Borobudur is a Buddhist stupa and temple complex in Central Java, Indonesia. dating from the 8th century, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is one of world’s truly great ancient monuments, the single largest Buddhist structure anywhere on earth, and few who visit fail to be taken by both the scale of place, and the remarkable attention to detail that went into the construction. Set as it is in the heart of the verdant Kedu Plain, the backdrop of mighty active volcanoes only enhances the sense of awe and drama.
Understand : History : There is no definite written record of who built Borobudur or why it was built. It was likely founded as a religious site in the 8th century at the peak of the Sailendra dynasty in central Java. The construction is thought to have taken a period of 75 years, and completed in about 825 AD. The details of Hinduism and Buddhism from this period in Java’s history can be baffling for visitors. Together with the records of many royal marriages between Hindu and Buddhist nobles, many Hindu and Buddhist monuments were constructed in the region at this time. Borobudur and the nearby Hindu Prambanan temple complex were more or less contemporaneous.
A common thread of stories suggest that Borobudur lay abandoned and hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and thick jungle growth. Popular theories are that the local population just became disinterested when there were mass conversions to Islam in the 15th century, or they were simply driven away by a large volcanic eruption. It was never forgotten entirely though, with local folklore ensuring that stories of the great monument lived on.
Rediscovery : Following the Anglo-Dutch Java War, Java was briefly under British administration from 1811 to 1816. The British governor was Thomas Stamford Raffles (the founder of Singapore), and he took a great practical and academic interest in the history of the mystical island of Java. On a tour to Semarang in 1814, he was informed about a huge ‘lost’ monument deep in the jungles near Yogyakarta, and he sent a Dutch engineer to investigate. It took two months to clear the jungle and partially reveal the amazing monument, but it was not until 1885 that the complex was unearthed in its magnificent entirety. Raffles also presided over the re-discovery of nearby Prambanan, and it is somewhat ironic that the very brief British rule of Java led to the uncovering of both these ancient monuments.
Appreciation and protection was surprisingly slow to develop, and Borobudur became the domain of unscrupulous souvenir hunters. Modern-day archaeologists speculate that this was due to the European obsession with Ancient Egypt at the time — Borobudur was just too remote and too far away to get the attention it undoubtedly deserved. There was even a Dutch proposal to dismantle the monument and scatter it piece-by-piece to museums around the world.
Thankfully, good sense prevailed and by the end of the 19th century the site was left largely intact and as importantly, extensively photographed, and a five year restoration programme was undertaken in 1907.
Modern day Borobudur : In 1956 UNESCO began an assessment process for the full scale restoration of the monument. Finally in 1968, a major plan to restore Borobudur was created, and this huge project involved a complete overhaul of the monument up until 1983. The unsteady foundations were stabilized, everything was meticulously cleaned and a major drainage system installed. After the works were finished, UNESCO formally listed Borobudur as a World Heritage Site in 1991. Since then, the profile of Borobudur has increased enormously, and it is now a major international tourist attraction. Its statues, reliefs and stupas have spawned millions of replicas which adorn properties worldwide.
This huge popularity has its downsides. Both deliberate vandalism and general wear and tear are of great concern for the future integrity of the monument. Pleas for visitors not to touch anything are made in the form of signs, by broadcast warnings, and by the presence of guards, but this does not stop the problem. Many have called for the monument to be closed to casual visitors, and for access to be only via timed guided tours. As well as being the single most popular tourist attraction in modern day Indonesia, Borobudur has resumed its role as an important place of worship and pilgrimage for Indonesian Buddhists. Visitors should be understanding and respectful of this, especially during major Buddhist holiday periods. The 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake which badly damaged nearby Prambanan, left Borobudur unscathed.
The 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi : Borobudur was heavily affected by the eruption of Mount Merapi in October and November 2010. Volcanic ash from Merapi fell on the temple complex, which is approximately 28 km (17.5 mi) west-southwest of the crater. During the strong eruption of 3–5 November for example, a layer of ash up to 2.5 cm (1 in) thick fell onto the temple. This also killed nearby vegetation. Experts feared that the acidic ash might severely damage the historic site. The temple complex was closed from 5–9 November 2010 to clean up that ash-fall, and the upper levels remained closed to the public until late September 2011. Upon reopening the upper levels, the Borobudur Conservation Agency announced that visitor numbers to those levels were restricted to under 82 people.
UNESCO donated US $3 million as a part of rehabilitation costs to rid the temple’s stones of volcanic sediment, then to plant trees to stabilise temperatures, and finally to support the living conditions of local residents. More than 55,000 stone blocks from the temple structure had to be dismantled to enable restoration of the drainage system, which had been clogged by slurry after rains. This restoration programme is predicted to be finished in November 2011. Orientation : Borobudur lies in the Kedu Plain – a very fertile volcanic plain between the twin volcanoes of Mount Sumbing and Mount Sundoro to the west, and Mount Merbabu and Mount Merapi to the east.
Visit time : Every year more than 3 million people visit Borobudur. Borobudur is not only a favorite of foreign tourists, but also domestic tourists, mainly students of all ages, usually in May and June. If you are planning a visit, try not to visit during school holiday season, it is worth investigating those dates. Another date in the Indonesian calendar to consider is that of Idul Fitri and up to a week after. Information office : PT Taman Wisata Candi Borobudur Prambanan Ratu Boko, Borobudur Temple Unit Office, Jl Badrawati, Borobudur, ? +62 293 788266, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 6AM-6PM daily. The official government park authority for Borobudu
Access : Coordinates: -7.608, 110.204 / By plane : The nearest larger airports are Yogyakarta’s Adisucipto International Airport (JOG IATA) and Solo’s Adisumarmo International Airport (SOC IATA). Both are well connected domestically, and also offer some international connections to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. AirAsia for example flies from Singapore to Yogyakarta daily.
It is possible, if one rushes oneself a bit, to visit Borobudur on a day trip from Bali or Jakarta. One can also fly direct to Semarang’s Achmad Yani International Airport (SRG IATA) with SilkAir from Singapore and with Air Asia from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and make your way to Borobudur from there (2–3 hours by road).
By bus : To get from or to the Hindu temples at Prambanan, take a Yogyakarta bus and get down at Jombor Terminal (90 min, Rp 15,000 for foreigners, Rp 7,000 for Indonesians). From Jombor take TransJogya route 2B to Prambanan (45-60 min, Rp 3,000). It will require 3 bus changes: 2B from Jombor to Terminal Condong, 3B from Terminal Condong to Maguwo (Jl. Solo) and 1A/B from Maguwo to Prambanan.
By minibus : Travel agents in Yogyakarta sell door-to-door minibus tour packages for around Rp 75,000. This is a good deal and a straightforward way to reach the monument, although some operators may stop off at batik and silver factories along the route.
By car : Borobudur is about 40 minutes north of Yogyakarta by car. Most of the route is on a well-maintained (for Indonesia) four-lane (in many places) highway, and there are frequent bus services (see above). A taxi from central Yogyakarta to Borobudur costs around Rp 200,000, and from Yogyakarta airport about Rp 225,000.
By train : The nearest stations are in Yogyakarta which is the major rail hub of Central Java. Connections are frequent from major cities in the west such as Jakarta and Bandung, and in the east such as Surabaya. From the main Tugu station it is easy to arrange taxi or bus transfers to Borobudur.
Fees and permits : Entry into Borobudur costs (Feb 2010): Rp 40,000 for adult non-Indonesians. Rp 20,000 for non-Indonesians aged 3-10 – Rp 20,000 for non-Indonesian registered students (letter of introduction from university or college is required) – Rp 20,000 for Indonesians – Combination tickets for Borobodur, and other local sites (Prambanan, Ramayana, Mendut, Ratu Boko, and Pawon) are available. The site is open to public entrance from 6AM-5PM.
Hiring a guide who can explain the reliefs in some detail costs Rp 75,000-100,000 per hour. Some guides may insist on a minimum time of two hours. You should ask for a guide in the evening before going to tour in the morning. It is also perfectly possible to roll up and find a guide available, it all depends on how busy the site is. Guides speaking European languages other than English may be available. To assist in the ongoing preservation of the temple, visitors are required to view the temple in groups of no more than 30 persons and must be accompanied by Taman Wisata Candi Borobudur (TWCB) staff members. Visitors are not required to wear a sarong whilst visiting the temple. The main site is approached through a large open and pleasant park inside the complex.
Attractions : The monument : Borobudur consists of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, and is decorated with no less than 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues of various types. The main dome, located at the centre of the top platform, is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues seated inside perforated stupas. The square base is 118 m (387 ft) long on each side, and the highest point 35 m (114 ft) above ground level. The whole monument is constructed from dark grey andesite stone, and so synonymous has this become with Borobudur and other temples on the Kedu Plain, that Indonesian for the material is simply batu candi (temple stone).
Climbing the structure takes a little bit of effort, and the dark stone absorbs the sun’s heat rapidly to make walking and climbing quite hot work by early afternoon. If you have but modest stamina or heat tolerance, you should start as early in the day as possible, and take plenty of water with you. Some free bottled water and coffee usually comes with the ticket for international visitors.
The single structure can be divided into layers as follows:
The platform or foot at the base of the structure, which was clearly post the original construction and hides some reliefs, is of uncertain provenance and function. The main theories are that the platform was added to censor reliefs depicting earthly desires or — rather more likely — to buttress the subsiding structure and prevent it from collapsing. A section of the platform has been excavated at the southeast corner, showcasing some of the hidden reliefs underneath.
The bulk of the structure consists of six square terraces connected by steep staircases. Each terrace has reliefs in two layers on both sides, recounting the story of the Buddha’s past lives and his enlightenment. The correct way to view the reliefs is to start from the east gate (the main entrance) and circulate clockwise.
Above the square terraces, the structure opens up to reveal the final three circular terraces. Comparatively plain and unadorned, there are no more reliefs here just seventy two lattice work stupas — domes housing half-hidden Buddha statues (many headless, some lost entirely). A bombing some years ago destroyed nine of them, but they have been well restored.
The peak of the structure is a central stupa. The two chambers inside the stupa are empty, and it is unclear whether they were empty from the beginning as a representation of nirvana, or whether they originally contained statues which were looted or lost. The site museum contains what might be a missing statue.
The monument’s three divisions (the square terraces and central stupa at the peak are regarded as one division) symbolise the three realms of Buddhist cosmology, namely Kamadhatu (the world of desires), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the formless world).
There are six different postures of Buddha’s statue from the bottom level to the top. These are contact with earth, giving and helping, meditation, fearlesness, teach and learn and turning the wheel of dharma.
The wall reliefs : You can think of Borobudur as a very large teaching graphic recounting the life story of the Buddha, his teachings and his progress towards Nirvana. If you want to truly understand the reliefs, it is best to employ a guide to explain the stories to you. In summary, the 2,760 reliefs tell four key sets of stories in the form of carved illustrations and Sanskrit inscriptions:
The law of karma or Karmavibhangga. These are mostly hidden by the post-original construction masking at the foot of the monument. The reliefs tell stories and give examples of the nature of karma with depictions of both praiseworthy (including co-operative working practices and planned parenthood) and blameworthy (including torture, rape and theft) activities. The masking was disassembled in 1890 before being painstakingly rebuilt, and photographs were taken of the reliefs at this time. These photographs are displayed in the Borobudur Museum.
The birth of Buddha or Lalitavistara. Before the story starts, there are 27 panels showing preparations for the final earthly incarnation. The story then begins with the descent of the Lord Buddha from heaven, and continues until his first earthly sermon as Prince Siddhartha.
The Jatakas and avadanas. Jatakas are stories about the Buddha before he was born as Prince Siddhartha. Avadanas are similar to jatakas, but the main figure is not Buddha himself. Both are depicted in the same series of reliefs.
The journeys of Sudhana searching for ultimate truth or Gandavyuha. This is the story told in the final chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra about Sudhana’s tireless wandering in search of the highest perfect wisdom.
Normally around 5h30, to best see sunrise you have to go to a little hill (see 1 map) near by Manohara Hotel, be aware of the people that will try to guide you there if you don’t know the way(if you agree, you can pay them max 10.000rp). The entrance to the viewpoint is 15,000rp for locals and 30,000 for foreigners. Normally by motorbike it takes 1h15m-1h30m from Yogyakarta.
However, the Manohara Hotel (see Sleep) runs a daily Borobudur Sunrise Tour for Rp 320,000 for foreigners (Rp 185,000 if you are a hotel guest) and Rp 220,000 for Indonesians, which gets you a flashlight and a lift up to the temple gate at 4:30AM. This is in time to see the sunrise, and to explore for an hour and a half before the hordes arrive. This is well worth the money. The sun rises in the same direction as the entrance you used to gain access to the temple. The top few levels offer a great view wherever you position yourself. If you’re so inclined, grab a private spot facing East and enjoy your own precious few minutes of reflection (or photography).
The Borobudur Museum : There are two museums located within Borobudur Archaeological Park, the Karmawibhanga Museum and the Samudraraksa Museum. These museums are housed inside the park just a few hundred metres to the north of the temple. These museum ticket are already included within the Borobudur entrance ticket, so visitor are free to enter the museum.
The Samudraraksa Museum displays the actual size replica of Borobudur Ship. It also displays the maritime technology and trade network of 8th century Asia and Africa, especially the maritime trade of Indian Ocean. In 1982 a British naval history scholar called Philip Beale was visiting Borobudur when he noticed 10 panels depicting ocean-going ships. He surmised that these ships may have been a part of a famous shipping route — the Cinnamon Route — that linked Indonesia to Africa many centuries earlier. This led Beale to build a model ship based on those depictions, and that is now housed in its own dedicated space within the museum.
The Karmawibhanga Museum displays archaeological findings around Borobudur, the restoration process, as well as the photographs of Karmawibhanga relief on the hidden foot of Borobudur. It does a sometimes haphazard job of presenting the restoration process. Perhaps the most interesting exhibitions about this are those of the law of karma reliefs, with explanatory comments, and the photo gallery of late 19th-century shots of the complex before it was restored.
Activities : If you are still at Borobudur in the late afternoon, return to the top level for sunset. It is often very quiet at this time, and the sunset behind the mountains to the west is scenic. Festivals : On Waisak, Buddha’s birthday (held on the night of the full moon in May), an elaborate and colourful multi-day Buddhist festival is held at Borobudur, culminating in a candle-lit procession from Candi Mendut to Borobudur. If you are lucky enough to be visiting at this time, the procession is magical event to witness. At other times, just walking the Waisak procession route from Borobudur to Candi Mendut (or vice versa) is an excellent experience.
Every June, the park authority arranges a performance of the Mahakarya Borobudur. This ballet uses traditional Javanese dance to tell the story of the conception and construction of the temple. The event takes place at the Aksobya open theatre against the backdrop of Borobudur, and is a lavish production. Tickets Rp 300,000-800,000. Respect : Be nice to the locals. Seriously. There is a lot written in travel guides about the pushy nature of the vendors at Borobudur. And they can be a little annoying it must be said. But a few friendly no’s and keeping on walking usually does the job.
Yogyakarta is a student town with many colleges and Universities, and you will often find many students at Borobudur who are keen to be friendly with you. Take this how it is meant; they are genuinely friendly, and rightly very proud of their heritage and keen to talk to you about it. To avoid the largest crowds, skip weekends when large numbers of domestic tourists visit, along with the occasional school trip of students, sent by their teachers to practice their English on overseas visitors. Alternatively, visit as early as you can in the morning.
If you look vaguely Western, you’ll be a bigger tourist attraction to school students than the monument itself. Expect to be filmed or audio recorded as students ask you all sorts of harmless questions – David Frost they are not – then ask for a photo with you. They are highly appreciative of your interaction with them. Connect : There is a public telephone office (Wartel) on Jl Pramudyawardani opposite the main market, and also a post office adjacent. The telephone area code for Borobudur is the same as Yogyakarta – 0274 / Ambulance: 118 / Police: 110.
Go next : The Hindu temples of Prambanan / The cultural splendour of Yogyakarta / he Dieng Plateau is a volcanic area in the highlands of Central Java / Mount Merapi is about a 2 hour drive to the east