Borobudur (#49)

The single largest Buddhist structure on earth lies in the heart of the Kedu Valley in Central Java, Indonesia. Borobudur Temple. Built in the 8th and 9th centuries and set against the backdrop of active volcanoes, those who visit cannot fail to be in awe by Borobudur’s sheer size and the remarkable attention to detail that went into its construction. This temple used to be the spiritual centre of Buddhism in Java, before being lost to the world – hidden under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth for hundreds of years. It was only re-discovered in the early 19th century by the British governor, Thomas Stamford Raffles (the founder of Singapore) and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.

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The entire lava rock structure is in the form of a lotus, the sacred flower of Buddha. The different levels of the monument symbolises the different levels of wisdom we have to go through during life until attaining enlightenment, symbolised by the spectacular upper terraces.

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Each of the 72 openwork stupas in Borobodur Temple contains a statue of Buddha.

The base of the temple represents kamadhatu, the ‘realm of desire’ which is the state of mind lacking of morality. The middle level of five square terraces represents rupadhatu where man gets wiser and more virtuous, has some control over his negative impulses but is still chained to earthly and materialistic pursuits. The three circular platforms as well as the monumental stupa at the summit represent arupadhatu, therealm of formlessness’ where man understands that the visible world is just an illusion and the real meaning of life is found inside oneself.

The walls and balustrades are decorated with fine low reliefs

The temple gardens are green and spacious with the occasional elephant plying the well-kept grounds.

There are two other smaller temples that are located nearby to Borobudur, Mendut and Pawon temples.

Mendut Temple 

During Vesak Day, the auspicious day that marks the birth, Enlightenment and death of Buddha, Buddhist devotees make their first stop at Mendut temple to prepare themselves spiritually, before continuing on foot up the 3 kilometre ascend to Borobudur. There is a gigantic tree outside Mendut temple that you cannot fail to notice. It is actually two trees, one growing on the other and extending its roots downwards from the heights of the branches to reach the ground.

Pawon Temple 

On the way to Borobudur, there is the smallest of the three temples – Pawon temple. It boasts of beautiful architectures and exquisite sculpture around its walls.

It may be interesting to note that Mendut temple and Pawon temple were constructed before Borobudur. Both these temples lie on a straight line with Borobudur, suggesting a symbolic connection that got lost over time.

Ta Prohm – Beauty In Neglect (#46)

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While it may seem as if Ta Prohm has become a victim of unfettered nature, this appearance of neglect is, in fact, deliberately maintained. Can you imagine that during its heyday, the walls were elaborately decorated with precious stones, while music and dancing filled the halls?

This is one of my favourite photos of the Tree Temple. I guess it’s because of the lone figure quietly sweeping away. Her presence strikes a quiet balance of the opposites – young and old, past and present, decay and renewal, inevitability and continuation, life and death.

Ta Prohm – Whispers from Walls (#44)

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Fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over Ta Prohm, probing stone walls and terraces apart. Nevertheless, the haunted charm of this Jungle Temple never ceases to fascinate.

Angkor Thom (#43)

The last and most enduring city in Angkor, built in the 12th century. It is configured in a near-perfect square and protected by a 100-meter-wide moat which has since dried up. The moat is said to have contained crocodiles!

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Its easy to go round in circles and lose your sense of direction in Angkor Thom. I took this photo while while waiting for the other three to show up, thinking that this was our meeting point. After 20 minutes, we decided to walk along the perimeter of the huge complex to look for them. We found them waiting for us on another side of the complex! Luckily I was with the Tour Guide – which just goes to show that even tour guides lose their sense of direction sometimes!

Of Roots and Ruins – Ta Prohm

One of Angkor’s most popular temples must be Ta Prohm, sometimes called the Jungle Temple or Tree Temple. Its unique combination of stones and trees growing out of the ruins with roots coiling and blending into the walls of this Buddhist monastery has made it one of the most visited temples in Cambodia.

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Built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries (1186) by the King Jayavarman VII, Mother Nature shows that she is still all-powerful as Destroyer and Healer. Over hundreds of years, she has silently but surely strangled and split the carved stones apart, dressed their wounds with branches, leaves and mosses, and then bound them with her tendrils.

When Ta Prohm was discovered in the late 19th century, it was already extensively ruined. The giant trees had become so intertwined with the temple’s walls, that wood and stone had forged together. Restoration of the temple was not possible without destroying the trees that were enveloping the injured monument in their firm grip. So visitors to these unique temple ruins are actually seeing Ta Prohm in the same condition of neglect when it was first discovered, except for the wooden walkways, platforms and roped railings that have been put in place to protect the temple from further deterioration and damage due to the large tourist inflow.

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Despite its condition, you can still explore numerous towers, closed courtyards and tight corridors behind the encroaching foliage. Some of the corridors are impassable due to the jumbled piles of stone blocks that clog their interiors. Others are accessible only by narrow, dark passages. You can get lost inside the ruins so it’s best to have a local guide or keep to the directional signs.

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The scenes of Ta Prohm remained quite faithful to the temple’s mysterious appearance during the filming of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”. I was watching a re-run of this movie a few days ago and had a good time identifying and matching some familiar scenes from the film with the photographs I had!

Ta Prohm was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1992.


Pantheon: Timepiece of the Gods (#37)

The Roman Pantheon is a concrete marvel, a product of mathematical genius and very clever use of space. I was in awe of its thick walls, large marble columns and huge doors. In fact, everything about the Pantheon is huge; both inside and outside. It made me wonder how many slaves suffered and died in the construction of this magnificent structure. The Pantheon dates back to 125AD and until the 20th century, was the largest unreinforced concrete structure in the world, inducing even Michelangelo to study its dimensions before starting work on the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Its ecclesiastical interior design contrasts with the temple’s structural design, but the marble floor, designed in a series of geometric patterns, is still the ancient Roman original.

The still-original bronze doors leading into the building weigh 20 tons each, while the walls of the Pantheon are 7.5m (25 ft.) thick!

 

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Madonna and Child seen above the main altar which is directly opposite the entrance. Previously dated to the 13th century, it was only recently discovered that this icon actually dates all the way back to the 7th century!

But the most remarkable and spectacular part of the building is the dome. It was the largest dome in the world until 1436 when Brunelleschi’s Florence Cathedral was constructed.

At the top of the huge dome is a large opening, the oculus, which provides the only source of light for the entire building. An engineering marvel of the Roman world, no other oculus came close in terms of size! The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres (142 ft). This means that it is a perfect sphere resting in a cylinder. Light flows into the interior, illuminating different areas of the room at different times of the day, giving visitors a perspective of the magnificence of the universe. The oculus is never covered and any rain falling into the interior runs off the slightly convex floor and into discreet drainpipes built underneath.

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The oculus is the only source of natural light inside the Pantheon and opens up to the sky.

Nobody can really tell how and why the Pantheon was built. However, considering the dimensions and extraordinary size of its dome, the Pantheon might have been intended as a giant sundial. The emperor entering ‘with the sun’ would have symbolised ‘placing Rome among the Gods’, thereby reinforcing the relationship between religion and the emperor’s divine right to rule.

The famous artist, Raphael and of two Italian kings, Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I are buried inside the Pantheon.

It goes without question that the Pantheon is listed under UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.

Colosseum: Death Watch (#35)

 

The Colosseum

 

Millions of people visit the Colosseum every year to get a “feel” of what life was like during ancient Roman times. Those were violent, frightening and cruel days, and I certainly wouldn’t have liked to live in that era!  Built in 72 A.D, it was in the Colosseum that the Roman emperors staged fight-to-the-death games between man and beast.

The Colosseum was built for three reasons:-

i)    as a  gift  to the Roman citizens to increase the Roman Emperor’s popularity, 

ii)   to stage various forms of entertainment, and 

iii)  to showcase Roman engineering mastery to the world.

As a gift to the Roman citizens  to increase the Roman Emperor’s popularity

The Colosseum had over 80 entrances and could accommodate about 50,000 people. Spectators were given free entry and free food to entertain and distract them from the political problems facing Rome.

To stage various forms of entertainment

Besides the gladiatorial contests which became a big hit with the spectators, shows like wild animal hunts, mock naval wars, re-enactments of famous battles, executions and unique performances were staged. Roman audiences loved violent shows to the extent that the smell of blood and burnt flesh would fill the whole arena.

The very first games held in 80 A.D. by Emperor Titus lasted for a whopping 100 days, witnessing 3000 gladiator fights and the slaughter of 9,000 animals! The wild beasts came mainly from Africa and the Middle East. They included elephants, tigers, leopards, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, bears, giraffes, bisons, lions, panthers, ostriches and even crocodiles!

The Colosseum saw its last gladiatorial games in 435 A.D. Over the hundreds of years when these “live shows” took place, about 500,000 people and over a million wild animals were killed.

To showcase Roman engineering mastery to the world

IMG_6430cThe Colosseum is a product of advanced architecture and became a model for modern-day arenas and stadiums. It took 9 years to build using over 60,000 Jewish slaves. More than 100,000 cubic meters of marble were used for the outer wall of Colosseum, which was set without mortar and held together by 300 tons of iron clamps. Two hundred bullock carts were used to transport marble to the construction site.

Despite being used as a “quarry” for building other famous monuments at various points in history, the tiered seating, corridors and underground holding areas for gladiators and animals remained intact.

The Amphitheatre has been featured in numerous films like Bruce Lee’s and Chuck Norris’s Way of the Dragon (1972 film) and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000 film).

Today, the Colosseum is no longer able to accommodate large events because of its badly damaged interior. However, large concerts have been held outside with the Colosseum as a backdrop. Music performers who have played at the Colosseum include Ray Charles (May 2002), Paul McCartney (May 2003), and Elton John (September 2005).

In addition to its listing under UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, the Colosseum was declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.

Leaning Towards Pisa (#34)

Tower of Pisa

I really could not think of how to photograph the Tower of Pisa in a way that has not already been captured millions of times. Furthermore, the place was jammed-packed with tourists wanting to get a picture with the famous monument. Wherever I stood, someone was always in front of me, posing stiffly, doing handstands and other quirky gestures to remember their visit to Pisa.

Eventually, I gave up trying to get a decent photograph and just decided to walk around the buildings that make up the Square of Miracles. On the way out of the main entrance, I turned round to have one last look.. and lo!!…there was my opportunity! There were no people as the spot was considered too far away from the Leaning Tower. Unfortunately, there was no object nearby to draw attention to the Tower, except for a heavy iron chain along the grass verge.

I decided to photograph the Tower of Pisa as the background instead of main subject. I felt quite pleased with the result. The eye is still drawn to the Leaning Tower, even though it remains in the background.

The Leaning Tower is actually the free-standing Campanile (Bell Tower) of Pisa’s Cathedral. Its construction began in the 1173 and continued for about two hundred years. The bell tower is leaning as a result of a poorly laid foundation and loose substrate that caused one side to sink. A spiral staircase with 294 steps leads to the top of the tower, where one can get a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape.

The Tower of Pisa stands 56 m (184 ft) high with an estimated weight on 14,500 tonnes. With this weight, you can understand why it was not possible to strengthen the Tower’s foundations and shift it back to its perpendicular position!

Piazza del Duomo, comprising  the Cathedral, with its bronze doors and mosaics, the Baptistery, a round Romanesque building with an early Renaissance pulpit, the Campanile (the Leaning Tower), the walled cemetery Campo Santo with its frescoes, are listed under UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.

Pisa

St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice (#15)

St Mark's Basilica

 

Basilica San Marco on St Mark’s Square is the most famous and most recognizable of all the churches in Venice. Its spectacular and ornate design is a mixture of Byzantine, Western European, and Islamic architecture, all due to Venice’s seafaring history.

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The Duomo in Siena, Italy

The Duomo in Siena is a 13th century Gothic building. It is  filled with art treasures by great names such as such as Donatello, Michelangelo and Pisano.

Unfortunately, I did not go inside the cathedral due to the fact that you have to pay to get in.  Furthermore, the Tour Leader was becoming increasingly impatient and urging me to move on.

That being said, the exterior of the cathedral is more than enough to grab your attention. The walls and steps are made of white and black marble, arranged in alternate stripes.

The Duomo in Siena

Duomo In Siena

Duomo in Siena - Side View

Dome and Bell Tower
Dome and Bell Tower
A man and his best friend   taking in the atmosphere at The Duomo.
A man and his best friend taking in the atmosphere at The Duomo.

 

This Italian family was opposite the Duomo, watching the many visitors admiring the cathedral.
This family was quietly watching the many visitors to the cathedral.

 

Location: Siena, Tuscany Region, Italy

When: June 2014