Most travelers relish the sunrise view of Borobudur hanging in the early morning mist. It seems to give one a certain sense, a timeless perception of what was, and yet, still is. To behold the huge, main Borobudur stupa patiently waiting through the centuries, in all its magnificence, is truly awe inspiring.
To fully appreciate your visit to Borobudur, a little knowledge of Buddhism and the life of Siddhartha is needed because there are beautifully carved bas-reliefs throughout the temple that narrate the story of Siddhartha’s life, his enlightenment, as well as Buddhist principles such as cause and effect, and Nirvana.
Exploring the different levels of Borobudur is a spiritual journey, or can be, if one is open to it. Borobudur is a multi-dimensional, walk-through textbook that takes its visitors on a five kilometer journey up through nine levels that illustrate how one progresses from being imprisoned by primal desire, then freeing one’s self from physical desire, to finally reaching Nirvana, or enlightenment.
The base of the monument is mostly hidden. It tells the story of karma, or cause and effect. It has a series of erotic scenes that depict the pleasures, trials, and tribulations of being human.
As you climb the steep stairs, you’ll walk around six levels of square terraces that illustrate Buddha’s teachings through the bas-reliefs. The story begins with Buddha descending from heaven and being born as Prince Siddhartha, who was sheltered from the misery of the world. Then he accidentally witnessed pain, suffering, and death. He then decided to leave the shelter of the palace to seek answers, and the solution to suffering. After years of wondering and meditation seeking these answers, he was enlightened, and achieved Nirvana. He then continued to wonder, teaching those whom he encountered the wisdom he had gleaned.
The top three terraces are circular – 72 stupas encircle the mammoth main stupa at the top of Borobudur. The circular design is meant to represent life with no beginning and no end – eternity.
Many people experience a profound sense of peace upon arriving at the top level. The stupas’s layout, the cool breeze, the tranquil surroundings, and the mountains in the background all converge together to create a feeling that is reverent to some, and inspiring to others. Some say the experience is akin to having completed a pilgrimage.
No one really knows for certain who built Borobudur, or when it was built. The general consensus among experts is that it was built around 750 AD. Whoever built it later abandoned it – the reason why is yet another mystery of Borobudur.
After its builders abandoned it, Borobudur would be lost and forgotten until 1814 when British explorer Sir Thomas Raffles, the same who founded Singapore, got intrigued by the legend of a mammoth temple buried in volcanic ash somewhere in the central part of Java.
Over the years, much work has been done to restore Borobudur; in 1991 it gained World Heritage Site status. It also has the distinction of being the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and Indonesia’s most visited attraction.