Today, the serene yet slightly mad-looking stupa (it's meant to be viewed from the sky) is beset by a very modern evil: rapacious commercialism. The grounds around its entrance are a labyrinth of souvenir stands and cafés where vendors have greatly outnumbered visitors since the bombings in Bali. Tourists in Borobudur are subjected to a grueling gauntlet of hawkers selling the usual range of junky stuff imprinted or embroidered with the name of the place. The asongan, as the vendors are known, are aggressive, sometimes to the edge of frenzy.
To restore peace to this shrine for peace seekers from around the world (and perhaps to give the state a cut of the action), Central Java's governor, General Mardiyanto, has proposed a huge public-works project that would sweep away the asongan and replace them with a three-story mall on the outskirts of the zoned district around the stupa. The new complex, bearing the Disneyesque name Java World, would be the gateway to the monument for all visitors, who would park there and progress to the site aboard a silent tram. In place of the chaos that currently reigns at Borobudur, there would be a bland but orderly array of tourist shops, the boisterous ladies selling soft drinks out of ice chests supplanted by the comforting presence of KFC.
Then, last week, events took a surprising turn. Mardiyanto, in an informal meeting with his critics under the shade of a magnificent banyan tree near the stupa, professed amazement at the vehemence of opposition to his proposal and offered to postpone it. In a drastic departure from standard procedure in this rigidly hierarchical nation, the governor invited the people of Borobudur to draw up their own plan. Immediately after General Mardiyanto called retreat, the opposition seemed giddy, almost stunned by its victory. But suspicion soon crept in that this might be a ruse. One young firebrand told me, "Now we are entering the world of games." In the past, Indonesian government officials have been shameless about making cheery promises to gloss over problems and quell criticism, only to break them when the opportunity to make money was ripe.
Yet Borobudur has powerful allies. In 1991, UNESCO listed the monument as a World Heritage site, in exchange for official undertakings to maintain international standards of conservation. A zoning plan was drawn up, but it has already been flouted: the site of a projected conference center is now a resort. Particularly obnoxious is an absurd choo-choo, drawn by a truck in steam-locomotive drag, which tootles around the stupa. One Java World opponent says when the "conductor" was asked what they did with the train when UNESCO people visited, he replied that they hid it.
There is always the possibility that the general's surrender to people power is sincere. But if not, UNESCO and other international do-gooders in the heritage field stand ready to voice their objections. Besides, Borobudur is different. It exerts a powerful influence all its own. The stupa is the closest thing this fractious archipelago nation has to a unifying emblem. I have yet to visit an island in Indonesia, from the Indian Ocean to the fringes of Oceania, that doesn't have a Borobudur Restaurant. If there is any symbol in this divided land that could bring people together, it is this ancient monument to cosmic harmony.
Yet even Borobudur may not be powerful enough to bring about a consensus that will satisfy the demands of capitalism and piety. Holy places attract big markets and arouse intense emotions. Jesus was so offended by the unseemly spectacle of commerce in the temple that he cast out the merchants and money changers, but today the piazza of St. Peter's in Rome teems with vendors selling plastic Pietàs. Paths are many; profit motive is one.