpected happens…

As a self-confessed DSLR geek, I get asked to snap people in front of nice stuff a lot. So of course I’m happy to oblige when a teenage couple approach me asking to have a photo taken. I start lining them up to get the perfect composition.

“No, no!” The boy flaps his hands, smiling at my stupidity. “No, photo with you!”

“With me? Me and you?” I gesture toward his girlfriend, who is all bambi eyes and Cupid’s bow lips under her floral headscarf.

“Yes! Please!” He grins enthusiastically. Feeling awkward, very white, and very large next to the diminutive doe, I self-consciously shuffle into shot, wishing I didn’t feel so sweaty and gross. We’re not even stood in front of the temple – the sacred, millennia-old site considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of Buddhist architecture in existence. Am I seriously to be their memory of the place?

A little dazed, I wander back through the walls of the ruins and spot one of my friends. It transpires that I’m not the only one who’s been appropriated as a photo prop. Before we can elaborate on the strangeness, I notice the third member of our party, her pale skin reddened and hair white-blond hair rather dishevelled. It’s clear why I didn’t see her earlier; she is lost in a crowd of laughing and chattering teenagers armed with smart phones. I wave, and the whole crowd waves back.

Apparently our particular brand of pasty has imbued us with a certain popularity, and before long we’re swallowed by a crowd of adolescent Indonesians hoping for group portraits of their own.

After many peace signs, much laughing and unintentional groping, the crowd disbands, and everyone waves furiously (I find that I am grinning like a lunatic).

It’s only as the group clears that I notice a queue has formed. It’s a queue bristling with camera phones, and it’s longer than the line to climb the steps of the temple. We could be here a while…

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