A hidden jewel at Java’s centre Amanjiwo rests in the shadows of the largest Buddhist temple complex in the world, Borobudur, which reopens to visitors from 1 March 2023.
Photography by Jérôme Galland
Words by Xerxes Cook
Having visited the tropical island twice previously, the photographer Jérôme Galland is all too aware of Java’s riches. On our first morning together at Amanjiwo, he suggests we climb through the mist of the Menoreh Hills that shoulder the resort to get a vantage point over the Kedu Plain below. Thought to contain over 2,000 temples dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, belonging to both Buddhism and Hinduism, and sometimes within the same structure, the Kedu Plain is known colloquially as the ‘Gateway of the Gods’.
Poyo, who grew up in a village in the shadow of the hills and has been guiding Amanjiwo’s guests around Magelang ever since it opened 25 years ago, leads the way, digging up roots of lemongrass, turmeric, galangal and cassava from the jungle gardens behind Amanjiwo. Surveying the lush equatorial rainforest, our heads peeled to the canopy for a tribe of macaques that inhabit the treetops, he points out teak and mahogany trees, tamarind, clove and candlenut, spikey jackfruits, soursops and durians, and those bearing quinine and balsam.
"...our heads peeled to the canopy of a tribe of macaques that inhabit the treetops."
Jérôme remarks that the human eye has more receptors for green than any other colour on the spectrum. A retina designed to assess whether a plant might be a medicine, or a poison. It was only later that alchemy learnt of their blurred lines. As if to demonstrate, Poyo punctures the enveloping green to pull a young leaf from a noni tree and crumple it in his palms, scarlet dripping from his fingers like blood, a source of red dye for the batik textiles this region gave to the world.
As we reach the 630-metre peak the orchids get smaller, the jamu-yellow butterflies larger, and the first cherries of robusta coffee appear. We pass an ancient cave in a karst limestone crag, of the kind once reserved for the exclusive use of Borobudur’s loftiest monks, now vibrating to the mantras of the muezzin from the mosques of the valleys below. Poyo cracks open a much-needed coconut from a tree, that appears to have rolled down from the heavens but was in fact planted by his uncle, as we survey the scene, tracing the line between Amanjiwo and its suites fanning out in the direction of Borobudur. “For all the shades of green our eyes can see, it’s incredible to think that in all that time nobody had caught sight of the largest Buddhist temple in the world, lying right here in the middle of the plain,” Jérôme muses.
"We pass an ancient cave in a karst limestone crag, ...once reserved for monks, now vibrating to the mantras of the valleys below."
Left to the elements since the advent of Islam in Java 500 years ago and covered in centuries of vines and branching ficus trees, a good number of the Kedu Plain’s mysteries, such as its unknown scores of pre-historic pyramids, remain under thick tropical vegetation.
When in 1814, as governor of Java for the British East India Company, Sir Thomas Raffles ‘discovered’ Borobudur and the spiralling towers of Prambanan – the Hindu temple devoted to Shiva, the destroyer and creator of worlds – he wrote that never in his life had he seen “such stupendous and finished specimens of human labour, and of science and taste of ages long since forgot, crowded together in so small a compass as in this spot… covered with sculptures of Hindu mythology surpassing any that exist in Asia.”
Built from the local white limestone in 1997, the late Ed Tuttle designed Amanjiwo’s iconic rotunda to echo, and through its colonnades provide a perfect picture window to, the stupa atop Borobudur in the plain below. With the mist rolling down the hills in brushstrokes of blues and greys, it is an irresistible view. One that compels Jérôme to wake before sunrise and paint with light every dawn.
"With the mist rolling down the hills in brushstrokes of blues and greys, it is an irresistible view."
I quiz Jérôme on his daily rendezvous with the volcanoes, rising with the mist before the lotus’ blooms and the sun crests over Merapi, and how this bigger picture makes him feel. “Maybe I like pyramid shapes, like the temple, or maybe I just like volcanoes. There is a mountain in France, a small one called Le Téton de Venus, and I go to a guesthouse by Téton nearly twice every year, to photograph it in both winter and summer. For me, it echoes the shape of Borobudur.”
“Some painters paint the same scene over and over again because it’s the same but not the same every time. If I lived here, I would photograph Borobudur from the restaurant every day, it is that beautiful. Stripping away the choice of what you want to photograph is an act of becoming aware, of becoming mindful, to the ongoing moment.”
In the latest of Aman’s Meditations, celebrated photographer Jérôme Galland and award-winning editor Xerxes Cook travel together to Amanjiwo. Through their own mediums, they share the secrets of Central Java’s cultural heartland firsthand, capturing its landscapes, natural beauty and stories of old.
Jérôme Galland is a French photographer specializing in travel and architecture. Renowned for his story-telling and textured imagery that transport and inspire, his work has featured in publications such as Architectural Digest, while collaborations include luxury designers such as Hermès and Pierre Yovanovitch.
Xerxes Cook is a writer and editor in the fields of art, design, nature and sustainability. During his 15-year career, his work has been featured in publications such as 032c, Interview, Purple, and Condé Nast Traveller. Xerxes lives between London and Bali, having resided in Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Florida.
Meditations I June 2022
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