Borobudur is an ancient Buddhist temple in Central Java, Indonesia that time almost forgot. “Discovered” in 1814 by H.C. Cornelius, a Dutch engineer subordinate of Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British Governor of Java. What he found in the depth of forest astonished everyone ever since.
Hidden by the forest vegetation, laid beneath volcanic ash hundred years old thick, he found a temple, built in 9th century under the patronage of King Samaratungga of Sailendra dynasty.
The temple, or candi in Bahasa, is the biggest Buddhist temple in the world. Five hundreds Buddha statues, arrayed on all the 9 levels of the temple that symbolize one’s journey to attain Nirvana. “Guarding” the central dome are 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa. No less than 2000 stone reliefs adorned its walls, telling the stories of Sakyamuni and various narrations from Buddhist scriptures.
The name Borobudur came from old Javanese language, a hybrid of Sanskrit with Javanese indigenous, which means now lost to us.
What we now inherit is “just” this massive “lego” of a temple. It was built entirely of stone blocks and slabs without mortar. Each block had been “manufactured” so that it precisely matched the one next to it and so on and so forth.
To put into perspective how amazing Borobudur is, let me try to explain the workflow:
First, after the tedious labor of mining and transporting the andesite stones, the masons had to cut the giant rock boulders into square shapes in various sizes (with what, I have no idea). The shape and the size had to be extremely precise for this to work. Furthermore, which block went to which part had to be exactly clear at this point also. No less than 55,000 cubic meter of stones needed to build the temple. Once they had finished cutting the stones, they transported them to the site to be assembled, layer by layer, into 123 meter x 123 meter, 42 meters high, giant mandala that is Candi Borobudur.
And that was 300 years prior to Angkor Wat or 400 years before the first European cathedral.
The court of Sailendra King and Queen
Once the haulers finished assembling each stone to its respectable place–based on the plan designed by a mysterious guy named Gunadharma–the artists and artisans took over. Level by level, balustrade by balustrade and wall by wall, they carved the stones and transformed them into both narrative and decorative reliefs. Their meticulous works’ spans 6000 meters in total. You’ve got to see for yourself to realize that each bas-relief is a masterpiece in its own right.
Given the scale and the scope, seventy years were needed to finish this mega project. That’s equal to three generations of workers. Candi Borobudur hinted Indian influence, but the material, the decorative patterns and the technique used were unmistakably Indonesian, said UNESCO which granted it the status of World’s Heritage since 1991.
It’s still unclear why this temple was abandoned and then forgotten. At the time of rediscovery, hundreds of years later, not even the nearby villagers knew what it had been. Catastrophic eruption from the mighty Mount Merapi and security threats from nearby kingdoms have been the safest bet. In either case, Borobudur had only a short 200 years tenure before being abandoned and then totally forgotten.
Another mystery is in regard of how it looked like in its heyday. It’s said that Borobudur was projected to be the replica of the abode of Maitreya Buddha: a piece of heaven at the middle of sacred lake. If this true, what a sight that would be. Although this hypothesis is subject to dispute, it’s really easy to imagine the possibility.
The last mystery is its encased base. Many has speculated as to why the reliefs on the base were hidden. Maybe it contains very graphic illustrations of the mundane world, or maybe the reason was more technical, namely to avoid the temple being sunk due to its weight. Nevertheless, even the encase was also meticulously designed and adorned.
What To Do in the Area
Borobudur at sunrise, seen from Punthuk Setumbu Hill, some 5 kilometers away
Visiting Borobudur is a must for every traveler visiting Indonesia. Here, you can trace the history of a nation back to its past pinnacle while basking in majestic aura that would fill yourself with admiration. While you circumambulate Borobudur, admiring the works of ancient artisans, its blatant otherworldly grandness will take your imagination to the time immemorial.
Borobudur isn’t the only interesting site in the area. Less than two hours from there, in the outskirt of Yogyakarta city, is its Hindu counterpart, the Prambanan temple. It’s equally majestic in every sense. (I’ll talk about Prambanan in my next post.)
Not far from Candi Borobudur, you can see two lesser-in-size candis, namely Pawon and Mendut. They’re built few minutes away, in one perfectly straight line with the grand temple. Because of that, many have assumed that in the past, the three of them belong to one continuous ritual and congregational function.
What about accommodation? You can spend the night at various hotels and inns in Borobudur area. The place is also less than 2 hours away from Yogyakarta city, a city rich with culture, art (classical and contemporary), as well as interesting places to visit. A more interesting choice would be to spend the night at Punthuk Setumbu Hill. There you can enjoy a world-class view of Borobudur, with the sunrise at the background, before visiting the temple.
Although Borobudur at Vesak Day is a joy to behold with the full moon shines above, it may be too crowded for you to fully enjoy the experience. So steer clear.
Share your experience of visiting Borobudur, or your desire to visit it, in the comment section below.