Time has gone very soft and decided to become a colour rather than a Euclidean axiom. It references a lime green, not the cheery bright kind but something more melancholic, more forlorn. The hills that once slumbered in a light mountain haze have become something different, almost odd. We alight on a stupa, the abstraction of the Buddha in simplified form, like a bell that’s been set down, one of Borobudur’s 504 Buddhist stupa that line the three stages of the spiritual geography that is this place. Sunrise is coming and it announces its entry from the active volcanoes that are the watchmen of Borobudur: Sindoro-Sumbing and Merbabu-Merapi. “Don’t be fooled. They can go at any moment,” says a monk bedecked in saffron robes and thick glasses of the volatility of the sleeping behemoths. He’s right: it was only in 2010 that Mount Merapi (literally “Fire Mountain”) blew menacingly, draping Borobudur in ash and pumice. Why would the ancient rulers of Sailendra—the syncretic dynasty that dreamed the temple complex into a reality—place such a precious and massive project so close to harm’s way?
Backtrack two days to a hectic landing in Jakarta, Asia’s most chaotic city that’s always at full velocity. The itinerary of the following days is a driving experience like few others: we’ll be taking our new 740Lis and 730Lds across the plains of Central Java, a land that is cloaked in both tradition and mystery. A place once home to both powerful Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms, Central Java was one of Indonesia’s most influential culture centres, which spread its dance and art tentacles across the region. In some ways, Borobudur was the apogee of its time, as Muslim rulers and armies changed the cultural landscape in the 15th and 16th centuries through the Damak empire and its subsequent manifestation, the Mataram Kingdom. It was the Mataram who started to feel the increasing sway and final engulfment by the Dutch who didn’t hold on to Java once, but twice, after the British returned it during the Napoleonic wars. Through that time, the Yogyakarta area became known for coffee plantations, its hills a cool haven from the hot plains. It was in those colonial times that Governor-General Thomas Stamford Raffles heard of the legend of Borobudur, by then abandoned for hundreds of years. Commissioning an engineer with a 200-man team to hack away at the jungle, Borobudur came back to the world.
In Semarang, the capital of the province, we’re led to the BMWs that we’ll convoy with to get to our first stop, MesaStila. “The first part of the ride will be more highway, so if you want to see what the car can do, I’d advise you to do it now rather than later, as the roads get more congested,” the coordinator tells us. Sounds like a good idea and as we find out, spot-on advice: by the time we get to MesaStila, all manner of vehicle is clunking down the road—be it chicken transporters, overloaded family cars and trucks galore. Java is, if anything, a place on the move.
That feeling becomes even more pronounced as we arrive at Amanjiwo, one of Asia’s most exclusive properties. Operated by the super luxury resort brand, Aman Resorts, Amanjiwo is the haunt of celebs who visit Borobudur, ones who demand the privacy and services of the calibre that Amanjiwo provides. With an architectural style that mimics Borobudur itself, it is the perfect night’s stay before the 3AM call comes to ascend the temple complex. The drive has been amazing, but rest beckons.
Before we know it, the knock is at the door. “Come sir, it’s early I know, but you really don’t want to miss this chance,” says the guide who will take us on the pre-dawn excursion. Difficult, but somehow the body takes over even as the mind still sleeps. Before we know it, we’re facing the ink-shrouded temple and we walk into its embrace to begin the alchemy of discovery. Buddhist pilgrims circle Borobudur, stage by stage, to symbolise the ascension from the world of Kamadhatu (the world of desire) to that of Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and finally, Arupadhatu (the formless world). Reliefs of courtly life make way for more and more abstraction until—sitting atop the whole complex—there is nothing but abstraction... and Buddhas housed in stupa sit looking into time with complete apathy. I still have some Kamadhatu desires to drive the 7 Series more, but this is a special treat that no lover or resident of Asia should miss.
Words by Sam Coleman