Borobudur is an architectural splendour with a splash of Indian culture and religion.
Borobudur is the largest Buddhist structure in the world and, a UNESCO site.
The Buddhist cosmology-based structure was borrowed from the Indian Gupta architecture
Borobudur is an architectural splendour with a splash of Indian culture and religion. This is a Buddhist place of religious worship constructed in the eighth century by the Sailendra dynasty of the Mataram Kingdom and located in the Magelang province at Central Java in Indonesia. It is about sixty to ninety minutes from Prambanan by taxi. There are few places, including the overhyped seven wonders of the world, which can make one feel as exhilarated as being in Borobudur.
After my surreal experience at the Prambanan temple compounds as part of the Central Java sojourn, I looked forward to visiting this tranquil beauty (though I was exhausted from all the walking I had done the previous day at the compounds). I decided riding against the rental scooter, as Borobudur is one-and-a-half hours from the hotel at Prambanan.
I booked a taxi, helped by the assistant manager of the hotel, Widiya (meaning Vidhya or complete knowledge or goddess Durga). To give you the context about the name, people in this region have made a clear distinction between religion and culture. The majority religion is Islam; yet Sanskritised names and epics like the Ramayana are part of their culture.
After an eventless ride, I reached Hotel Manohara along with Hema.The entrance to the ‘sunrise spot’ at Borobudur is through the private entrance at Hotel Manohara. I started the visit early in the morning at 4:30 a.m. with a small torchlight in my hand, climbing the stairs of Borobudur in the dark.
Sweating profusely, I attached my exertion to the unhealthy state of my physique and the tropical weather. Lo and behold, the marvel unfolded slowly as the early morning sun rose up and started to spread its radiance all around the massive structure. Unable to visualize the glory, the colossal elegance did not dawn upon me; I was standing on top of the structure.
After I was done photographing ‘the light opera’ with the sunlight reflecting upon the 72 perforated stupas on the top that provided a kind of kaleidoscopic effect, I walked down. It was then that the sophistication and massiveness of the structure with different levels that artfully created bas reliefs sunk upon me. (For the record, Borobudur is the largest Buddhist structure in the world and, a UNESCO site.)
Not that the structure is without blemishes. The agents of denudation, along with Mount Merapi and neglect, caused Borobudur to be completely forgotten a few years after its construction (probably abandoned following Mount Merapi’s eruption) until it was rediscovered again in the 19th century by Sir Thomas Raffles, British Governor of this region (he is also the founder of Singapore).
Full-fledged restoration was completed in 1981 but it was damaged again by the eruption from Mount Merapi in 2010. The Indonesian Government and the UNESCO started the restorations and completed the cleanup of the acidic ashes from Mount Merapi in six months.
The architecture is a blend of Indian Gupta and indigenous Javanese architecture. The structure is square in shape with 118 meters (354 feet) on four sides, a stepped pyramid with nine layers. The bottom six are square-shaped and the upper three layers are in circular shapes. On the top are 72 perforated stupas with the Buddha statue in each of the stupas and it is arranged in concentric circles at the top three levels.
The nine layers are arranged as per Buddhist cosmology similar to the Mandala concept in Hinduism – bottom layers or the foot represent the world of desires (kamadathu), the body or the middle layers represent the world of forms (rupadathu) and the top layers or the head represent the world of formlessness (arpadathu).
The Buddhist cosmology-based structure was borrowed from the Indian Gupta architecture based on Mount Meru, the sacred mountain for the Hindus. Each of the nine layers contain bas reliefs on the panels and the balustrades depicting various Buddhist/Hindu mythological figures – Bodhisattvas, Apsaras, Kinnaras. Do note the circular three layers on top do not have any bas reliefs. The nine layers together provide 1,460 scenes of bas reliefs. The structure itself is made of volcanic stones found nearby.
After taking the landscape picture of the entire structure from a distance, I started walking back to the entrance as the sun heated the air. Crowds consisting of students and local tourists started arriving in droves.
Note: The sunrise tour is through the Manohara hotel entrance and costs 380,000 rupiahs for non-Indonesians (roughly 30 USD) and 250,000 (roughly 19 USD) rupiah for the Indonesians and includes refreshments on returning back. The tour starts around 4:30 a.m. from the hotel lobby.
Note on returning back, state that you are part of the sunrise tour and they will guide you to the Manohara hotel exit instead of the general exit.
I strongly recommend the early morning sunrise tour as the sunrise view itself is beautiful and one can avoid the hot/humid weather. But the main reason would be to beat the crowd which surges in during the day as this is the most visited place in Indonesia. But on the flip-side, the pictures may not turn out great due to the foggy conditions prevalent early in the morning.
Borobudur was initiated (to me probably) as a Hindu Shiva temple and two lower terraces were built when the Sailendra dynasty shifted its allegiance to Buddhism. And so the project to build the biggest Stupa in the world started.
How to get there
Booked by the hotel folks from Prambanan, I took a taxi on a one-hour ride early in the morning but which took eleven-and-a-half hours in the late morning due to traffic; and set me back by 700,000 rupiahs (or roughly 60 USD) but well worth it. If you are flying in, I would suggest flying into the Yogyakarta International Airport as it is better connected, domestically and internationally. The local airlines do not take foreign credit cards. You cannot book tickets online. Just go to their local office to book the local flights. The price from what I noticed remains the same whether you book two months in advance or one day in advance. It is around $35 - $40 one way to different destinations. I went to Denpasar office in Bali (all the local airlines’ desks are in the airport and seated next to each other). Note that they accept only the Indonesian rupiah and not the USD or other foreign currencies.
Prambanan is situated 20 minutes from the Jogjakarta or Yogyakarta International Airport. It costs around 70,000 Indonesian rupiah (conversion rate is roughly 13,000 rupiah to one USD at the time of writing this article) from the airport to Prambanan via taxi.
Where should you stay?
I stayed at Poeri Devata resort, booked for roughly $38 per night. I had a pleasant experience. The staff were friendly. The hotel is situated on the backside of the Prambanan complex and provides a view of the Prambanan temples. The hotel provides a free ride to the Prambanan temple compound entrance. The other option is to stay in Yogyakarta but I recommend staying in Prambanan as there is easy access to other archaeological complexes like Ratu Boko palace, Candi Sambisari, Candi Plaosan, Candi Kalasan, Candi Sari and one can visit these sites on motorcycle, which you can rent from the hotel at 10,000 rupiahs per hour (roughly $1 USD).
You will, of course, need an international riding permit.