It is interesting that though Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim state, there is full freedom of religion for other faiths including Hinduism. Indeed, in Bali, there is a planned effort to develop the Hindu cultural heritage. This includes the setting up of the Institute of Hindu Dharma with 1600 students divided into three faculties – Religion and Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Education. It offers a five-year programme from the undergraduate to the post-graduate level, and apart from Balinese, it teaches Bahasa Indonesia and Sanskrit. It is financed by fees and a government subsidy and offers an excellent avenue for developing cultural relations between India and Indonesia.

Bali has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and its architecture has also retained a rare integrity. Apart from one high-rise hotel, which the authorities now regret, the government ensures that all new buildings harmonise with traditional Balinese architecture. The new and most impressive cultural complex with an arts centre, a music school and a huge amphitheatre that can seat 5,000 people for the Ramayana festival is built in what may be called the Hindu style of architecture and would require a visit by some of our modern architects who look down on traditional motifs in India.

While Bali is fascinating, especially for visitors from India interested in our cultural heritage, the real glory of Hindu architecture lies in Java, the cultural heart of the great Indonesian archipelago.

It is here that the great Hindu empires rose and flourished in the 8th and 9th centuries, when the Emperors Sailendra and Sanjaya founded their great kingdoms, and where two of the world’s greatest monuments still stand – Borobodur and Prambaran, one, the greatest Buddhist monument in the world, and the other, the greatest Hindu temple in Southeast Asia after Angkor. Both of these were built within thirty years of each other, Borobodur in AD 824 and Prambaran in AD 856 and both lie close to the old capital of Yogjakarta, an hour’s flight from Bali.

The volcanic nature of the Indonesian archipelago is clearly revealed from the air, from which one can see dozens of volcanic mountains with their characteristic cone-shaped slopes topped by a crater. On landing at Yogjakarta, one sees three great volcanic peaks, each over 3000 metres high, which dominate central Java, the highest being known as the Mahameru, the sacred peak of the Hindus.

Borobodur (Bhadra Vihara), about an hour’s drive from the town, is a breathtaking monument. Conceived and built as a huge mandala, it contains no fewer than 368 statues of the Buddha, each enclosed in a bell-shaped stupa, which rises tier upon circular tier to a huge stupa in the centre of the monument. Climbing several flights of steep steps, one comes finally to the highest terrace which is fanned by a cool breeze and presents a lovely view of Mahameru. The sheer size and unique design of the monument, with scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana engraved on its sides, makes it of world importance. UNESCO has in fact made substantial grants to supplement the efforts of the Indonesian government for reconstruction and renovation of Borobodur, which has frequently been damaged by the recurrent earthquakes in the area.

The Prambaran (Param Brahman) temple complex is in some ways even more impressive. It is also built in the form of a yantra and consists of a great central temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, auxiliary temples to Vishnu and Brahma, five smaller temples and dozens of shrines all in one great courtyard.

The main temple is extremely impressive, and rivals the great Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjavur. The temple is used for religious worship once every nine years. Its main shrine opening to the east is dedicated to Shiva, while to the south is Agastya, to the west Ganesha, and to the north Durga. The temple was seriously damaged by an earthquake, but it is most gratifying to see that the Indonesian government has undertaken a massive reconstruction programme to rebuild the entire complex.

It is strange that this tremendous cultural efflorescence of Hinduism in Southeast Asia is barely known back in India. Who were the great kings, and priests and artisans who ventured forth thousands of miles from the mother country over fifteen centuries ago? How did they cross the stormy oceans, what sort of people did they find on these islands, how did they establish their great kingdoms, and build their fabulous temples? What unsung epics of valour and wisdom must there be for these exploits before which the much lionised voyage of Columbus to America pales? Is it not time at last that this aspect of Indian history should be rediscovered?

Meanwhile, the island of Bali lying like a lush jewel just off the mainland of Java, remains a living symbol of the unconquerable vitality of Hinduism.

Excerpted with permission from The Eternal Religion: Glimpses of Hinduism, Karan Singh, Speaking Tiger Books.