Nestled in the outskirts of the ancient city, Yogyakarta, Indonesia is an intricately designed Buddhist temple. Borobudur, meaning “Buddhist Monastery on a Hill”, is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. Spreading 118 by 118 meters wide and standing 35 meters tall, Borobudur encapsulates thousands of Buddhist lessons carved into panels.
The outstanding stone temple is a must-see in Indonesia; a visitor can get lost for hours in the bewildering detail and overall serene atmosphere. On a clear day, a view of the active volcano, Merapi, can be enjoyed in the backdrop. Every year, about 2.5 million domestic and international tourists flock to central Java to marvel at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Borobudur was built between 750 and 842 AD, making its construction 300 years before Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Little is known about how people built such a massive and detailed temple before many engineering technologies. The entire temple is built on a hill, so there is nothing but ground underneath the thousands of carefully placed stones. Remarkably, it is estimated that it only took 50 years to build.
Soon after completion, however, Buddhism was on a decline in Java and Borobudur was left abandoned. Over hundreds of years, the massive temple was buried under volcanic ash in the jungles, leaving it hidden until it was rediscovered in 1814. Several restoration projects took place with the largest renovations occurring from 1975 to 1983.
Learning a little bit about the structure aids in understanding the significance. The temple is designed in the shape of a mandala, a central theme to Buddhist and Hindu structural art. A mandala is designed in the shape of a square with four entry points representing consciousness. The zones lead up to the central point symbolizing nirvana.
Visitors must enter the first platform at the east gate and walk around west, working their way up deep staircases to the main stupa, a mound-like structure with a Buddha inside. The graduation is a metaphor for introspection and understanding as one progresses through the stages to truth through Buddhist teachings.
The lower base is called Kamadhatu, signifying the world of desires. Kamadhatu can be observed in a relief picturing people engaging in bad manners (e.g., gossiping) or good manners (e.g., making offerings). Rupadhatu, or world of forms, is next, consisting of five square platforms, creating the body of the temple. These platforms are ornamented with 2,670 narrative and decorative reliefs intricately carved into stone. Our guide explained a handful of them such as Buddha’s life or teachings to respect all forms of life. It could easily take years to analyze each panel.
Climbing higher are three circular layers and a large middle stupa known as Arupadhatu, or the formless world. Once people can surpass their desires and can live a life and beyond without forms and materials, it is possible to reach the highest enlightenment, nirvana.
A total of 504 Buddhas, some with missing heads due to vandalism, are scattered throughout the monument. They sit in meditative poses and exhibiting six different hand gestures, representing themes such as wisdom and protection.
Tourists can easily book a tour including personal transportation and a meal. This is the most convenient option, especially if you want to view the majestic sunrise while beating afternoon crowds. For the independent route, you can to take the local buses for 20,000 rupiah ($2 USD). From Yogyakarta, the journey takes one hour. The temple is within walking distance to the bus terminal.
Make sure to dress modestly. Knees should be covered, but sarongs are also provided to cover up. Additionally, the Indonesian sun rays are strong, so don’t leave sunblock and a hat behind.
At the foreigner ticket booth (220,000 IDR ($20 USD) for adults, half price for students), dozens of guides compete with each other to offer their services to tourists. We initially dodged their bothersome attempts, but later found ourselves lost at the significance of the temple. We opted to hire a guide who turned out to be full of wisdom, knowledge and smiles. The $10 USD to help a local out was well worth it. I highly recommend a guide to explain the significance of the temple and answer any questions you have about Indonesia in general.
After departing the peaceful temple, many vendors attempt to sell souvenirs. If you are not interested, kindly decline and keep walking, but you may be followed for a few minutes until they give up. Also at the temple complex are decent museums, gardens showcasing the “unfinished Buddha” and fallen temple stones as a result of a damaging earthquake.
It is easy to go to the temple, snap a few photos, and call it a day, but I recommend to take your time strolling through the levels and marveling the mysteriousness of it all.