As I stood atop this great structure, I was transported to an era in time when showcasing faith had a different connotation. The sun rose, from between the volcanic mountains that surround Kedu Valley in Central Java, illuminating the 72 stupas that make up this nine tiered roofless pyramid, called Borobudur.
Seeds of a faith and it’s germination- History of Great place (Boro) of Buddha (budur)
Borobudur in central Java, is the largest Mahayana Buddhist complex in Indonesia as well as in the world. A 9th century Syailendra dynasty architecture, this structure and the surrounding temples are a prime example of Indonesia’s art and architecture. The complex has been abandoned, taken over by the jungle, rediscovered by the Mataram Muslim dynasty, painstakingly put together by the Dutch and English and subsequently reinforced and restored by the Indonesian government and UNESCO.
Syailendra, a vassal of the Sriwijeya Kingdom of Sumatra in Indonesia had maintained trade and diplomatic relations with neighbouring kingdoms of Indonesia as well with India and China. The 1025 CE attack on the Sriwijeya Kingdom by the Indian King Rajendra Chola marked the decline of the Sriwijeyan/ Syailendra Dynasty. Many theories corroborate the establishment of the Bali Hindu kingdom by a section of the Syailendra Dynasty around the same time.
Built during the zenith of the Syailendra Dynasty, the Borobudur temple, covers over 2500 square metres in area and is Indonesia’s ode to Buddhism. Borobudur continued to be a centre for Buddhism, despite the fall of the Syailendra dynasty in the early 11 century. While central Java’s successive rulers welcomed Buddhist monks and devotees to the temple, Borobudur was no longer the icon of a successful Indonesian kingdom. According to our local guide Heru, it was the eruption of the Volcano Kelut in 1334 that drove the final nail in the coffin. Most of central Java was affected by the volcanic ash and lava. The capital of the kingdom was shifted and Borobudur was abandoned.
Centuries later, the Mataram Sultanate of the 17 century rediscovered this imposing structure in the Kedu Valley. Indonesia came under the rule of the Dutch East Indies (VOC- Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) and then the Dutch Crown and subsequently ceeded part control to the British for a short period of time. It was only in 1814 under the guidance of Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles of the British forces, did the actual clearing and restorations begin. The Dutch on regaining control took an interest in these old temples and started cataloguing and refurbishing them. Post independece the Indonesian government invited UNESCO to be a part of the restoration process, that has lasted the better part of two centuries.
The Temple of Borobudur- Architecture and significance
Candi (pronounced Chan-di) Borobudur is shaped like an open lotus and signifies the teaching of Buddha. It urges us to let our desires be and strive to attain Nirvana. Based on the Mandala architecture, the temple has a square base with entrances in all the four cardinal directions and a centre to signify Mahanirvana. Built on a naturally forming hillock using hard volcanic stones from surrounding areas, the Borobudur is built in the stupa style as a shrine to Buddha. It is however believed to have served more as a temple, a place of worship instead. Built by Gunadharma on the ancient principle of temple building Borobudur shares its measurement ratios with other temples of that era.
Built as the three stages towards moksha, Borobudur is divided in to three zones. The base as Kamadhatu signifying human desires that govern our actions, the square shaped Rupudhatu that showcases what can be achieved on giving up of desires and the last zone, the circular shaped Arupudhatu, the highest realm of attaining moksha.
Our informative guide Heru also mentioned that the location of the temple in the Kedu valley of Indonesia also means that with every monsoon the grounds flood and the temple sinks about 1 cm every five years. Though there is a conflicting theory regarding this phenomenon, it is for the archaeologists and historians to solve.
This brings me to the next mystery surrounding the temple. The square base Kamadhatu, talks about the law of Karma. It is believed that upon completion of the temple, the fact that the temple could sink owing to heavy rains, may have led to the subsequent addition of layers to the base of Borobudur, thus covering the base reliefs. This area of the Borobudur temple is called the hidden foot or Karmavibhanggana and was accidently discovered during restoration. Since then the hidden foot has been opened for visitor viewing. It is home to 160 relief panels that showcase human narratives.
The next zone is Rupudhatu, signifying the birth and life story of Prince Siddhartha and his transition to Gautama Buddha. Divided in to 10 series Rupudhatu is more of Boddhisatva and Jataka tales signifying the the previous life stories of Siddhartha (his soul) before he attained enlightenment as Gautama. They make one aware what knowledge and wisdom is needed to move towards salvation.
There are a total of 432 Buddha statues in square niches peppered all around this zone of the Borobudur temple. The upper 3 levels of the Rupudhatu zone known as Gandavyuha, describe the tireless journey of Sudhana in search of the perfect wisdom and ultimate truth and his final attainment of enlightenment.
The final zone is Arpudhathu. This zone comprising of 3 levels signifies the breaking away from the shackles of earthly desires and head towards the formless. From the detailed square carvings of Rupudhatu to the plane format of Arpudhatu shows the transition of a human mind on its journey towards nothingness. The tope three levels of the Borobudur temple has enclosed Buddha statues (stupa style) in the lotus position with different mudras. The enclosures also reiterate the theory of looking within oneself to attain the state of Nirvana. Totalling 72 stupas, the 3 circular levels showcase the Buddhist ideology and culminate in the Chatra (the final stupa) in the centre of the last level. The Chatra symbolizes the emptiness of the soul from any earthly connections or a state of Mahanirvana.
Throughout Borobudur from the base to the Chatra there are over 504 Buddhist statues and over 2500 square metre of reliefs. As we climb higher, the number of Buddha statues progressively decrease and are always divisible by the number 8. Starting with 160 on the base Kamadhatu, the next two levels have 104 each, reducing to 88, 72 and 64 in the levels of Rupudhatu. The final three levels of Arpudhatu have 32, 24 and 16 respectively.
As we climbed down doing the circumambulation or pradakshina of each level, reading the carved stories of a man and his quench for enlightenment, we could only marvel at the sheer amount of belief and faith that would have anchored the building of the Borobudur temple. It also spoke about the spread of a religion outside of its birth place in India. The Candi or Temple Borobudur still stands testimony to the kind of trade India had with its eastern neighbours and how art forms, cultural beliefs transcended beyond borders and amalgamated in a unique culture as they travelled from one destination to another.
Borobudur today is seen as a revival of Buddhism in Indonesia. An integral part of the Javanese culture Borobudur is not only the emblem of the Central Java province but also holds a place of pride in the hearts of Indonesians and is significant to the Indonesian tourism and economy.
Tips to enjoy your visit to Borobudur
Borobudur is connected via a number of transport options. Although a small place with most of it as part of the temple complex, this tiny town packs a punch when it comes to connectivity.
Ideally to soak in the atmosphere and explore the town at leisure it is advisible to spend a night at Borobudur. You could get here a day earlier and check out the smaller tenples of Pawon and Mendut. They are tiny in comparison to their majestic cousin, but important to the religious framework of a bygone era. Another way to explore is to get here in the morning, finish the Candi Borobudur and then the other two temples and relax in the evening by the numerous paddy or palm fields.
If its a longer break, you can make Borobudur your base and explore the surrounding region of Central Java. You can take a day tour to Mount Merapi, an active volcano with a hiking trail to its smoking summit & a surrounding National Park. Borobudur is surrounded by 6 volcanoes active and dormant both.
In either case it is advisible to do the Borobudur temple early in the morning prior to (9 am or late in the afternoon around 4 pm). The weather in Central Java is usually warm to hot mornings with maximum temperatures hitting 30 degrees celcius or above on most days. You wouldn’t enjoy exploring a stone complex in mid afternoon, unless it is an overcast day.
How to get here
Air: The Adisutjipto International Airport, Yogyakarta is the closest airport. Situated around 47 kilometres south east of the temple town, Yogyakarta is your best bet when it comes to air options. Yogyakarta or locally known as Jogjakarta or Jogja is well connected to all Indonesian islands and internationally via major hubs of South East Asia.
Road: There are a few options to get to Borobudur via road. You could take the public busses from Yogyakarta or take a conducted tour or hire a private car and driver.
Regular busses ply from the airport itself to Megalang province where Borobudur is located. Though primarily used by locals/ Indonesian tourists from other islands, the busses to Borobudur leave from the Jombor bus terminal and take about 2 hours plus to get you to the destination. Go for this option only if you want an adventure and are willing to talk sign language as knowing Indonesia Bahasa is a must. (Cost: Approximately IDR 20K approximately USD 1 / AUD 2)
Tour operators are a good choice if you want to meet others and enjoy exchanging notes. This also takes the uncertainty of planning and tickets out of the equation. Many operators offer combination tours to Borobudur and Prambanan (the Hindu complex near Yogyakarta. Know more about that on another blog). Tours generally start around USD 35/ AUD 45 and depend on the choice you make. Most tours start early and get you to the temple by 9 am. If you want to beat the heat and get here at 6am when the temple opens, check with the operator or better still hire a car.
Private car hire is the most flexible and a good choice especially if you are a small group of travellers. There is always a choice of just hiring the car and driver. This could cost from as low as USD 15/ AUD 25 or getting the operator to plan your Borobudur temple tour which of course would cost higher. Most operators are open to customizations and willing to incorporate your requirements. If you have a private driver the chances of local freebies along the way (an added destination, a local market, some interesting stories/ view points) are all possible.
Sunrise @ Borobudur
If you plan to do the Sunrise tour it is imperative that you spend the night before at Borobudur. Tickets to the sunrise tour are issued an evening in advance. You can get them from the Manohara resort within the temple complex and need to validate them on the morning of the tour. The tour begins at the Manohara resort at 4.30 in the morning and you are given a torch/flashlight to carry with you. This is a one-time entry ticket that lets you explore the temple complex after viewing the sunrise atop Borobudur temple. On your return after the tour you are served light refreshments at the resort.
The best time of the year to do this tour is in the low season ( Feb- April, October- Dec). Usually a tourist favourite during high season you might share the stage with hundreds of tourist vying for that perfect sunrise shot. When we visited in November there were hardly fifty of us atop that morning. Definite bonus!
Borobudur entrance fee:
- Regular tour (6 am onwards): IDR 365K approximately USD 25 or AUD 35
- Sunrise tour (4.30 am): IDR 400K approximately USD 28 or AUD 38
Many tour operators get a special rate and hence buying the ticket via a tour operator might work out a couple of bucks cheaper. Comes in handy when travelling with a family. The savings can buy you a lunch!
Guide fees: This can vary depending on how experienced the guide is. Starting from IDR 150K this can go up. (You can get an experienced, good English speaking guide for about USD 15/ AUD 25). If you really want to deep dive in to the history, significance, architecture and essence of Borobudur, read up on it else, hire a guide!