There were more Muslims in Indonesia than in the entire Arabian Peninsula. I just learned that Indonesia had the largest Muslim population in the world. At Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, I was initially confused to see men washing their feet in a public restroom. Then I realized right beside the washroom was a musholla, an Islamic prayer room; and the act was part of their ritual ablution. Indeed, I had landed in a Muslim country.
Ancient stone monuments could be brittle like hard candy. They had not always stood the test of time and the temperament of Mother Nature. At the time of their rediscovery, most had crumbled to the ground. Some archaeology purists would rather that they stayed that way – pristinely in ruins, such as Ta Prohm in Cambodia (although archaeological excavation by nature was a destructive process). If we all went by that belief, we would never behold the magnificence of, say, Angkor Wat and Borobudur. It would be quite a stretch to conjure up their original architecture from a pile of masonry and free-standing pillars. Continue reading “Hard Candi”→
If you traced the twists and turns of world history on a map, you might as well have traced the routes of the spice trade. For 5,000 years, spice had been imported the world over from an archipelago in the East. In its wake, countries and cities developed and declined, Machiavellian economics and colonization ebbed and flowed, new lands were discovered and traded, indigenous peoples either ended up as converts to foreign religions or casualties of wars and genocides. Truly, this earthy assortment of roots, leaves, rhizomes, seeds, and bark, collectively known as spices, had shaped the geopolitical world as we knew it. To paraphrase a song, it was a spice world after all.
I had always been a sucker for stories. I would even lap up legends. One such legend led me to hop over the other hemisphere to visit Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple complex comprised of the largest and finest Hindu monuments in Java.
No plane crashes. No terrorists. No lost passport or camera. No Delhi belly. That was a portion of my typical pre-travel litany, collectively called “travelling mercies.” For this trip to Java, I added something very specific to my supplications: God, no Merapi eruption. I never kept tabs on volcanic activity; I couldn’t even remember how I knew about Mount Merapi or that it was one of the most active volcanoes in the world. But I had always believed that if you didn’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit would provide the words.
What’s a prayer but a human attempt to tap into the spiritual realm. In Asian thought, this realm is both at the center of the universe and the innermost sanctum of the soul. Nature demonstrates this pattern in the heliocentric solar system, the inner core of the earth, and the cellular nucleus. Spirituality is not just an act of reaching up but of reaching in. Most Eastern religious monuments, from ziggurat to stupa, physically depict this centripetal connection. Borobudur, a grayish-brown bump of volcanic stone on the green plains of Central Java, perfectly embodies this philosophy. Indonesian archaeologist, Soekmono, regarded as the guardian of Borobudur, called this 9th century temple “a prayer in stone.”