Wednesday, June 18, 2014


A year ago at Vesak Day, Buddha's day of birth, enlightenment and death, I attended the ceremonies in Bangkok's Sanam Luang Square. I had missed the right date again to make it to Java's Borobudur temple. In fact, I failed on several attempts. A few years back there were two full moons in the month of May, one at the beginning and one at the end of the month and I picked the wrong full moon. Another time, Merapi, the Volcano, did not want me to fly there. So I kept my fingers crossed for this year's celebration and planned well in advance. 

It's like the chicken and egg question (which one came first?) when planning Vesak Day at Borobudur since you can never be fully sure which date it is going to be held on until you get closer to the date. However you need to book a flight and hotel well in advance. So, I took a risk and booked a flight early on. With the hotel I got lucky and reserved the last available room very close to the temple. 

Given that there is almost no information in English available and only a few reports on web sites about past events, I contacted all my friends in Indonesia to keep looking for an events schedule. Vesak, or Waisak as it is called in Indonesia, is celebrated on different dates all over Asia and could have happened on the 13th, 14th or 15th May 2014. Give it a day more on both ends and a day or two to travel, I needed to book a week at this auspicious location.

I met tourists at the Borobudur temple the day before the celebration who said "did you know that it is Buddha's birthday tomorrow?" but since they didn't know in advance, they already had to be somewhere else the next day and missed the event. Even contacting the Indonesian tourism office and the Borobudur Park just weeks before the event, I got very vague information. Vesak was to be held on the 15th May, that was for sure! But I met many people who thought it will be during day time or evening of the 15th May and they were dead wrong!

Only after I checked into my hotel at the temple did I get my hands on a time schedule for the event - in Indonesian language! Nothing was available in English, despite this being such a big event with many thousands of people attending. Luckily the marketing manager of my hotel translated every single word for me, so I was able to start making my own plans. 

Ceremonies actually start several days before at various locations with bringing the sacred fire and water to nearby Mendut temple. 

Mendut temple, older than Borobudur and just a few kilometers down the road from the big temple is also where ceremonies start. I had seen it the day before during a visit and saw that tents had been set up for the festivities. However, again no information was available, neither in the ancient temple building nor in the modern living temple next to it. So, I could only plan to attend the opening ceremony and prayers at Mendut in the afternoon of the 14th May.  However, when leaving the Hotel, I learned that the roads were closed as of noon time, so I had to arrange for an alternative transportation, going with a motorcycle on back roads. 

I arrived shortly after noon and there were thousands of people around Mendut temple and many lining the street which leads to Borobudur. Somehow I got into the ceremonial grounds without being checked, but only through good luck and karma did I find out that I needed a pass to attend the ceremonies, for which I had to register at an office with my ID. Just in time did I receive my badge which officially made me an "attendee" or a "peserta" in Indonesian. 

Prayers with monks from various Buddhist lineages started in the tents behind the ancient Mendut temple. I recognized several monks from Thailand and asked them if they knew what is happening next but they also said, they could not understand the announcer and just followed their interpreter. They said, just follow us!  Which was not really possible since all monks started lining up under ceremonial umbrella's shading them from the sun and which were carried by festival staff. 

Outside the temple and the ceremonies, bands played marching music and thousands of people gathered to join the procession. Heavily guarded security forces on motorcycles guarded the procession along with many other unformed officials. 

The long procession started leaving from Mendut temple on a 4km long path zick-zacking westwards to Borobudur temple, led by music bands, officials, flag carriers and ceremonial staff. The monks followed on foot behind them on a long sweaty walk through the mid-afternoon heat of Java. 

I stayed close to the monks, which I knew and kept following the procession. To my surprise it was not a praying and chanting procession. Recorded chanting was only to be heard from the loudspeaker of a truck carrying higher level monks but it really was lost in all the chatter and it occasionally drowned in the calls for prayers by the mosques we passed. Two Buddhists which I met along the way, a friendly girl from Paris and a nice guy from Melbourne were surprised about this too. We all thought it would be a more "meditative" walk, so we made the best of it, carrying our ceremonial flowers until we reached the temple grounds of Borobudur.  

Read about what happened after we reached the temple on the next post.

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