Where: Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia
Along with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar, Java’s Borobudur makes the rest of Southeast Asia’s spectacular sites seem almost incidental. Looming out of a patchwork of bottle-green paddies and swaying palms, this colossal Buddhist monument has survived Gunung Merapi’s eruptions, terrorist bombs and the 2006 earthquake to remain as enigmatic and as beautiful as it must have been 1200 years ago.
It’s well worth planning to spend a few days in the Borobudur region, which is a supremely beautiful landscape of impossibly green rice fields and traditional rice-growing kampung (villages), all overlooked by soaring volcanic peaks. Locals call it the garden of Java. This region is establishing itself as Indonesia’s most important centre for Buddhism, and there are now three monasteries in the surrounding district. Visitors are welcome and you can even join the monks at prayer time for chanting.
Indonesia’s signature Buddhist monument, Borobudur is built from two million stone blocks in the form of a massive symmetrical stupa, literally wrapped around a small hill. Standing on a 118m by 118m base, its six square terraces are topped by three circular ones, with four stairways leading up through carved gateways to the top. Viewed from the air, the structure resembles a colossal three-dimensional tantric mandala (symbolic circular figure).
It has been suggested, in fact, that the people of the Buddhist community that once supported Borobudur were early Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhists who used it as a walk-through mandala. Though the paintwork is long gone, it’s thought that the grey stone of Borobudur was once coloured to catch the sun.
The monument was conceived as a Buddhist vision of the cosmos in stone, starting in the everyday world and spiralling up to nirvana, or enlightenment. At the base of the monument is a series of reliefs representing a world dominated by passion and desire, where the good are rewarded by reincarnation as a higher form of life, while the evil are punished with a lower reincarnation. These carvings and their carnal scenes are covered by stone to hide them from view, but they are partly visible on the southern side.
Starting at the main eastern gateway, go clockwise (as one should around all Buddhist monuments) around the galleries of the stupa. Although Borobudur is impressive for its sheer bulk, the delicate sculptural work when viewed up close is exquisite. The pilgrim’s walk is about 5km long and takes you along narrow corridors past nearly 1460 richly decorated narrative panels and 1212 decorative panels in which the sculptors have carved a virtual textbook of Buddhist doctrines as well as many aspects of Javanese life 1000 years ago – a continual procession of ships and elephants, musicians and dancing girls, warriors and kings.
On the third level there’s a lengthy panel sequence about a dream of Queen Maya, which involved a vision of white elephants with six tusks. Monks and courtiers interpret this as a premonition that her son would become a Buddha, and the sequence continues until the birth of Prince Siddhartha and his journey to enlightenment. Many other panels are related to Buddhist concepts of cause and effect or karma.
Some 432 serene-faced Buddha images stare out from open chambers above the galleries, while 72 more Buddha images (many now headless) sit only partly visible in latticed stupas on the top three terraces – one is considered the lucky Buddha. The top platform is circular, signifying neverending nirvana.
Admission to the temple includes entrance to Karmawibhangga archaeological museum, which is just east of the monument and contains 4000 original stones and carvings from Borobudur and some interesting photographs.