Visit to Borobudur: The greatest place you never heard of
My first encounter with Borobudur was a photograph on Flickr, seen by accident a few years ago while I was browsing. I thought: Where is this place?
Borobudur is in Indonesia, and now I have seen it for myself. It is in the geographical center of the island of Java, about 90 minutes by car from Jogjakarta (Yogyakarta), which I also visited. That will be in a later blog post.
I am not a person who likes to get up before sunrise and walk in the dark to climb things, like mountains. Here I made an exception, and what a good decision that was! There were about 12 people who each paid the extra fee to enter the monument at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, and we had the whole place to ourselves for an hour.
As you can see, the views from the top of Borobudur are spectacular. You see four mountains (actually volcanoes) and acres and acres of lush green land covered with coconut palms and flowering shrubbery. To the northeast: Merapi (2,930 m. / 9,613 ft.) and Merbabu (3,145 m. / 10,318 ft.). To the northwest: Sumbing (3,371 m. / 11,060 ft.) and Sindoro (3,136 m. / 10,289 ft.). Elevations from Wikipedia.
The next three pictures will give you some idea of the scale.
The monument was built around 750 C.E. by the Sailendra, the Mahayana Buddhist rulers of Central Java at that time. They chose an auspicious location, and then they reshaped the existing hill to serve as the base of a vast Buddhist monument made entirely of stone. There is no interior. Borobudur is neither a tomb nor a temple.
The monument consists of several stepped tiers (see a big version of the photo above). Wide stone stairways go to the top on each of the four sides. The closer you are, the flatter it looks. The highest tier is a massive stupa shape (very common in Buddhist architecture), but when you’re close to the base, you can barely see the stupa on top.
The top tiers open up to the surrounding beauty of the monument’s location. The three terraces just below the stupa constitute a fascinating design that’s unique in all the world. Each of the bell-shaped structures contains a life-size Buddha statue. Each one was carved from a single block of stone, and each one (according to some books I consulted) has its own personality. That is, they were not merely mass produced from a template. Instead, each statue is a work of art.
Many of the sculptures have had their heads and/or hands stolen, unfortunately, but you can find some that are relatively intact. It’s rather difficult to get a good look inside — which raises one of the mysteries of Borobudur: What was the purpose of causing such beautiful statues to be carved, only to hide them from view inside thick cages of stone?
The three tiers below the big stupa contain 72 of these enclosures: 32, 24 and 16 at the top (multiples of 8, which seems a little odd, because Buddhist sets usually come in multiples of 9; but 72 is a multiple of 9, so …). I found it rather wonderful to walk around and around on these uppermost levels, looking out to the stunning scenery and in to the enclosed Buddhas, all in perfect postures of meditation.
Two of the enclosures had their tops left off in the extensive restoration of the monument (the small museum at Borobudur has amazing photos of that process; basically the entire monument was taken apart and rebuilt so that a modern drainage system could be created to prevent it from sinking).
One of these Buddhas (shown above) faces west. The other, facing east, has had its nose broken off, like the Sphinx.
You might think 72 Buddhas would be enough, but no. There are 432 other Buddhas — also life-size, also each carved from a single block of stone — sitting in niches all around the lower tiers of the monument. (Note that 432 = 9 x 48, and 432 + 72 = 504, also a multiple of 9.)
The niche Buddhas are smiling down at you benevolently as you walk through the corridors that go all the way around the outside of the lower tiers. In contrast to the wide-open upper tiers, the lower ones close you in, with walls on both sides.
The walls of the corridors are covered with carved story panels. Some of these reliefs concern the birth of the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni) and his early life. Many more panels concern the story of Sudhana, a young man who went on a journey and met several Bodhisattvas.
I didn’t make an effort to follow the full stories told in the reliefs. I both admired the beautiful workmanship and also felt a little sad that the years of exposure to weather have worn away the finer details.
The figures in these carvings reminded me very much of the reliefs at the Bayon in Angkor. Many of the plump, smiling people on the walls of Borobudur look (to me, anyway) just like the people on the walls in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Some of the Buddha images look distinctly Khmer.
See more photos in my Borobudur album on Flickr.
Now for a little advice — if anyone reading this is planning a visit to Borobudur.
Tips for a Borobudur visit
I was really, really interested in seeing this site, so I booked three nights at the Manohara Hotel inside the Borobudur park (which is quite beautiful) — Lonely Planet advises that guests at that hotel can enter the monument without paying an additional fee. That is true. So in addition to being quite near to the monument, you can go in as many times as you like. I went to the top of the monument four times in three days, plus walked all around the base, explored the corridors on the lower levels, etc. Also, you don’t have to drag much stuff along if you’re staying right there. I carried only a camera, a hat and a bottle of water.
Weekdays have got to be the best days — I arrived on Tuesday and left Friday morning. A couple who I met in Jogjakarta visited Borobudur on the Saturday before I went there, and they said not only was it full of people, but also the guards kept hustling them along and didn’t allow them to pause for long — sitting down was forbidden altogether. In contrast, I spent at least a couple of hours (totaled across three days) sitting on the top level and gazing out at the mountains.
Sunrise is worth it. You go to the reception desk at the Manohara and buy a pass; if you’re not a guest there, it costs more (about $35 U.S.). Even if you don’t pay for the pre-admission privilege (and leave from the Manohara lobby at 4:30 a.m.), make sure you arrive before 6 a.m. and go straight to the top. The light (for your photos, and for the views) rapidly changes from soft and warm to harsh and blinding — by about 9 a.m. it was not so nice up there (this was in the first week of December).
Sunset is after closing. If you’d like to get that beautiful golden light of the late afternoon, you won’t have much of an opportunity. Even in early December, the light is still pretty strong at 5:30 p.m., when the monument closes. Also, I found that the monument was really full of people at that time on Tuesday and Wednesday. The top tiers are especially popular for everyone to pose for photos.
Multiple days are worth it if this visit is a big deal for you. My first morning (luckily that was the day I bought the sunrise ticket) was perfect — clear, almost cloudless, with a lovely pink sky in the east. On my second morning, I was on the top by 6:05 a.m. — and about 7:30, it started raining heavily enough that everyone left, even people with umbrellas. It even became chilly! The rain was finished by 9:30 a.m., but then it became quite hot.
Now, here’s the biggest disappointment: On my third day, I went to the top again at 6, but at 7 a.m. the guards came around and told everyone we all had to leave! Some people had just arrived minutes earlier!
At the hotel we were told it was because of two state visits: The president of the Philippines and then the president of Sri Lanka were coming to Borobudur for private tours. The whole site was closed down (including the two museums) until about 12:30 p.m. There was absolutely no advance warning at all. Even the guards said they had just been told, and they didn’t even know who was coming.
Over the three days, I saw plenty of people who came, climbed up the steps, snapped a few pictures of themselves and their friends, and then just left. In that case, a bus tour from Jogjakarta would be enough.
However, if seeing Borobudur seems important to you, make sure you have some flexibility in your schedule. You never know when a visiting head of state might show up and ask for a private tour!
See more photos in my Borobudur album on Flickr.