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Spending my holidays in Indonesia, I got the chance to learn about the local culture, savor the delicious local cuisine and explore many of the cultural sites of this beautiful country. One of my favorite sites that I visited is the Borobudur Temple, a symbol of reaching enlightenment in Buddhism.

The Borobudur Temple

The Borobudur Temple in Central Java province in Indonesia

The Borobudur Temple in Central Java province in Indonesia is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Built in the 8th-9th centuries AD, the Borobudur temple combines religious symbolism with art and architecture in a marvelous terraced structure with the Great Stupa at its top. Its terraced structure is a representation of the path to enlightenment and the different stages one needs to journey in order to attain enlightenment.

In 1991, the Borobudur Temple was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is now a protected monument. What kind of factors lead to the deterioration of this temple and what do we need to protect it from?

Earthquakes decapitating the Buddha statues

Indonesia is situated in a region of high tectonic plate activity, being surrounded by several tectonic plates. Their movement leads to the occurrence of many high-magnitude earthquakes in the region, and many more of a lower magnitude.

Walking around on the different levels of the temple, I noticed that many of the Buddha statues from the temple architecture are missing their heads. Through further inquiry, I found out that there are 504 Buddha statues displayed in the Borobudur temple structure and over 200 of them lost their heads during earthquakes in the past. The neck is the weakest part of a Buddha statue and when struck by a powerful earthquake, it can easily be broken and the head is detached from the body. Thanks to Science, some of the heads that were found in the area were reattached to their bodies.

Volcanic ash from Mount Merapi

The Borobudur Temple is located in the vicinity of Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano. Its name, meaning “mountain of fire” describes perfectly its high volcanic activity. Its most recent eruption was in May 2018, just one month before my visit to this region.

In the 2010 Mount Merapi eruption, a layer of up to 2.5 cm of volcanic ash was deposited on the surface of the Borobudur temple. The acidic nature of the volcanic ash is a big cause of concern towards the preservation of the site. This is because the acid can deteriorate the stone structure. Therefore, immediate action towards a thorough cleaning of the ash-covered temple was taken, as it is crucial to its conservation.

Climate leading to biodegradation

The humidity in this region created the perfect environment for the growth of moss, algae and lichens. Because of these ideal climate conditions for the growth of these plants, they invade the stone structure, which can lead to its degradation. Constant action, through cleaning and brushing of the stones, must be taken against these biological factors to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site from biodegradation.

People reaching for the Buddha statue

It is said that if you touch the Buddha statue inside the stupa and make a wish, it will be granted. For this reason, many of the tourists visiting the Borobudur temple try to touch the statue. However, touching the stupa and the Buddha inside can lead, in time, to breakage of the stone. Since over 1 million people visit the site every year, touching the stupa and the Buddha could have severe consequences. Tourists are now advised not to touch the stupa and not to step on its stone in order to reach the Buddha inside. If we can’t protect this monument from the force of nature, we should at least try to protect it from people.

I can understand that everyone has wishes and would like to see certain things happening. But don’t you think it would be better to just take action towards our goals and do everything we can to make them happen rather than touching this precious site of cultural heritage with the possibility of destroying it with our actions?

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