It had been photos of Borobudur that had initially got me interested in visiting Indonesia. Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the southern hemisphere and the biggest Buddhist stupa in the world. It is also billed as the greatest single piece of classical architecture in Indonesia. It was therefore part of our trip that I was more excited about than many others.
Borobudur is located only 40km West of Jogyakarta, however we set off at 4am because we had opted to pay extra on top of the already substantial standard entrance fee to enter the temple complex (via an extremely posh hotel) before dawn to watch the sun rise. Upon arrival we were issued with torches and batik print sarongs which are compulsory apparel in the temple complex. We followed a path in complete darkness until we reached the temple, and carefully negotiated the steps to the top whilst catching a few previews of the temple's stone reliefs by shining our torches. It was really exciting as we didn't yet know what the temple really looked like, and exploring it in the dark made it feel like we were doing something we weren't supposed to.
At the top of the temple we carefully made a lap before settling in our chosen position to watch the sun come up. Unfortunately the sunrise was not particularly special that day; it was overcast to the point where it wasn't exactly clear when the sun had risen. However, what was really special was to be sat atop a huge 1200 year old monument as it was revealed around us as it became light. A really unique experience!
Borobudur is a huge multi-tiered stupa the top tier of which is covered with 72 small bell-shaped stupas surrounding the main stupa. As the sun rose the silhouettes of the stupas appeared, and the details of what surrounded us was revealed.
However it was only after it was completely light that it became apparent that each of the smaller stupas houses a statue of Buddha looking outwards from the main stupa (albeit some no longer had their heads attached to do any looking) that could only just be seen through the gaps between the blocks that surrounded them. A couple of the stupas had also been removed to reveal the Buddha statues inside. Beyond the temple itself the views around were really nice, although unfortunately the visibility wasn't clear enough to see the volcanoes and cliffs which surround Borobudur on all sides.
After we had spent an hour or so on the top level tourists who had not been able to enter earlier began to arrive, so we descended to explore the 4 lower tiers which are completely covered with intricate stone reliefs and more Buddha statues.
What we didn't appreciate at the time was that Borobudur was built as a representation of the Buddhist cosmic mountain. Hence, the base of the temple is the real world and as you follow the tiers upwards the reliefs depict the path to enlightenment and the top tier represents nirvana. We were effectively going backwards - starting at nirvana and working our way down to the real world of desires and passions. Even so, the carvings were really impressive in terms of the level of detail and skill involved and in terms of the huge size and number of them.
Only when we reached the bottom and were able to see the whole of the temple for the first time were we able to appreciate the huge size of Borobudur. It doesn't have the same striking silhouette as the tall temples at Prambanan as it is only about 35m tall, but each side of the base is around 200m meaning that it covers a huge area.
What is almost as amazing as the temple itself is the fact that it was abandoned for nearly 1000 years before being “rediscovered' by the British in 1815, and that nothing was done with it until the 1970's. It's hard to imagine that something so spectacular could go ignored for any length of time.
It suffices to say that despite our expectations being extremely high, and despite the sunrise not being as nice as we had hoped, Borobudur did not disappoint. After seeing many spectacular sights on our travels we are getting harder and harder to impress, but Borobudur was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.