“Not many people come to Yogyakarta. Tourists usually go to Bali, Ubud, or Surabaya; in fact, very few know about Borobudur at all.” It is 3.30 am and we are driving on a dark narrow road towards the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Borobudur. It is impossible to see anything outside, but the heaviness in the air indicates thick vegetation and high humidity. The driver, a local Javanese, talks non-stop to about a dozen of his passengers, perhaps in an attempt to keep them awake. But then none of us have come so far to sleep.
The Buddhist temple of Borobudur lies 40 kilometres off the town of Yogyakarta. Nobody knows who built it or why; studies suggest that it was constructed sometime in the 9th Century, perhaps to establish the supremacy of the religion. The temple however was abandoned soon after and lay hidden under dense forests and volcanic ashes for centuries, until it was discovered by a British surveyor in 1814. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. But, as the driver said, it still remains relatively unknown.
It is still dark when we arrive at a resort close to the temple. A bright reception welcomes us and a lady promptly hands over torches to everyone — we are supposed to walk the rest of the distance. “This temple is built to represent multiple layers of Buddhist theory. From a bird’s eye view, the temple is in the shape of a Buddhist mandala: a square with four entry points and a circular centre point. The three zones of consciousness are represented in the circles and the central sphere represents unconsciousness or Nirvana,” the guide tells us, as we try to find our feet amidst darkness and moist earth. The walk is long, and there are nine levels to climb. Borobudur is not a single unit, but a wide complex built with black volcanic rocks. The top storey is embellished with more than 73 pagodas, each encasing an idol of Buddha; the walls around the other levels meanwhile are adorned with murals — some influenced by the Indian version of the Buddha’s story, some uniquely Indonesian — and more idols of the Buddha in various poses. The mural count around these levels stands at a massive 2,652 and the total number of Buddhas is 505. While the uniqueness of the temple lies in the pagodas and the richly carved walls, watching the sun rise from the summit remains the most famous activity here. At 4.30 am, people are already waiting on the summit armed with their cameras and tripods.
As the horizon begins to get brighter, faint silhouettes begin to appear. The Buddhas are massive and the bell-shaped pagodas are even bigger. Almost twice as high as an average human, the pagodas are rough to touch and are neither embellished, nor engraved. Some of these are broken, a few are defaced, but they look sturdy and handsome. It is impossible to believe that the pagodas — or the Buddhas — are over 1,200 years old.
“Isn’t it humbling to witness the enormity and intricacy of the temple? One can only imagine how hard this would have been to build at a time when there was no way to counter Nature. Wildlife, volcanoes, climate… everything was against them and yet they created such amazing things.” Paul, a co-traveller who has come all the way from Antwerp to witness the world’s largest Buddhist temple, wonders aloud even as we stand on the ground gaping at the monument in awe. The sun has risen behind us and the temple is gleaming in the golden light. Looking at the sprawling complex rising from the fluorescent earth like a large volcanic mountain, surrounded by mist and haze, I cannot but agree.
island of Java in Indonesia. From Yogyakarta, you can joina cycling group,
take the bus, or book a taxi. Regular tours run daily and can be booked online
or through your hotel/rental.
buy a Sunrise ticket and get in at 4:30 am to watch the sun rise from behind
Mt. Merapi, an active volcano. If you book a morning tour, your transport,
tickets, and a small snack will come with it.
temples from the same period; also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is
usually included in the tour.