Every May, on the night of the full moon, thousands of Buddhists gather at Borobudur Temple for Waisak Day. This holy festival celebrates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinibbana (ultimate freedom). It is affectionately known as Buddha’s birthday. The celebration serves as a moment to create world peace among people regardless of racial, religious, or ethnic background. Just before dawn the Buddhist flag is unfurled. The air is filled with mantras and chanting as the monks circle the Borobudur temple in a flow of saffron and crimson robes. They unite and join in a meditation ritual called Pradaksina.
My day began at 5.00am with an auspicious sunrise from the viewing platform of Punthuk Setumbu. Armed with a head torch and a camera, I climbed for twenty minutes on a manicured trail with about one hundred other people. From the viewing platform you are positioned way above Borobudur, the biggest Buddhist monument in the world, which sits poised between two large volcanic peaks. The sun slowly burnt through the layers of the mist to reveal a spectacular mountain vista of the ancient relic.
Next, it was onto Candi Mendut, the starting point of the pilgrimage walk. The atmosphere was festive, noisy and vibrant. Street stalls were opening for business, hot peanuts on the go, pillars of colourful balloons for sale, wafts of salted butter rising from sizzling corn, as actors dressed in full Ramayana costume filtered through the crowd, entertaining as they went.
Candi Mendut is also where you purchase a special pass that allows you to enter the inner gates of Borobudur to pray and sit in meditative silence. Buddha’s birthday is the only day of the year Borobudur is closed, so without a pass, you cannot enter the inner sanctum. Around mid-morning the huge floats started arriving at the temple and after lunch the procession was ready to go.
I positioned myself near the gates of Borobudur, two kilometres away from Candi Mendut. By 2.30pm the streets leading to the Borobudur gates were packed to the gills. I jostled for a position amongst thousands of spectators and then I spotted a perfect elevated vantage point. I made a beeline for a big black shiny police truck. A sea of helping hands stretched forward to grab my camera, tripod and bags and with a friendly nod and a smile I hoisted myself up on the flatbed police truck.
The parade started with an explosive burst of energy. A shiny brass band complete with marching girls in white boots and red peaked hats headed the parade. Big booming drums and a smart brass section set the tone for an upbeat rhythm of celebration. Tall towers of fruit and nature’s offerings followed along with hundreds of monks from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore, Nepal, China and other ASEAN countries, sporting umbrellas to guard against the hot temperatures which climbed well into the 30’s.
The parade took around two hours from Candi Mendut to Candi Pawon, finishing at Borobudur Temple. The three temples form an imaginary straight line to the east. In ancient times this careful planning drew a connection between the harmony of the macrocosmos (the universe) and the microcosmos (human being). The positioning of Borobudur, Pawon and Mendut temples signifies the combining of Tri Mandala (Hindu) and Vajradhatu Mandala (Buddha) concepts. In terms of cosmic connections, the position of the three temples is believed to be related to the three stars of Orion’s belt.
Not only does this religious festival day attract thousands of Buddhists, devotees and spectators, but also the President, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, also attended. The festival is an opportunity to mingle with the throngs of people from all over the world and wait it out until midnight for the grand finale; the release of 1,200 lanterns.
Another ticket arrangement you need to organize in advance is the lantern event. At the foreground of the temple, a group of monks sat quietly making floral arrangements, finishing at about 5 pm and then like magic, all the floral tailings were swept away, and the table turned into a makeshift ticket booth. A very long queue formed very quickly to buy lantern tickets, which is restricted to only 300 attendees.
For a donation of Rp100,000 (USD$8) you were given a numbered entry ticket and three large white stickers. “You write your prayer on here”, I was told at the booth, “ You can write a whole story if you wish, as it’s a rather large sticker. Once your lantern is ready to release at midnight, stick your prayer to the outside and send it up with good intent,” said the smiling Buddhist ticket seller.
It was a quite of a long wait till midnight, however an enterprising massage club had set up shop outside the lantern area. Mats were laid on the soft grassy area under the trees and for another Rp100,000 you could relax into the night, under trained masseuse hands who sported bright orange polo shirts stating, “Borobudur Massage Team”.
Around 11.15pm the gates opened and we were guided to our lantern spot. The monks held a beautiful prayer session and we were made to feel very comfortable to join in, if we were Buddhists, or to partake in prayer in our own private way, if we were of another religion. The whole service was conducted in Bahasa Indonesia and English. There was a beautiful feeling of universal peace on the grassy grounds that lay at the foot of Borobudur Temple. A huge light beamed from the top stupa and the eight levels of the temple were illuminated against the indigo night sky. Sitting at our special designated spot, with hundreds of candles, we joined in a soulful moment of peace, love and harmony. After the prayer session the large circular paper lanterns were passed along the rows.
I was really impressed with the precise instructions given for lighting the lanterns, which had to be held by five people and lit from the centre very carefully. Everyone was instructed to light their lantern in unison, with five people sharing one lantern. We were lead in a countdown for the release. The feeling in the air was absolutely magical, and the fact that you were working with your neighbor who was a complete stranger meant unity was represented. On the final countdown to zero we released our lanterns together. Literally hundreds of lanterns coursed their way into the night sky, rising above the 8th century temple carrying prayers to the universe. It was truly a beautiful moment in time.
There was such a universal feeling of love in the air and after a chorus of oohs and ahhs we were instructed to “get grounded, sit down and find our peace again”. After this, the next round of lanterns were passed along each row and we waited for our cue to form our circle of five again. A few rule breakers were amongst the crowd and I saw a couple of lanterns totally catch alight heralded by squeals of horror and nervousness. There is always one or two in a crowd, right?
Our second round of lanterns were released again simultaneously. Again, the midnight hour filled with muted sighs and expressions of delight, as the flames lifted our messages of love, prayer and peace high into the night sky. I glanced at my watch and saw the time was actually 1.37 am. No one cared. The feeling of collective wisdom, prayers for world peace and harmony filled the midnight sky under a huge brilliant full moon. By the time we did the third lantern release we were all experts and there were no more accidental fires.
I got home at 3.30am and slept all the way back to MesaStila, my beautiful resting place in the mountains, just out of Magelang. In the wee small hours of the morning I silently blessed all eight peaks that surround MesaStila before crashing into a luxurious bed fit for a queen.
Perhaps the day is best summed up by a quote from Anna Julia Cooper, whose words graces the last page of the current issue of a United States of America passport and reads, “The cause of freedom is not the cause of race or a sect, a party or a class – it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity”.
MesaStila, Magelang, Central Java
Located in the middle of a working coffee plantation, this stunning resort sits 700 meters above sea level, surrounded by eight mountains. The weather is cool, and the elevation allows for beautiful views of the mountains. The Joglo villas are furnished with antiques and capture a piece of Java’s historic past.
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf