February 23, 2024

A quick guide to Borobudur

Although Indonesia is best known for the gorgeous island of Bali, the highlight of my trip to this country was the UNESCO site of Borobudur. It is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, in the world’s largest Muslim country. What more can I say?

The best time to see Borobudur was early in the morning, I had been told repeatedly. Just at sunrise, in fact. I gave it a pass though, not relishing the idea of trudging up tall and uneven stone steps at 3 am. But even later in the morning, when the sun was still mellow, the Borobudur temple was a stunner.

Decorated with over 500 Buddha sculptures and 2500 relief panels, and located on a flat hilltop overlooking the green forested hills of Java and the active volcano Gunung Merapi, Borobudur was unlike any Buddhist temple I had ever seen. It took me just over an hour from my hotel on the other side of town in Yogyakarta, driving through the city traffic and then the relatively quiet highway.

Believed to have been built around 800 AD, the Borobudur temple is in the shape of a stepped pyramid of five square bases, topped by three circular terraces. Each of these is encircled by 72 miniature stupas containing a statue of the Buddha. While some of them are barely visible through the lattice holes of the stupas still intact, many sit exposed, with the stupa peaks broken.

My arduous climb up to the top level became all worth it when I saw these stone Buddhas staring out on to the lush hills in the distance, as if contemplating the very future of humankind. I sat in the shade next to one of them, both to catch my breath and take in the soothing silence.

Like many great monuments, the Borobudur temple survived destruction after it was abandoned in the 14th century, by remaining buried beneath layers of volcanic ash and thick foliage for hundreds of years. Stamford Raffles, the British Governor of Java, is credited with its rediscovery in 1814, but it appeared in the popular tourist circuit only after extensive renovation work by UNESCO in the late 1900s.

From an aerial view, the temple resembles a lotus flower, held sacred in this faith. What was most interesting to me, from the stories narrated by my guide, is the fact that the entire monument is an ode to Buddha’s path to enlightenment. Every single carving at every level tells a story from Gautama’s life – often extrapolated as a teaching about the larger physical world.

I came away from Borobudur, in fact from the town of Yogyakarta, marvelling at the lessons in tolerance that this small, bustling town of Indonesia holds out for the entire world.

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