Borobudur Buddhist Temple: spectacular & outstanding!

We visited Borobudur temple in the third leg of our Indonesia trip, when we were stationed at Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta is the biggest city close to this UNESCO world heritage site. Borobudur at Magelang in Central Java province of Indonesia is a Mahayana Buddhist Temple built in 8th and 9th centuries. It has been recorded as the largest Buddhist Temple in the world. But not just that… it is not just because of its size. It is considered to be one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world and for that matter, among the greatest monuments in the world.

Complex is huge and very artistically and geometrically built. It wasn’t possible for us to see it from the top, but this aerial image (below) taken from internet gives an idea of what this structure is like. In the image below you can see a volcano in the background. This complex is surrounded by two twin volcanoes. Surrounding area is highly fertile and lush green. The temple itself is said to be made of volcanic rocks, found in the are in abundance. Ironically the temple itself lay hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth and that kept it away from the human eyes, until it was rediscovered first under Britishers and then under Dutch between 1814-1835. Restoration of the temple although started in early last century but major restoration work was undertaken only by the Islamic Indonesian government in seventies. That finally led to its nomination as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1991 “to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius.”

Borobudur-Aerial
Photos Source : Lonely Planet

The history of the region during the time of its original construction has been very confusing. The Buddhist and the Hindu kingdoms have been constantly fighting for the supremacy of the region. The Hindu Prambanan temple, not too far away from Borobudur were also constructed almost during the same time period. Well, a lot is there about it on the internet. No point in recollecting that all.

The whole temple structure was built in nine stacked platforms in three tiers. It has a pyramidal base with five concentric square terraces, then there is a trunk of a cone with three circular platforms and on the top is a monumental stupa. Practically people go upto eighth level. Ninth one is the position when one attains the nirvana. The whole structure is based on Buddhist philosophy. Among the three tiers are- Kamadhatu, Rupadhatu and Arupadhatu. It is said that the base is the Kamadhatu, while five platforms above it are Rupadhatu and the three circular platforms are Arupadhatu. Finally is the nirvana. Borobudur is still used for pilgrimage. Every year Buddhists celebrate Vesak here.

The temple is decorated with 2672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. Borobudur is said to have the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world. The five square platforms (Rupadhatu) have corridors with reliefs on both the sides. These relief panels describe life of Buddha and various incidents related to his life, previous life, his enlightenment and his teachings and Jataka tales. Religious people will go left and make a round of that platform to make a ‘parikrama’ and then they will repeat it at every level. The Buddha statues in niches these five square platforms are facing in four directions- North, South, East and West. And mudras (posture) of these statues are different in all four directions. For a keen traveller, interested in history, religious history and architecture, it will take a huge time to visit the complex and understand all these reliefs panels, even a day would be not enough. Interestingly, reliefs panels at the base of the temple have all been covered (and many removed). Only one relief panel at the base is open for the public to see. Rest all are covered by foot encasement from public eyes, presumably to protect the base. The 160 hidden panels of the base depicted scenes from the daily life, a full panorama of samsara. This was the base that is termed as Kamavibhangga (Kamadhatu)!

The top dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues on three circular levels (Arupadhatu). Each statue is seated inside a perforated stupa- 32 on first, then 24 and finally 16. Hence it is not possible to see these statues inside. But to make it possible for visitors to have a look at the statue, one of the stupa has been left uncovered. The mudra of Buddha statue on this level is different from what is at Rupadhatu level.

The monument guides pilgrims through extensive system of stairways and corridors. There is a stairway on the centre of the each side to take visitors till the top. There are arched gates at every level. Stairs are bit narrow and steep. Not so easy for those who get tired easily. But then there are railings to help those in need of support. Climbing up the stairs, going around the corridors at the every level, needs a lot of time and energy. But it is worth every step.

For its historical, religious, heritage and architectural value, this place gets a healthy number of tourists all the year round. It is said that Borobudur is Indonesia’s single most visited tourist attraction. As a tourist destination of high heritage value Borobudur ranks itself in line of Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Even locals visit this place in large numbers. We found many young Indonesian muslim girls enjoying the complex, completing their architectural projects, interviewing tourists or simply excitingly getting themselves photographed with tourists. It was a very pleasant sight indeed.

Yogyakarta is the nearest city to touch base for Borobudur. Yogyakarta is well connected by road, train and air network. There is only one hotel close to temple- very beautiful Manohara centre of Borobudur Study. There are also many options of homestay in surrounding villages. People will often like to stay close to the temple during the time of sunrise and sunset. This area is also promoted for village tourism.

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