Forty kilometres west of Yogya, surrounded on three sides by volcanoes and on the fourth by jagged limestone cliffs, is the largest Buddhist monument in the southern hemisphere. This is the temple of Borobudur, the greatest single piece of classical architecture in the entire archipelago. The temple is actually a colossal multi-tiered Buddhist stupa lying at the western end of a four-kilometre-long chain of temples (one of which, the nearby Candi Mendut, is also worth visiting), built in the ninth century by the Saliendra dynasty. At 34.5m tall, however, and covering an area of some 200 square metres, Borobudur is on a different scale altogether, dwarfing all the other candi in the chain. Abandoned and neglected for almost a thousand years, Borobudur was “rediscovered” by the English in 1815, though nothing much was done until 1973, when UNESCO began to take the temple apart, block by block, in order to replace the waterlogged hill with a concrete substitute.
Borobudur is pregnant with symbolism, and precisely oriented so that its four sides face the four points of the compass; the ticket office lies to the southeast.Read More
Unlike most temples, Borobudur was not built as a dwelling for the gods, but rather as a representation of the Buddhist cosmic mountain, Meru. Accordingly, at the base is the real, earthly world, a world of desires and passions, and at the summit is nirvana. Thus, as you make your way around the temple passages and slowly spiral to the summit, you are symbolically following the path to enlightenment.
The first five levels – the square terraces – are covered with three thousand reliefs representing man’s earthly existence. As you might expect, the lowest, subterranean level has carvings depicting the basest desires, best seen at the southeast corner. The reliefs on the first four levels above ground cover the beginning of man’s path to enlightenment. Each of the ten series (one on each level on the outer wall and one on the inner wall) tells a story, beginning by the eastern stairway and continuing clockwise. Follow all the stories, and you will have circled the temple ten times – a distance of almost 5km. Buddha’s own path to enlightenment is told in the upper panels on the inner wall of the first gallery. As you enter the fifth level, the walls fall away to reveal a breathtaking view of the surrounding fields and volcanoes. You are now in the Sphere of Formlessness, the realm of enlightenment: below is the chaos of the world, above is nirvana, represented by a huge empty stupa almost 10m in diameter. Surrounding this stupa are 72 smaller ones, most of which are occupied by statues of Buddha.
Originally Borobudur was part of a chain of four temples joined by a sacred path. Two of the other three temples have been restored and at least one, Candi Mendut, 3km east of Borobudur, is worth visiting. Buses between Yogya and Borobudur drive right past Mendut (Rp5000 from Yogya, 1hr 20min; Rp1000 from Borobudur, 10min). Built in 800 AD, Mendut was restored at the end of the nineteenth century. The exterior is unremarkable, but the three giant statues sitting inside – of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani – are exquisitely carved and startling in their intricacy.