BOROBUDUR – From glory, to abandonment, to burial, to rediscovery and world-wide wonder

Borobudur is more than just the world’s biggest Buddhist temple – it also is a special, iconic place with a fascinating story and an aura to match. It’s easy to see why it attracts more visitors than any other place in Indonesia other than Bali.

Borobudur is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. After you have been there amd know its back-story you will understand why it has become such a popular attraction.

Some mind-stretching statistics

The temple is in the form of a stepped pyramid with nine stacked platforms (six square and three circular) rising from a square base with sides measuring 123m, the equivalent of more than two football fields.

It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa (dome shaped Buddhist shrine).

The total structure consists of more than 1.6 million blocks of the volcanic rock andesite – cut, placed and joined WITHOUT the use of mortar.

The temple’s three main levels each represent a stage on the way to the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment.

Symbolizing this spiritual journey, a pilgrim who begins at the eastern stairway and walks clockwise around each of the monument’s nine levels covers more than 5km (3 miles) before reaching the top.

Images of the Buddha carved in contemplation in and around the bell-shaped stupas create an aura of peace and tranquility

The Sailendra Dynasty built Borobudur from around 760 to 830 AD during its reign over the Mataram kingdom with construction estimated to have taken 75 years.

At its peak the Mataram kingdom of central Java included the Indonesian Srivijayan Empire and extended to present day southern Thailand, parts of the Philippines, North Malaysia and Cambodia.

Experts say the temple design employs Javanese Buddhist architecture blending Indonesian indigenous concepts of ancestor worship and the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana. The temple reflects strong Indian influence through the Gupta art of its extensive panels of sculpted reliefs.

The above videos are a good introduction to Borobudur. The evocative first video (5:16 mins) is by the talented Milosh Kitchovitch from the “AMAZING PLACES ON OUR PLANET” series. (see more at www.youtube.com/user/milosh9k/). The second video clip (59 secs) is from Channel News Asia and gives a quick and slightly dizzying bird’s eye view of this marvellous monument.

A population under threat fleeing volcanic eruptions and conflict

Borobudur sits in the shadows of Mt Merapi, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and is near three other volcanoes. Eruptions in the area, together with conflicts, saw a mass movement of population from the region to East Java around the 11th century.

The subsequent widespread conversion of Javanese to Islam and the decline of Hindu kingdoms in Java in the 14th-century brought the complete abandonment of Borobudur.

It’s hard to imagine when you look at the mass and scale of the huge and magnificent temple today, but with the abandonment, neglect and more volcanic eruptions Borobudur was to lay hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth.

Java came under British administration from 1811 to 1816 and the appointed governor-general, Thomas Stamford Raffles, took great interest in the history of Java.

He learned of a “big monument” deep in a jungle near the village of Bumisegoro and sent Hermann Cornelius, a Dutch engineer, to investigate.

Over two months, Cornelius and his 200 men cut down trees, burned vegetation and dug away earth to begin to reveal the temple.

A true devotee of ancient art and legends could spend days, weeks, months and years studying a treasure trove of intricate carved bas reliefs telling stories of the Buddha and ancient mythology at Borobudur.

See more wonderful pictures at – http://www.thenotsoinnocentsabroad.com/blog/the-buddhist-bas-reliefs-of-borobudur

A century of looting and vandalism of Borobudur on a grand scale

The re-discovery of Borobudur sparked world-wide interest but the unprotected temple endured looting and vandalism during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

On a visit to Java in 1896 the then King of Siam (Thailand) was permitted to take home eight cartloads of Borobudur sculptures, some of which are now museum exhibits in Bangkok. 

Borobudur has since been protected and preserved. The largest restoration project was undertaken between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and UNESCO.

Australia joined other countries to contribute funds towards the restoration program.

In 1991 UNESCO listed the monument as a World Heritage Site.

Borobudur ranks with Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia as one of the great archeological sites of Southeast Asia and attracts pilgrimages by Indonesian and international Buddhists along with its thousands of tourists.

Buddhists and visitors from all over for Borobudur's special day in May

Crowds await nightfall for the Waisak Day ceremony at Borobudur – pic www.vitakka.blogg.se
Sky lanterns soar into the night sky for Waisak Day - pic www.everydaypeople.sg

Borobadur is one of three ancient temples in the immediate area. The smaller Pawon and Mendut temples are about a kilometre and three kilometres to the east, accurately positioned in a perfect straight line.

On the full moon in April or May Indonesian and international Buddhist pilgrims gather at Mendut for meditation and prayers marking the annual Waisak Day Festival.

The Monks in saffron robes then lead a procession of thousands to Pawon and on to Borobudur, guided by nothing but the light from the candles in their hands and the moon above.

The Buddhist pilgrims are joined by local and international visitors for the event which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha.

At Borobudur temple prayers and offerings are made to the Buddha, seated serenely in the stupa at the peak of the temple.

The event concludes with Pradaksina when the Monks ask for charity to the Indonesian people. This triggers the simultaneous release of thousands of sky lanterns to soar into the darkness, symbolizing enlightenment for the entire universe.

For Indonesians Borobudur is a powerful symbol and a monument to past greatness

Indonesians are righty proud of the aesthetic and technical mastery in the creation of Borobudur and view it as a powerful symbol of past greatness. Under its cultural criteria, UNESCO listed the temple as representing “a masterpiece of human creative genius”.

Restoration and maintenance work is on-going and you may see artisans restoring stonework and reliefs.

The entrance fee for foreign visitors (that’s us) is about AUD$28 per person which goes towards restoration and maintenance (don’t worry if you are on a Better Tours package – it’s included in your tour price).

Guides will tell you more stories of Borodudur and explain the significance of some of the reliefs and the legends behind them as we ascend the monument.  At the top we will see the site’s large and famous bell-like stupas and take in the magnificent views.

Some of the short staircases are a little steep and the treads narrow, but if taken steadily the climb it is not arduous – we will not be not be in a hurry and will be pausing at various levels as we go.

However, you should wear appropriate shoes. It also can be hot, so we also recommend wearing a hat and carrying a bottle of water.

Like all holy places in Indonesia, visitors to Borobudur are expected to dress modestly. Shorts and mini-skirts are not acceptable and attendants may politely offer a sarong to visitors dressed inappropriately (or perhaps you can bring your own). Shoulders also should be covered.

You will run the usual gamut of  hawkers offering souvenirs around the gateway on departing  – There is also a gift store.

If we get lucky, we might just see a Borobudur sunset as spectacular as this – Photo by Jason Denning Photography, Singapore

Viewing the sunset from the shadows of Borobudur's famous stupas

The gates close and the crowds leave Borobudur at 5pm – but our Better Tours group will be staying a little longer.

We pay a surcharge so that we may linger on the top of the temple in the shadows of the stupas for an extra hour or so to watch the sunset. Weather permitting, it is stunning.

We go to Borobudur on a Sunday afternoon before our departure from Yogyakarta the following day for Mt Bromo.

A Borobudur sunset has to be the perfect finale to the formal part of our visit to this fascinating and this wonderfully historic and cultural city.

IN SUMMARY ...

If you have found the photographs and videos of Borabudur on this page impressive then you will gaze in awe when you see the real thing.

It’s not just the scale of this magnificent monument or the intricacies and volume of the stunning reliefs, carvings and statues. Rather it’s the story of this remarkable place. – its origins, the years hidden, and the ultimate re-emergence from under the jungle growth.

Ponder for a moment – who were these people who conceived and built this tribute to their religion and philosophy of life so long ago?  

Why did they make such a commitment of time, energy and resources? How did they create such a massive edifice stone block by stone block without mortar and without the tools and machinery we take for granted some 1,300 years on?

And how about the extraordinary carvings and reliefs – who were the artist-craftsmen who devoted decades to  creating this beauty. And who conceived such an ambitious master plan?

And what does it say about the society that lived in this small and far-away tropical island when we remind ourselves that this sophisticated venture was happening before Europe began its emergence from the ‘Dark Ages’ and more than 500 years before Columbus made his fateful voyage to the Americas?

And what does it say about us that so many know so little about Javanese and Indonesian culture and history? Our paradigm is too often limited to spices, volanos and tsunamis – and more recently the arrival of Islam.

Buddhist Borobudur is a giant marker to remind us that there is so much more to knowing and understanding this fascinating nation – of both the distant past and of today.

Borobudur is one of many wonderful attractions we will see at Jogjakarta. Click on these headings to learn about some more – 

(Add links to updates rte Prambanan, Yogya highlights, Yogya solo exploring)

NOTE: Some content in the above article was published previously in our sister site travellingindonesia.net where you can learn more about Borobudur, especially its restoration.