Jumina is about 90 years old, she thinks. When she was born, recording birth dates wasn’t necessary, so she usually just guesses. Before I met Jumina, her son Supoyo, a potter like her, told me that for 20 years she had made the same kind of earthenware pots every day. “She’s very good at it now,” Supoyo said.
Diminutive, and dressed in a traditional sarong, Jumina mutters in Javanese, smiling in acknowledgement as we approach the balcony of the family’s pottery store and home in Central Java’s Klipoh, a rural area surrounded by livestock, pots, fire (for setting the earthenware) and the ever-present view on the horizon of the ancient, holy Borobudur.
Her workspace is a shaded spot on the balcony of their home. Their store and display room, a converted living room at the front of the house, is open to the public.
I pick out an ashtray molded to represent the bell-shaped chedi atop Borobudur, the smallest item, and buy it for Rp 20,000 ($1.95) from Supoyo’s wife. (Some items for sale are gigantic – if you ever wanted an earthenware wayang puppet replica the size of a child, you might find it here.)
A look around at the items on sale shows there is room for improvement in the craftsmanship. Klipoh locals are the first to tell you this, and with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization support, they are now working to improve skill levels.
I was invited to Klipoh by Unesco, which as part of its international cultural heritage work is currently engaging with the community through a ceramics project funded by the Australian government’s AusAID and supported by the local government.
Working with highly skilled Balinese ceramics educators, people from Borobudur’s surrounding area undertook design and technique training in an open-air workshop.
A gallery and cafe is being built, a ceramic kiln being brought in, and workshops are being presented by ceramic workers and trainers from the Indonesian Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) and Jenggala, a Balinese pottery design firm.
In the 1970s, the art of pottery gained exposure in Borobudur through efforts by Unesco and the government, and people in the area put renewed energy into pottery work.
While Borobudur’s appeal as a tourist destination has increased (the temple now visited by
millions of people annually), the financial benefits of this tourism has not effectively flowed into the local community. Tourists rarely visit the villages surrounding Borobudur, missing the rich countryside nearby and instead undertaking day trips from Yogyakarta.
This tourism style has contributed to the surrounding communities remaining poorer than the national average, but the locals have started agitating for support to develop the tourism industry. Slowly, things are changing.
Supoyo, who has been a potter for 10 years, said his family business is sustained thanks to tourism, but the training initiative is helping both him and his community increase their production capacity, socioeconomic standing and skills level.
“Due to tourism the business situation is good, because we are located so close to Borobudur temple,” Supoyo said. “But for the standard of our work, we could still improve a lot. We are employing local work standards and we have not yet attained a high standard.”
Prior to starting in ceramics, Supoyo worked as a hawker around the temple, chasing after tourists and selling plastic souvenirs – something Unesco is striving to change.
Masanori Nagaoka, a Unesco program specialist, said hawking low-quality souvenirs outside the temple has been largely unsuccessful at garnering tourist interest.
“At the entrance of Borobudur, that’s the opportunity for locals to interact with tourists,” Masanori said. “You can see the low quality of the things they are selling, and the tourists don’t want to buy it.”
Masanori said the low quality of these products forced locals to chase after tourists in an effort to sell their wares.
“Once they produce quality products the strategy can change, the tourists can seek out the local products,” he said.
With rented bicycles or ancun (horse carts) readily available, it will be easier for tourists at Borobudur bus station to reach the markets around the temple. So the idea in Klipoh is to establish a sanctuary – a place tourists want to go to while visiting Borobudur. That sanctuary is currently being built.
On the horse cart route tourists will be able to enjoy a pristine view from the Klipoh gallery and cafe over rice paddies to the mountains on one side and Borobudur on the other.
Driving down the main street of this small town, the contrast between the choked streets of Jakarta and the clean mountain air is very apparent as you look at all the greenery. Being invited to stay the night, we were excited to experience Borobudur for longer than the day trip that is common for tourists.
After meeting some local people, we headed back to our accommodation at Rumah Boedi Borobudur, a serene boutique residence with private cottages surrounded by manicured jungle gardens, to rest for a sunrise tour to the temple.
The last time I visited Borobudur it was on the back of a friend’s motorcycle from Yogyakarta. We entered the ancient site at about 10 a.m. and headed straight back to town soon afterward. But the experience was unforgettable.
During that visit, an event attended by hundreds of people was taking place less than a kilometer from the temple and loud karaoke was underway as we approached the site.
By the time we were climbing the steep stairs of Borobudur, “The Final Countdown” by 1980s Swedish rock band Europe was blasting from a distance. At the top, hordes of school children stopped us for photographs. While leaving, I was pursued along the path by hawkers.
But on my recent visit, we set out from Rumah Boedi at 4:30 a.m. by motorcycle becak , the front seats only just wide enough for my travel companion and I.
We had to start walking when the motorcycle’s engine proved too weak to take us any higher, and we climbed in the dark to reach a secluded peak. While we drank coffee, dawn broke over the jungle-spattered mountainside, eventually revealing the spectacular sight of the temple.
After we descended the mountain once the sun was up, our becak driver chose a few prime spots for photographs of Borobudur through the rice paddies, and chatted to us as we drove along.
We arrived at the temple at around 6:30 a.m., eating a quick meal of tempeh at one of the warungs on the temp le grounds before starting our journey to the top.
Built in the late eighth century, Borobudur temple took an army of workers and 60,000 cubic meters of lava rock to construct. Despite its massive size and elaborate rows of Buddha statues, it was mysteriously abandoned during the 14th century and sat in the jungle, undiscovered until 1814.
Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, has since become the most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia.
From the 1970s, restoration has become a priority and Borobudur is now a protected Unesco site. Despite efforts to protect the temple, a few stupas were nearly destroyed during a terrorist attack in 1985.
This was followed by the eruption of Mount Merapi volcano in 2010, which covered the temple with 2.5 centimeters of volcanic ash, necessitating a program to clean the temple and repair badly damaged drainage systems.
Reliefs on the walls of Borobudur show ancient techniques of pottery making, depicting men carrying the clay, and women shaping and modeling the pottery. It also shows the process of firing the manufactured items.
To a large extent this process and labor distribution remains the same to this day, but it is now more equally shared between men and women.
“It was a calling for me, because making pottery has been a long-time tradition of Klipoh,” Supoyo says. “It was hard when I started out, because I saw women making pottery, but it motivated me to learn more and eventually, I also became a master.”
Supoyo is motivated to move beyond traditional pottery methods and looks forward to the future for profitability, sustainability and the development of the skills and livelihoods in his community.
“They already have culture, nature, human capacity and material. They are already creating pottery,” Unesco’s Masanori says.
“One of the issues is that people here don’t really believe in what they can achieve.
“When this is built, and the tourists start to come, the local people will see that their products are saleable to the tourists.”