Candi Borobudur, Borobudur, Magelang, Jawa Tengah, Indonesia

GPS: -7.6076222717204, 110.20400506206

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Built from the 8th century onwards by the Javanese kings of the Sailendra Dynasty, Borobudur is a holy place dedicated to Buddhism. It is located in the heart of Central Java, 40 kilometres north-west of the city of Yogyakarta. This archaeological site is one of the world’s largest shrine dedicated to the Buddha. It is a pilgrimage place that radiates throughout Southeast Asia and is one of the best preserved ancient monuments in Indonesia. Borobudur is a blend of the worship practised by ancient Indonesian civilizations and a monumental representation of the Buddhist path to nirvana.

The use of stūpas, small domed stone monuments, in the architectural style of Borobudur is stunning. There are 72 stūpas in total, each of which houses a statue of Buddha. The structure of the site represents a 35-metre-high step pyramid with 4 floors of ornate galleries on 9 levels. More than 500 different Buddha statues and sculptures can be found throughout the monument, which also has magnificent frescoes and bas-reliefs at its base, stretching over nearly 3 kilometres of walls. This frieze is composed of nearly 1,500 different bas-reliefs evoking sutras (collections of teachings) of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Borobudur complex is said to symbolise the resting place of its founder, a Sailendra, to join Buddha after his death. The clockwise ascent of the monument leads pilgrims to attain enlightenment in Buddhist cosmology (it is a ritual circumambulation following the movement of the stars). The three levels of the monument embody the stages of the spheres of existence. They consist of a square base at the lowest level (Kāmadhātu, the world of desire governed by the law of cause and effect in which humans live), galleries in the middle section (Rūpadhātu, the realm of forms where the gods live) and three circular terraces at the top (Arūpadhātu, the formless space within which beings dissolve to attain nirvana in Buddhism). These successive levels of meditation by the faithful are reflected in the architecture of Borobudur complex and are presented as a spiritual journey. At the upper level of the monument, it is possible to enjoy a magnificent view of the region, rich in lush vegetation dotted with volcanoes, rice fields and palm trees.

The structure of Borobudur is composed of 2 million blocks of stone perfectly assembled with grey andesite, a volcanic stone very present on the island of Java. After a probable series of eruptions, the site declines from the 12th century. It remained buried for several hundred years under thick layers of volcanic ash before being hidden by the local jungle. Borobudur suffered several rounds of looting and many of its treasures disappeared. Heavily damaged, it was first restored at the beginning of the 20th century before undergoing a major rehabilitation programme between the 1970s and 1980s with the support of Unesco: one million stones were numbered, extracted, cleaned and then reassembled to raise the sanctuary from the ashes.

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  • The largest Buddhist complex in the world in the flattened form of a pyramidal temple with five square terraces, three round terraces and a gigantic stūpa (Buddha memorial) at the top of a hill; an artistic masterpiece and a technical feat of construction; the profusion and meticulousness of the decorative details; the contrast between the lower parts (richly decorated) and the upper terraces (brilliant in their sobriety) of the monument
  • The spiritual atmosphere of the place linked to Buddhist cosmology; the base of the monument concealing 160 panels decorated with narrative reliefs; the middle part comprising ornate galleries and niches on which rest Buddhas in different postures; the upper part illustrating mythological animals and lined with preaching Buddhas
  • Hundreds of Buddhist statues, stūpas and sculptures (each representation of Buddha is unique in the position of his legs, arms, hands or facial expression)
  • The quality of the bas-reliefs depicting important Buddhist figures (including the Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama, known as Shakyamuni); the Sanskrit texts visible on the monument bearing witness to everyday Javanese life in the 8th century (this sacred language of Indian origin is commonly used in Hindu and Buddhist religious texts)
  • The experience of a sunrise or sunset on site, on the upper part of Borobudur (superb view of Mount Suroloyo)
  • A site easily accessible by bicycle taxi (becak) or horse cart (andong) from Borobudur bus station
  • The small Buddhist temples of Candi Mendut, Candi Pawon and Candi Ngawen from the 9th century (built during the Sailendra dynasty); the visit of Karmawibhangga Museum and Samudra Raksa Museum inside Borobudur Temple Compounds
  • The volcanoes surrounding the Buddhist complex and rising to over 3,000 metres above sea level: Mount Merapi and Mount Merbabu to the east, Mount Ungaran to the north, Mount Sundoro and Mount Sumbing to the west; the 800-metre-high hills to the south; the nearby fumaroles and mud pools; the Progo and Elo rivers; the agricultural plain teeming with palm trees and rice fields
  • Annual festivals and ceremonies (including the torchlight procession between the temple of Candi Mendut and Borobudur marking Buddha’s birthday in May and the traditional Javanese Mahakarya Borobudur ballet in June)
  • According to Belgian researcher Véronique Degroot, Borobudur cannot be considered a temple in the strict sense of the word because it has no interior space. There are still many grey areas surrounding this Buddhist monument: the origin of its name, the precise date of its construction (estimated around the year 760 so three centuries before Angkor Wat), the date of completion (probably around the year 830), the repeated modification of the building’s plans, its main function (political or religious) and the reasons for its loss of influence in the region (in the year 928 to East Java).
  • Before Borobudur was built, the volcanic island of Java was predominantly populated by Hindus. In order to impress the population when it came to power, it is likely that the new Sailendra dynasty wanted to erect a spectacular monument in the hope of converting as many people as possible to Buddhism. The other objective sought by the Sailendra kings in the architecture of the monument was to gain religious merit in order to have a bright future when reborn in the next life (in accordance with the precepts of Mahāyāna Buddhism).
  • Borobudur brings together several symbolic forms through the stūpa (containing sacred relics), the mythical Mount Meru (symbolised in the pyramidal structure of the monument) and the mandala seen from the sky (geometric and mystical representation of the universe as a support for meditation).
  • According to Buddhist concepts, the stūpa is a bell-shaped structure that evokes the mound under which the Buddha was buried after his cremation. It is a representative symbol of this religion around the world, as can be the cross for Christianity, the star and crescent for Islam or the Star of David for Judaism.
  • In the past, Borobudur was connected to two other Buddhist temples (Pawon and Mendut) located nearby. These three places of worship were perfectly aligned and a long straight line could have formed a processional route.
  • The internal structure of the monument rests on a natural hill into which earthworks was laid to create terraces on several levels. The stone blocks of the building were carefully assembled without mortar or cement using the dry stone construction technique. The facades were covered with lime plaster and painted in colours.
  • From the 10th century onwards, the political and cultural centre of Java was moved to the eastern part of the island, several hundred kilometres away from Borobudur. At the same time, the archipelago began to convert to Islam and the monument was no longer used for religious purposes. According to some legends, Borobudur was even considered a dangerous and even evil place. A series of tragedies and misfortunes would have affected all those who approached it.
  • The Borobudur complex was never forgotten by the local population despite its slow decline (covered by vegetation, it was nicknamed “the mountain of a thousand Buddhas” by the Javanese). It was rediscovered by Europeans in 1814 under the aegis of the British Lieutenant-Governor of Java, Sir Stamford Raffles. It was the Dutch Lieutenant Cornelius who first excavated and scientifically studied the monument after it had been buried for centuries. Once cleared, the structure of Borobudur was again exposed to the monsoon rains, which caused a great deal of damage: water infiltration, sinking and erosion of the stones, development of moss and lichen, weakening of the foundations…). The first major restoration operation was carried out by the Dutch Theodoor van Erp in the early 20th century.
  • An Indonesian music group called Sound of Borobudur is attempting to reconstruct replicas of the ancient musical instruments depicted on the large frieze of bas-reliefs in the complex. The 45 items include stringed instruments, wind instruments, lutes, flutes, trumpets, bells, gongs and percussion.
  • A deposit of volcanic ash threatened Borobudur following the eruption of Mount Merapi at the end of 2010 and again in 2018. This volcano, located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, is only about 30 kilometres from the Buddhist shrine. According to local beliefs, it shelters the protective spirits of the mountain.
  • The damage caused by the 2010 eruption led the authorities to close off access to the monument in order to remove the 2-3 centimetres thick volcanic sediment that had been deposited there. More than 50,000 blocks of volcanic stone had to be dismantled and rehabilitated (andesite is a particularly porous stone). A vast tree-planting campaign, financed by Unesco, also made it possible to regenerate the surrounding vegetation.
  • Merapi is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and one of the most dangerous hot spots on the planet. Merapi’s frequent eruptions regularly threaten the region because of its unpredictability. They are caused by a chemical reaction between water and rock in the earth’s mantle, leading to a rise in magma. In recent years, villages have been completely buried under a thick layer of ash up to 20 kilometres away from the volcano.
  • Recently, volcanologists observed a 250-metre-long fissure running through the Merapi crater in the lava dome. A large reservoir of magma is believed to be stored deep in the earth’s crust, up to 50,000 km3, an amount never recorded elsewhere on the globe. After a sudden eruption, lahars (volcanic mudflows) can occur when volcanic ash mixes with rainwater. Experts fear that Merapi could eventually produce a gigantic explosion with devastating effects on the planet.
  • If possible, avoid school holidays as the Borobudur complex is a very popular place and the pride of its inhabitants (it is one of the most visited monuments in Indonesia with about 5 million visitors per year, most of them Indonesians). Close to the archaeological park, there are many street vendors trying to sell all kinds of products to foreign tourists.
  • To enhance your visiting experience, go to Borobudur at dawn, as early as 6 am. From the upper part of the monument, you can look out over the valley, which is surrounded by misty hills, see the rice fields bathed in the first rays of the sun and make out the cones of the surrounding volcanoes.
  • To access the site, it is strongly recommended to wear loose-fitting clothes covering the shoulders and knees (mini-skirts and shorts are prohibited). Four new entry points are being developed around the pyramid temple. They will be equipped with toilets, souvenir shops and food courts.
  • A museum adjacent to Borobudur provides a better understanding of the history and significance of the monument before exploring it.
  • In recent years, Borobudur has been subject to vandalism by visitors (gum stuck to the surface of the stones, damage caused by sitting or climbing on the walls, rubbish thrown on the ground, acrobatics on the stūpas…). Keep in mind that this place is a national symbol in Indonesia and that such practices can cause irreversible damage to this more than 1,000-year-old heritage site.
  • The active Merapi volcano, known as the Fire Mountain of Central Java, can be reached from its northern slope (due to its dangerousness, access is strictly regulated).
  • Nearby, be sure to visit the Prambanan Temple Compounds, which is home of the largest Hindu shrine on Java. On your way, you could stop by Bukit Rhema in Magelang, an unusual place whose architectural shape looks like a chicken. The multi-storey building has exhibitions, prayer rooms and an upper platform to watch the sunrise. It serves very good coffee, which is accompanied by manioc served with traditional chilli.

Where to eat

  • Paksi Coffee House
    (for big fans of coffee)
  • Amata Resto
    (local and modern cuisine)
  • Patio Colonial
    (chic and perfumed)

Where to go

  • Mount Merbabu National Park
    (stratovolcano sanctuary)
  • Ullen Sentalu Museum
    (Java's art and culture)
  • Candi Selogriyo
    (remote temple)

Where to stay

  • Efata Homestay
    (at the right location)
  • Rumah Dharma
    (exotic guesthouse)
  • Amanjiwo Resorts
    (the absolute splendor)

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