Asia possesses a staggering historical collection of architectural wonders that rivals its European counterparts in many ways. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is one such edifice, a religious complex as monumental as the monuments of Imperial Rome. Less known is the Buddhist temple complex in Indonesia known as Borobudur, an assemblage of 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues that was built in the eighth and ninth century. Borobudur is comprised of six square platforms topped by three circular terraces. At the summit sits a massive central stupa, the largest Buddhist stupa in the world, on a lotus-shaped base that is half a meter thick. The 3 levels of the stupa form a microcosm of the entire universe, with the lower levels representing man’s world of desire controlled by negative impulses (Kamadhatu), the middle levels showing man’s control over these negative impulses and use of positive impulses (Rupadhatu), and the highest level, which depicts man unbound by worldly desires (Arupadhatu). Borobudur also symbolize the 10 levels of a Boddhisattva’s life which he/she must develop in order to attain Buddha-hood.
Although it thrived in the centuries after it was built, Borobudur was seemingly abandoned in the 14th century, following the decline of Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms in Java. It was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles himself, the founder of Singapore and then-British ruler of Java, who funded the exploration team to discover the temple complex for the West in 1814. Several restoration projects have slowly returned the splendor of Borobudur, the largest of which took place between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and UNESCO. The monument is equipped with a good drainage system to accommodate torrential rains, including 100 spouts in the shape of giants or makaras (Hindu mythical creature).
Borobudur is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists and is Indonesiaâ€™s single-most visited tourist attraction, attracting two million visitors every year, most of which are Indonesian. Unlike other temples, Borobudur was built on a bedrock hill, and steep staircases connect all nine levels to each other. Its passages are designed to encircle the edifice, allowing monks to walk around it in silent prayer. The lower square terraces have carvings which depict the life of Buddha; the main wall in the first gallery, for example, feature his descent from heaven to his enlightenment. There are also 160 hidden panels which illustrate cause and effect, some portraying sins and their subsequent punishment, others showcasing good deeds and their corresponding rewards. There is also a complete panorama of samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death.
The higher round terraces are surrounded by unembellished stone walls, representing Buddha’s Sphere of Formlessness. The main stupa itself is empty, symbolizing nirvana. 72 vajrasattvas or Dhyani Buddhas rest inside bell-shaped stupas which surrounds a single central stupa. Each statue displays a mudra (hand gesture) which depicts one of the five directions: east, with the mudra calling the earth to witness; south, with the hand position of blessing; west, with the gesture of meditation; north, with the mudra of fearlessness; and the center, with the gesture of teaching. The correct way to view these reliefs is by starting at the main entrance at the east gate then working your way clockwise.
The best time to visit Borobudur is at dawn, when the cool mist and the lack of crowds offer a personal moment amidst the 72 stupas. The volcanic Mount Merapi, one of the most active volcanoes in the country, can also be seen directly north of the site. Wesak Day, on the night of the full moon in May, rewards visitors with a colorful festival celebrated in Borobudur that spans several days, ending in a candlelit procession frm nearby Candi Mendut to the temple grounds. You can get to the temple from Bali by flying to Yogyakarta or Solo airports, then traveling 40 kilometers by a car or bus to Magelang and to the site itself. The temple is best explored on foot, and patience is required to navigate the steep staircases filled with pilgrims. Of course, patience is one of the things taught in Buddism.