2-5 Temples Part 1: Borobudur

Borobudur Temple

I’m not what one might call a morning person. Because Current Me has no sympathy for what she inflicts Future Me, we signed up for a tour to watch the sunrise over Borobudur temple.

We got up at 4 am and got in a truck with one other person. I went back to sleep. Sometime around 5 am, the bus arrived in the hills above Borobudur temple. We got out and started winding up a mud-slick path in the dark. As the person behind me was dancing the Slip and Slide, I was grateful for my years of Pentecost bush walking. Part way up, it started drizzling.

The fog burned away slowly

At the top, we joined a few dozen other tourists, standing in the rain and waiting for the sun to rise. The other person in our truck had an umbrella, which he kindly shared. We had a tripod, which we shared. We ended up wandering the temple with him for the next 4 hours.

Though the sunrise was not spectacular, the walk was worth it for watching the mist dissipate from among the hills and valleys to reveal rice paddies, tendrils of smoke from breakfast fires and stands of bamboo. When the sun was up, we headed back down the trail to the truck. Our driver let us stop a few times as we approached the temple and the volcanoes.

At the temple, things got busier. Though we were early, there were other tourists who took a more direct route to the temple. We were by no means the first ones through the gate.

One of the volcanoes that covered the temple in ash

Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist Temple built around the 9thcentury and abandoned sometime around the 12th century. The original name of the place was probably not Borobudur, but it is unclear what the name might have been. Suggestions include Nagarakretagama and Bhumi Sambhara Bhudara. The name Borobudur seems to come from Sir Thomas Raffles mistranslation of the local town name.

Sleeping Buddha Mountain.  See the face?

The entire structure has 2,672 bas relief panels that tell stories from daily life, the Buddha’s enlightenment and past life, and a bunch of other things. These panels are still being used to do research about specific aspects of life during this time. The nearby museum has a boat made from specifications on the bas relief. According to legend, the style of boat portrayed sailed from Java to Africa. There were over 500 Buddha statues when it was built but due to looting most of the remaining statues are incomplete. What is with stealing the Buddha’s head? Its way less impressive without the body.

The proper way to approach a Buddhist temple is called perambulation where the person walks clockwise around the structure three time before entering. We started at the bottom and walked clockwise around the temple, level by level. There are 9 levels, 6 square and 3 circular. The whole thing makes a Buddhist mandala if viewed from the top. We’d done well over 3 perambulations by the time we got to the upper sanctuary.

These kinds of panels covered the temple

Each layer was wrapped in carvings and statues. The carvings depicted scenes from the Buddhist epic, meditating Buddhas and protective figures. Each carving was detailed down to the whorls of hair on a person’s head or the texture of leaves on the tree. Though a lot of the detail had been worn away by time, the remnants were still spectacular. The scale of the place was as awe-inspiring as the detail. The bottom level is 123 meters to a side and the highest point is 35 meters above the ground. There is an additional bit under the ground, but I don’t know how deep that goes.

So many Buddhas!  These ones even have heads!

The top of the temple was a round, open platform surrounded by stupas. Each stupa housed a Buddha statue facing outwards. From the top, we could see two volcanoes and the Sleeping Buddha Mountain. If the carvings hadn’t dazzled me already, this would have done it.

It is amazing to me that this kind of massive structure can fall out of use, but that seems to be what happened. The history of the 11th-12th centuries in Java is bit unclear. In some instances, it looks like the Buddhist and Hindu kings were friendly, or at least that their disagreements were not about religion. In others, it seems like they clashed, or possibly clashed with the invading Muslims. Sometime around the end of the 10thcentury, the king living near Borobudur seems to have moved his capital to East Java. This is probably due to an increase in volcanic ash. From there, the stories of the place bega morphing from holiness to haunting. Several later stories of princes and kings tell of bad luck and illness following looting attempts or visiting Borobudur. While Sir Thomas Raffle was the governor of Java, he went on a tour and was told about the temple. Since then, Borobudur has been gaining accolades and recognition around the world.

We headed back down in time to jump in our bus and head on to Prambanan. We took a short detour to stop by another, much smaller, temple. Though we didn’t go into the temple, we did have some fun wandering the monastery and taking pictures of the monks cleaning the grounds.

Watching the volcano

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