Visiting an icon of SE Asia – Borobudur Temple

Borobudur temple is the largest Buddhist temple in the world.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is one of the one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world and one of the finest temples in South East Asia.

Together with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar/Burma Lonely Planet considers it one of the great cultural icons of South East Asia. Borobudur is different from Angkor Wat and Bagan by being a single (huge) temple, whereas they are both temple complexes. Having now experienced all 3 we can say that they are each very different.

Not much is known about Borobudur temple’s origins, as there are no records of its construction. But it is widely considered to have been built in the 8th or 9th centuries. Buddhism was growing in Java at this time (India’s influence being the driving force).

It has also been discovered that that three Buddhist temples in the region, Borobudur, Pawon and Mendut, are positioned along a straight line. This suggests a ritual relationship between the three temples must have existed.

For reasons unknown Borobudur temple was abandoned. No one knows when. Some speculate it was not long after it was finished. After the Buddhist heyday in Java in the 9th century Buddhism went into decline and religion in the area was in flux. At the same time the power base was also shifting away from Central Java to West Java. Others think it was when Indonesia’s capital was moved in the 11th Century, or closer to the 15th Century when Islam became the dominant religion in Indonesia.

What is certain is that it was lost to jungle and volcanic ash for over 500 years, and not rediscovered until 1814 when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles’ (then the British ruler of Java) interest in the history of the island led to him hearing rumors about a big temple in the jungle. He sent Cornelius, a Dutch engineer, to explore the area. It took a team of 200 men 2 months intensive work to clear vegetation and dig away the ash/earth to finally uncover the temple.

After being exposed to the elements a complete restoration of the temple didn’t commence until 1975. In 1991 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Today it is the single most visited site in Indonesia, although the majority of visitors are Indonesians).

Built from 2 million blocks of stone it consists of 6 large square terraces topped by 3 circular ones, and crowned by a large central stupa at the very top. On the lower levels 2,672 relief panels depict Buddhist doctrine and early Javanese culture, and on the upper 3 are seated 432 Buddha statues. The iconic imagery of Borobudur however is the 72 bell shaped perforated stone stupas at the top, which wrap around the central stupa. Each houses a buddha statue inside.

The design is symmetrical and viewed from above it is said to resemble a 3-dimensional mandala. At almost 30 metres high and 125 meters square from a distance it is impressive but it is up close when you see the of its relief carvings that it is really impressive.

The 5km Buddhist pilgrimage route starts at the base and winds up the levels one by one, symbolising the path from the world of desire, to the world of forms to the world of formlessness.

Being built of a small rise in the middle of a valley the temple has panoramic views, and it’s probably for this reason that watching the sun rise from the top of the temple is said to be an unforgettable magical experience. It was this that saw us getting out of bed at 3:55am when we’d only got to bed at after 11pm and the long journey to get there. Our accommodation drove us and 2 other guests at the entrance to the outfit that has the monopoly over the sun rise entry. We were given a torch and after going through a couple of security checks and climbed the 118 stairs to the top.

It was clear when we got there we were in for quite a wait before the sun rose. However as we stood there in the pitch black at the top of one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world, coming out of the darkness all sides were a multitude of Muslim calls to prayer. It was quite surreal.

As the light started to change, the silhouettes of the stupas started to become visible. Beyond the temple low mist hung on the valley floor which added to the atmosphere. It felt like it took a long time for the first rays of sun break through, but when it did it was spectacular. The sun literally rose in the saddle between two volcanoes.

When it had finally risen we set about exploring and photographing the temple properly. There were far less people than we’d expected.

The regular gates open at 6am and we’d understood that the sunrise ticket was only valid until that time. We’d expected the security guards to clear everyone out at the change over. We’d explored the top 3 levels by 6am and decided to continue exploring the lower levels until such a time as we were kicked out, but as a hoard of new people started to make their way up the temple steps we figured that wasn’t going to happen. The entry tickets are expensive so this pleased us, and also saved us some time.

The reliefs really are impressive, we could see why they are considered to be some of the most elegant and graceful in the ancient Buddhist world. On the lowest levels the walls 4m towered above us and we really felt its scale.

By 9am we’d explored every inch and were more than ready for a sit down and something to eat. Helpfully a buffet breakfast is included in the ticket and we got to enjoy it on the verandah of the park restaurant.

When we were ready we asked the staff to call our accommodation as they said they’d collect us. Two women on scooters turned up a short while later, we were super stoked to get our first Indonesian scooter ride so quickly!

Click on any image to enlarge and scroll through

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