French MVs at Yogyakarta

by Marie-Andree Abt

For the fourth time, the French MV`s of Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur met for a cultural gathering. This time, we were four from Kuala Lumpur and 18 altogether. We had the opportunity to visit Borobodur, Prambanan and a part of old Yogyakarta with all the information we could have dreamed about, thanks to the hard work of the Jakarta French team.

French MVs at Borobodur

After half a dozen loops above the airport due to a malfunction of the control tower, we landed and were welcomed by the president of the IHS (initiator of these cultural meetings) and Laurence, both former Kuala Lumpur MVs. We were met by a few other Jakarta guides and went directly to visit Candi Mendut and sank into the Buddhist culture. Candi Mendut is one of the three buildings erected aligned with Borobodur in the 9th century. It was restored beginning of the twentieth century using the anastylose method, a technique developed by the “French School of Oriental Art” (yeah!!).

Then we proceeded to the Manohara Hotel, very conveniently situated, right at the foot of Borobodur. From there, our guides brought us to a wonder for tea time, the Aman Jiwo hotel. Modelled on a stupa, the lobby is facing Borobodur valley with the rooms spread in half concentric circles of smaller stupas, just like Borobodur itself. We had the opportunity to visit the rooms but for the asking price, we decided to come back only for the tea with our respective husbands! After a long delay and also a few rounds in the sky of Yogyakarta, the Singapore guides arrived and could enjoy the breath taking site seeing.

Back to the hotel, we met the last of the Jakarta guides (no tea in wonderland for them, sadly!). Then the serious work began: a cultural “apero” was waiting for us at the library. Most of “foreign” guides had bought a bottle of wine at the duty free and after the welcome word and batik gift from our president, we shared the firsts of them while listening to Colette presenting the highlight of the trip: Borobodur. We learned it was built in the 9th century by kings of the Sailendra dynasty. It is a mountain temple made of 4 square terraces and 3 round ones, each one smaller than the preceding one and topped  by the main empty stupa. Each square terrace comprises two walls facing each other and displaying a strip depicting the life of Buddha, the legend of his previous lives and the everyday life of common people of the time. The first terrace walls being higher than the other three, accommodate two strips per wall. The pilgrims had (and again since the 90’s only and after a long oblivion) worshiped, by doing as many tours of the galleries as there are strips; altogether, they have to walk 5km before reaching the circular terraces where 72 stupas containing a Buddha are their reward. On the last terrace a large empty stupa shows the vacuity of life. Here the pilgrim can make a wish and tour the stupa with an uneven number of paces and in silence to get it granted.

Then it was dinner again for us in the nice Plataran hotel. The Mongolian barbecue was delicious!

After a short night for most of the MVs, they woke up at 4:15 am to go and discover Borobodur at sunrise. Too early for me! But it was said to be very nice in the mist. After a well-earned breakfast (for them…), we all went to the foot of Borobodur for further talks on central Java history and Buddhism. That is when we discovered the difference between enlightenment and awakening, vacuity and emptiness. I cannot say I understood everything but, well, I was enlightened! At long last, we began the climb of the sacred mountain and received more information about the nicest and most famous bas-relief. There we discovered the famous 4 boats which are not from Majapahit, as they were carved too early to be from that kingdom’s time, but plain Javanese boats.

Javanese traditional boat on a Borobodur bas relief

We did only one tour of each gallery. When we arrived at the main stupa, all of us tried the wish trick (even though the silent part was difficult for us!). Let`s see if our wishes will be fulfilled!

We climbed down the temple and up again a hill facing Borobodur for a last presentation of the restoration of Borobodur before a well-earned nasi or mee goreng back at the hotel.

Then it was the much expected visit of the …. unexpected: the “gereja ayam”. After yet another straining climb, a kind of pillbox in the shape of a hen was awaiting us. Our guides told us it was a prayer room built by a man who had a vision; God told him to build a prayer room in the shape of a dove in the middle of the jungle and here it was, very unexpected indeed! Even though, it was not completed due to lack of funds and looking more like a hen (ayam) rather than a dove.

Gereja ayam

Back to the bus, we went to the last of the three buildings built aligned with, and at the same time of, Borobodur, Candi Prawon. It is a shrine (probably the shrine of a King), not a temple. Then it was back to Yogyakarta, where a 2 hours rest was most welcome. Then, we learned about the story of Yogyakarta, one of the only two provinces with a sultan only since 1755, the other one being Solo. We also had our first encounter with Hinduism, in a presentation of Prambanan. Prambanan was built at the same time as Borobodur. It is a cluster of temples. The main one is dedicated to Shiva (Agastya, Ganesh and Durga), between one to Brahma and one to Vishnu; each god’s temple is fronted by atemple dedicated to his own vehicle, respectively Nandi, Hamsa and Garuda.

Ganesh in Shiva temple at Prambanan

In front of these 6 temples were 254 or 249 (we cannot remember!) small temples which are now just piles of stones anyway and whose function has yet to be determined.

During the diner at a French restaurant that followed, we emptied a few more bottles and were happy to have a good night sleep after!

Wednesday morning we met our local French speaking guide for a visit of old Yogyakarta. He showed us a wet market and we took nice pictures of the group at the Sultan’s Bath. None of us were sent a flower to go and swim at his private swimming pool!

From there we went and visited the underground mosque. I was there when Wahida called about the university visits on the 9th December and 12th January, relayed by Sylvia to KL MVs; by the way, we still need help for the visit on the 12th January at 4:00 p.m. !!

We finished the morning in a “wayang kulit” workshop where we learned the symbols belonging to the Javanese philosophy in the carvings of the puppets. The ones I remember:

  • They have a long nose because they look for knowledge in the West.
  • They have big feet and short legs to stand firmly on Earth.

The lower part of their bodies is round like the Earth with carvings representing Fire, Water and Air.

Details on a puppet carving

The tree of life is full of symbols as well. The base is a Yoni, then there are several animals: the bull (strength), the tiger (cleverness), the snake and some monkeys.

After tasting some of the preferred courses of the sultans, we reached Prambanan. During the visit, Colette described each divinity but, unfortunately for the 4 of us, it was soon  time to go and catch our plane back home and we could not attend the end of the lecture. The Jakarta guides left one hour after us and the Singapore MVs had a plane only the next morning at 6:00 am! But at least, they could finish the bottles Wednesday night. I do not know in which state they were in the morning!

As you can see it was a very busy, interesting, enriching trip, well washed down (not only with wine, but rain as well!); I want to thank the Jakarta team for all their hard preparatory work.

You are interested in this kind of trip? I`ll tell you two secrets, Jamil asked me the contact of the “Singapore Friends of Museums” to organise a similar treat with them. And Karen is considering a field trip to Borobodur.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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