Borobudur is an easy day trip from the cultural city of Yogyakarta, in Java, Indonesia. But it wasn’t always known as the must-see sight in central Java. It’s hard to believe that this day-tripper’s mecca was once an unknown point on the map, buried beneath the Indonesian jungle for centuries.
Borobudur is an 8th-century Buddhist temple, the largest Buddhist temple complex in the world, actually. The entire temple is shaped like a giant stupa (a mound or bell-shaped structure with Buddhist relics inside).
The temple is made up of three main tiers which narrow to the monumental stupa at the top of the temple. The three tiers represent the three main Buddhist ideas on the conception of the universe. The first represents The Sphere of Desires, “where we are bound to our desires” ; the second is The Sphere of Forms, “where we abandon our desires but are still bound to name and form” , and the final tier represents The Sphere of Formlessness, “where there is no longer either name or form,” according to the UNESCO web page for Borobudur.
In fact, from above the entire structure is shaped like a mandala. Meaning “circle” a mandala has come to represent the cosmos. It is a microcosm of the universe and a powerful meditation.
From its construction in the 8th and 9th centuries until it was abandoned between the 10th and 15th century, Buddhist monks walked the different layers of the structure in a sort of living, breathing mandala.
The ten terraces of the structure correspond to each stage the Bodhisattva has to achieve to obtain Buddhahood. Each circle of the living mandala completed by the monks was a circle closer to Enlightenment, to Nirvana.
UNESCO protected the sight in the 1970s declaring, “Laid out in the form of a lotus, the sacred flower of Buddha, Borobudur Temple Compounds is an exceptional reflection of a blending of the very central idea of indigenous ancestor worship and the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana.”
We arrived at Borobudur like nearly all the tourists who visit: on a pre-packaged private tour that first brings you to watch the sunrise from a nearby hill then takes you for a coffee before the temple grounds open up. And yet, the serenity of the place was unmistakable. At 6 am in the morning there were still few tourists, no school groups and not enough energy among the crowd to cause chaos.
Though not Buddhist, we followed the original plan. We walked clockwise on each terrace, admiring the detailed reliefs covering every square inch of the enormous structure. We absorbed the sun warming up the jungle that surrounded us, the changing colors of the stone pieces from a deep blue, gray and a light yellow. We followed the story of Siddhartha imprinted in stone some 13 centuries ago. We kept quiet and took each step with purpose. It was beautiful. It was peaceful.
Truly a walking meditation, it also happened to be one of the most powerful temples we visited in our temple-filled journey through Java and Bali.
It’s thought that Borobudur was abandoned after the decline of the Hindu and Buddhist rulers and the rise of Islam on the island, the predominate religion there today. In fact, the structure sat unused for centuries, until the famous British ruler of Java, Sir Thomas Raffles, uncovered it (from the knowledge of indigenous Indonesians) in the 19th century and began to restore it soon after.
Temples turned tourist attractions are often a real shame, but the Borobudur restoration is an act of art, cultural preservation and even historic preservation. Buddhists once had a stronghold on the island, British came to rule, Mount Merapi erupted. If a visitor does it right, each lap around the enormous stupa can be a step closer to understanding this tiny dot on the map. Each lap can truly be a step closer to Enlightenment.