Borobudur: Java’s enigmatic giant



Borobudur is one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world; this huge stone temple was constructed three hundred years before Angkor Wat in Cambodia and stands enigmatic under the shadow of smoking volcanoes in central Java.

The construction began in AD 750, and Borobudur has endured volcanos, earthquakes, terrorism and vast numbers of tourists since then.

It is far more fragile than its bulk suggests though, Borobudur is at risk from the people who visit it, from the land it stands on and the ash that falls on it periodically from Gunung Merapi.

Borobudur is a tiered pyramid temple, its shape mirroring the conical mountains surrounding it.

From the base, five square layers make up the base of the pyramid and they are topped by three circular layers. At the very top is a mighty stupa.

Each level is finely decorated with bas reliefs, the lowest depicting the temptations of the real world.

As the pilgrim walks clockwise around each platform he is guided by the carvings to redemption and enlightenment at the very top.

The exquisite bas reliefs tell stories and reveal Buddhist doctrines as well as the life of the Buddha.

Most of the tourists who visit Borobudur head straight up to the upper levels, missing out all this glorious ancient artwork. 

Their loss of course, and this means that while the temple may be busy, these ornate corridors are peaceful: take the ritual pilgrimage, circle the levels of Borobudur to enlightenment.

The temple opens up at the seventh level, the three circular terraces are mounted with seventy-two lattice-work stupas, each containing a seated Buddha, peering serenely out through the stone work.

This is where the crowds head, but even then the space and airy-ness of the lacy stupas allow these levels to feel uplifting.

When you reach the top and gaze out at the volcano-studded landscape, it’s not hard to imagine Nirvana.

The fretted stupas are as enigmatic as the smiles from within, like concentric rings of stone bells waiting to be rung.

Most of the tourists humming around Borobudur are locals, their brightly coloured clothes bejewelling the grey stone.


I’ve longed to visit Borobudur, those stone bells swimming around my wanderlust dreams.

It lived up to everything I hoped it would, its monumental size and beautiful bas reliefs can only be truly comprehended by witnessing it first hand. 

The vistas from the temple were a breathtaking surprise, well worth the pilgrim’s climb.

Borobudur is just over forty kilometres from Yogyakarta, there are buses and tours that leave from Yogya. We got there by hired motorbike, it look around an hour to ride there and we set off early to beat some of the heat and the crowds. This seemed to work, it wasn’t that busy.

Borobudur costs US$20 for a non-student foreign adult. We had to wear a sarong over our trousers, I asked why as I felt I was dressed appropriately: “it is tourist uniform!” I was told!

You can visit at sunrise but the cost is much higher. It cost us a few rupiah to park our motorbike outside the temple grounds.

There is a toy train that can transport you around the site and there are also (boo, hiss) elephant rides >> please don’t ride the elephants, there is a growing trend in tourist elephant rides which means many more elephants are being cruelly beaten into submission for a ‘photo opportunity’.



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By Rachel A Davis

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