A forest of temples at Prambanan

Continued from my evening experience of watching the Ramayana in Indonesia

This was, in fact, my second trip to the Prambanan temple complex in the day. I had paid a visit as a typical tourist earlier in the morning, to take in the magnificent Hindu temples dedicated to the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (to whom the largest temple here is dedicated).

The sky was grey and menacing when I stepped into the complex, with the rain thundering down within minutes and adding a touch of drama to this fascinating, open space.

All the temples in this complex were built between the 9th and 10th centuries, when this Java region of Indonesia saw the intermingling of Hindu and Buddhist cultures.

Being at Prambanan was a bit like standing inside a forest of temples, the tall spires reaching towards the skies. There are over 200 monuments inside this complex, but only some of them survive intact today, most destroyed by earthquakes over the centuries.

At closer glance, every temple took on a character of its own, each with its unique and profuse carvings on the walls and pillars, particularly the bas-relief of Ramayana in the central ones. I even spotted a classic Ganesha statue inside one of the shrines, practically undamaged and shining in the dim light that managed to stream in through cracks in the roof.

Not surprisingly, the Prambanan temples were inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage list a few decades ago. Along with the world’s largest Buddhist temple at Borobudur, the Hindu temples of Prambanan stand as a solid testament to this country’s respect for its chequered past and the tolerance for its multicultural present under the rule of the present Sultan. Surely, there is a lesson for the entire world there in this small, bustling town of Indonesia.

Watching the Ramayana in Indonesia

As the sun began to set and the yellow electric lights of the theatre came on, there was restiveness in the air. A large group of school children had arrived there a few minutes ago, apparently as part of a cultural excursion. Apart from these giggly kids and their harried teachers, most of the audience comprised foreign visitors to Indonesia. Like me.

I was at the Prambanan temple complex near Yogyakarta (pronounced locally as Jogja) to watch the famous Ramayana ballet that takes place there every night. In the summer months, the performance is in the open-air theatre, against the backdrop of the towering temples. But since I was there in the cold season, we had settled into the cosy amphitheatre, with its stage right in the centre.

The orchestra at the back of the stage – complete with local versions of musical instruments we know in India, such as the mridangam and harmonium – soon began to strum traditional tunes, signalling the start of the show. Having grown up with this epic, I was really not sure what to expect, but I was definitely looking forward to a new interpretation. As it turned out, the performance was fascinating, enhanced by the undeniably Indonesian looks and costumes of the actors, over 200 of them.

The performance was peppered with lots of dance and movement, all the actors (including the demons, I must add) seeming to glide with an easy grace, leaving no doubt that this was indeed a ballet. The music was melodic and dramatic by turns. And there were no spoken words in an unfamiliar language to hamper my enjoyment of this experience.

The story began with Rama and Lakshmana leaving for the forest, a docile Sita in tow. The narrative was more or less traditional, following their path to Lanka, all the way through till Ravana’s gory end. A glittering golden deer, a brave Jatayu vulture, the semi funny-ferocious demons at Ravana’s court – every detail was carefully detailed through dance and music, and the vibrant costumes. Sita herself was a petite beauty, filled with pathos and hope at the same time, moving gracefully in time to the lilting music.

Although the battle scenes were spectacular, it was Hanuman in his white costume and beard who stole the show, first with his antics and finally the flair with which he set fire to Ravana’s golden city.

At the end of the ballet, as I made my way out of the theatre, I found myself coming face to face with Hanuman; along with other characters, he was waiting to pose for photos with the appreciative audience. I refused with a smile and walked on, humming the lilting notes of the background score.

(Watch this short video for a sense of the vibrant costumes and the lilting music and the magnificence of the battle scenes)

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To be continued: At the Prambanan temples of Yogyakarta

A quick guide to Borobudur

Although Indonesia is best known for the gorgeous island of Bali, the highlight of my trip to this country was the UNESCO site of Borobudur. It is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, in the world’s largest Muslim country. What more can I say?

The best time to see Borobudur was early in the morning, I had been told repeatedly. Just at sunrise, in fact. I gave it a pass though, not relishing the idea of trudging up tall and uneven stone steps at 3 am. But even later in the morning, when the sun was still mellow, the Borobudur temple was a stunner.

Decorated with over 500 Buddha sculptures and 2500 relief panels, and located on a flat hilltop overlooking the green forested hills of Java and the active volcano Gunung Merapi, Borobudur was unlike any Buddhist temple I had ever seen. It took me just over an hour from my hotel on the other side of town in Yogyakarta, driving through the city traffic and then the relatively quiet highway.

Believed to have been built around 800 AD, the Borobudur temple is in the shape of a stepped pyramid of five square bases, topped by three circular terraces. Each of these is encircled by 72 miniature stupas containing a statue of the Buddha. While some of them are barely visible through the lattice holes of the stupas still intact, many sit exposed, with the stupa peaks broken.

My arduous climb up to the top level became all worth it when I saw these stone Buddhas staring out on to the lush hills in the distance, as if contemplating the very future of humankind. I sat in the shade next to one of them, both to catch my breath and take in the soothing silence.

Like many great monuments, the Borobudur temple survived destruction after it was abandoned in the 14th century, by remaining buried beneath layers of volcanic ash and thick foliage for hundreds of years. Stamford Raffles, the British Governor of Java, is credited with its rediscovery in 1814, but it appeared in the popular tourist circuit only after extensive renovation work by UNESCO in the late 1900s.

From an aerial view, the temple resembles a lotus flower, held sacred in this faith. What was most interesting to me, from the stories narrated by my guide, is the fact that the entire monument is an ode to Buddha’s path to enlightenment. Every single carving at every level tells a story from Gautama’s life – often extrapolated as a teaching about the larger physical world.

I came away from Borobudur, in fact from the town of Yogyakarta, marvelling at the lessons in tolerance that this small, bustling town of Indonesia holds out for the entire world.

San Fran’s Famous Five

In this small city by the bay in the west coast of the USA, many believe that dreams come to life. And that has certainly been true of entrepreneurial dreams, beginning from the mid 19th century, when gold hunters from all over the country came here lured by the city’s special sparkle.

Almost 150 years after the excitement of the Gold Rush abated, San Francisco retains that stardust quality, providing a haven to hopefuls with quirky start-up ideas. No surprise then that the very air here seems to carry a whiff of optimism and dynamism.

Long before the city came within the fold of the United States of America in 1846, the region was owned by the Spanish and then the Mexicans. As a result, San Francisco is today the proverbial melting pot of cultures, with dozens of ethnic communities calling it home. Within the larger cosmopolitan weave, specific localities serve as hubs to specific ethnic communities, like Chinatown for the Chinese, North Beach for the Italians, and Mission for the Latinos.

As a result, San Francisco is undoubtedly one of the most interesting cities in the USA, and it is also one of the most pedestrian-friendly. And although you could explore its lanes and hills for weeks on end and still not know it fully, here is a quick guide to help a first-time visitor get the best out of the Golden City through its most interesting neighbourhoods.

The Haight

Located at the intersection of the Haight and Ashbury streets, this district of San Francisco was the epicentre of the Flower Power movement that bloomed in the late 1960s and 1970s. Traces of that Summer of Love (1967) still linger on these roads, where the hippies once congregated to talk dreamily about an ideal world.

Today, these streets are lined with vintage clothing shops, chic boutiques, vegan cafés and organic food stores, and music stores like Amoeba that stock an astonishing collection of CDs, vinyl records and audio cassettes. Although hippies no longer roam Haight and Ashbury, this neighbourhood still carries the open vibe from several decades ago that welcomes all communities.

Don’t miss: The Painted Ladies, Victorian rowhouses at Hayes and Steiner Streets, built between 1850 to 1915 and painted in multiple colours to enhance their already flamboyant architectural details.

Chinatown

If there is one neighbourhood in San Francisco that belongs as much to the locals as to the tourists, then it is Chinatown. The best bit about the warren of lanes that make up this old area is that it is possible – indeed necessary – to explore them without a definite plan, discovering new things as you amble along. Chinatown wears a different character at different times of the day, so go prepared to be surprised at each visit.

Entering through the grandly decorated Dragon’s Gate feels like stepping into another world, one where the exotic east has made its way into the farthest corner of the western world. From the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to the elaborate temples on Waverly Place, this one has something for everyone.

Don’t miss: A 90-minute guided walking tour with Free Tours by Foot, that lets you in on the fascinating history and secrets of this area.

North Beach

This area is SF’s Little Italy, home to a significant Italian (American) population, and therefore, delicious Italian food. This is where San Francisco’s throbbing nightlife scene originated, and it still remains one of the most of the liveliest neighbourhoods to catch up over a drink in the early evening, or late in the night.

For your own bit of urban oasis, just pick up a pistachio gelato at one of the numerous family-run gelatarie dotting the streets and make your way to the leafy expanse of Washington Square Park. Or peep into the North Beach Museum, tucked away on the second floor of the Eureka Bank building, to learn about the history of this community.

Don’t miss: The City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, founded in 1953, is one of the original landmarks of this area, with a remarkable collection of books.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Nearly every single visitor to San Francisco heads to Fisherman’s Wharf, with its tacky novelty museums and souvenir shops, making it the most popular tourist attraction, even ahead of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is really impossible not to be charmed by the constant buzz around this waterfront area, most of it centred around the touristy Pier 39. After all, 12 million annual visitors can’t be wrong.

This is also among the best places in San Francisco for kids, with attractions like the Sea Lion Centre, the Aquarium of the Bay and the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Grab a soup in a traditional sourdough bread from Boudin Bakery or sit down for a fresh seafood meal at one of the specialty restaurants on Pier 39.

Don’t miss: A cruise to Alcatraz Island that served as the infamous prison for characters like Al Capone; of the 14 inmates who ever tried to escape, none were successful.

Union Square

It is said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going – to Union Square, primarily to shop. This part of San Francisco, close to the commercial heart of the city, calls out to everyone with its open-air plaza and vibrant arts scene. From swanky designer labels to sprawling department stores like Macy’s, this is also the ultimate shopaholic’s heaven.

With its rich history, Union Square still plays host to many public events, including the city’s annual Christmas tree. Even those not inclined to spend money on retail therapy will have enough fun window-shopping and gawking at the beautiful art galleries.


(image credit: By CarolinaCABoy64Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

Don’t miss: ‘The Hearts in San Francisco’ art installations, started in 2004 by the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, with the idea of fundraising. Like Tony Bennett song this project was inspired by, you too are sure to leave your heart behind in San Francisco.

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(Published in the July issue of Jet Wings magazine)

The Western Wall of Jerusalem: a photoessay

The Western Wall of Jerusalem is just that, a pockmarked limestone wall rising 60ft into the air. It is bleak and imposing, dwarfing the women praying in front of it. The genders are segregated here, as in most other devotional places in Jerusalem; the men and the women on either side of the makeshift barrier united in their grief.

For, this spot, also known as the Wailing Wall, is where Jews gather to mourn the destruction of the Temple Mount (part of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great circa 20 BC) by the Romans in AD 70. With the Dome of the Rock, the sacred spot for the Muslims now standing right behind the wall, there is nothing else they can claim as their own.

Yet, for all the religious fervour this spot commands in Jews all over the world, there is no overt or loud expression of emotion. A few of the older women have found themselves chairs close to the wall and are silently reading their well-worn prayer books, while most others have lined up with their faces close to the wall.

Some have placed both hands upon the wall, some are kissing the stones while others are rocking back and forth with intense sorrow, tears pouring down their cheeks. In deference to tradition, from black-hatted rabbis to beige-uniformed soldiers, everyone takes steps backwards from the wall, taking care to always show only their faces to this most sacred spot.

Inside this enclosure, there are tourists from as far away as Australia and America, drawn by the curious geographical concept that is Israel. There are clusters of rabbis, talking in muted whispers about what I assume are deep philosophical matters. There are Bar Mitzvah (ceremony to mark a Jewish boy turning 13) celebratory groups, mostly from America, families taking this opportunity to visit their spiritual homeland. Finally, there are the faithful, who are there to convey their unflinching devotion to their god.

I am mostly unmoved by it all; to each their own faith, and ways of expressing it. As I stand to a side, taking in the scene, a small boy, no older than six, walks solemnly to the wall and tucks a folded piece of paper into a crevice, sending a message up to his version of god. He then turns to his mother with a toothy grin; she has tears in her eyes, whether from her own moment of devotion or from watching this moment of unadulterated optimism from her son, I cannot say.

When I flick tears away from my own eyes, I like to think it is the heat and dust of a sweltering summer afternoon in Jerusalem.

(Excerpted from a longer essay on Jerusalem that I wrote for the latest edition of Mint on Sunday – you can read the full version – Notes from Jerusalem here)

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