Borobudur Temple

UNESCO World Heritage Site near Yogyakarta

The most popular tourist attraction in Indonesia, the majestic Borobodur temple in Central Java is also the largest Buddhist monument in the world. The colossal pyramid-shaped structure was built in the 8th and 9th centuries from thousands of huge blocks of stone, and is arranged in ascending platforms. The first five terraces are square, and the top three circular. The entire temple is crowned by a large central stupa (bell-shaped shrine) that helps give Borobudur its distinctive silhouette.

The walls and balustrades of the lower levels are adorned with intricately carved stone reliefs that tell the story of Buddha’s enlightenment and provide a feast for the eyes as well as a devotional path for pilgrims who walk around the terraces in a clockwise fashion. Once you reach the upper three levels you leave behind the ‘earthly’ atmosphere of the panelled terraces and enter a serene space dominated by hundreds of openwork stone stupas and Buddha statues.

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Over the centuries, Borobudur has deservedly been included in the Seven Wonders of the World several times. A wholesale renovation of the temple under the guidance of UNESCO was completed in 1983, and together with the nearby Mendut and Pawon temples it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hiring one of the knowledgeable, multilingual guides from the Visitor Assistance Centre is key to understanding the stories related in the stone carvings. As you climb to the summit and look out over the surrounding hills and rice fields you will be able to feel the history and spiritual symbolism of this magical temple that is still revered by local people of all religions.

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Borobudur Temple History

Borobudur was built somewhere between 750 and 842 AD during the Sailendra dynasty. This was approximately three centuries before the construction of Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple complex. After power shifted to east Java in the 10th century Borobudur fell into neglect and became covered in volcanic ash and lost to the jungle. The temple remained largely forgotten until the British Governor of Java, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, learned of its existence in 1814 and ordered it excavated.

Sadly, once uncovered, many of the statues and reliefs were looted or destroyed by both local and foreign plunderers, and the porous stone was eroded by the hot sun and relentless rain. In the early 20th century, Dutch experts performed a partial restoration. However, it was not until 1983, when the comprehensive eight-year renovation project undertaken by UNESCO and the Indonesian government was completed, that Borobudur was returned to its former glory.

Highlights and Features

  • A huge pyramid that rises to a height of 34.5 metres and covers an area of 123 x 123 metres, Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple.
  • Unusually, there is no inner chamber, with all decorative and devotional adornments appearing on the exterior of the temple.
  • The monument stands on a hill, and consists of five ascending square terraces, each adorned with carved stone wall panels, mostly depicting Buddha’s past lives and his enlightenment. There are 1,460 narrative panels and 1,212 decorative panels.
  • Above these are three circular platforms with a total of 504 bell-shaped stupas, some of which contain Buddha statues. In contrast with the lower terraces, these upper levels exude a calm, peaceful atmosphere that reflects the higher state of consciousness attained by diligent Buddhists.
  • From above, the complex is shaped like a Mandala.
  • The central stupa sits at the top of the temple. Its two chambers are empty, but may have housed statues originally.
  • The first square terrace was previously hidden underground, and remains partially buried. Its 160 panels show scenes of crime and punishment, good deeds and rewards, heaven and hell, and daily life.
  • The reliefs on the four terraces above are arranged from right to left (on the walls) and left to right (on the balustrades), in accordance with the clockwise circumambulation performed by pilgrims.

Good to Know and What not to Miss

  • The best time to visit is early in the morning while it is still cool.
  • The heat of the day is magnified by the dark stone, so bring plenty of bottled water if you intend to climb the pyramid in the afternoon. Sunscreen and a hat are also essential.
  • Borobudur gets crowded at the weekends and on public holidays when many domestic tourists visit.
  • It is worth hiring a guide to explain the reliefs, as well as how local people still connect with the temple (IDR 75,000 an hour).
  • Gunung Merapi is an active volcano 28 kilometres from Borobudur. During eruptions – such as in late 2010 – the temple can be covered in ash and may be closed.
  • Opening Hours: 06:00 – 17:00. You can also join the Sunrise Tour (IDR 320,000 for foreigners and IDR 220,000 for Indonesians) which starts around 04:30 and allows you to see Borobudur by flashlight before the crowds arrive. Tickets are available from the Manohara Centre near the base of the temple.
  • How to get there: Intrepid travelers can take a cheap but slow public bus from Giwangan bus terminal in Yogyakarta, and then walk just over one kilometre from the bus stop to Borobudur. Most tourists make the 42 kilometre trip from Yogyakarta by chartered minibus, taxi or chauffer-driven hire car, however. You can also buy a tour package to the complex from travel agents in Yogyakarta.
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