It may seem odd to learn that the world’s biggest Buddhist sanctuary sits on an archipelago with the largest Muslim population. But the nation has gone through a long and intricate history that goes way back, including the domination of Hinduism and Buddhism before the coming of Islam.
Borobudur Temple shows us a glimpse of what life was like during its time around the 8th-century. During that time the area was governed by the Syailendra Dynasty (meaning Lord of the Mountain) who actively promoted Mahayana Buddhism in the territory.
This Buddhist empire built Borobudur Temple during the peak of their influence, a construction that took an estimated 75 years to complete. Built primarily from stones, the temple was erected block by block without the use of cement or adhesive, but instead using a delicate pattern system to lock one block with each other, all 2 million of them.
Unfortunately, the replacement of the kingdom’s capital from the eruption-prone Central Java to East Java led to the abandonment of this mighty temple. The change was made sometime around the 10th-century and impacted other temples in the area including the Hindu’s Prambanan Temple that was built decades after the construction of Borobudur.
Other scholars argue that complete abandonment was due more to the arrival of Islam during the 14th-century when Javanese people were rapidly converted to Islam and the influence of Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms began to decrease.
Regardless, when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British governor of Java, rediscovered the temple in 1814, the thick volcanic ash and lush vegetation attested to centuries of abandonment. After that rediscovery, the temple’s existence was brought to the world’s attention and restoration projects were initiated.
Symbols and architecture
Borobudur Temple reflects a mixture of Javanese and Buddhist principles in its architecture. The pyramid-like construction of stone bases demonstrates the indigenous beliefs of ancestral spirits that live in elevated places. On the other hand, the Mahayana Buddhist influences are seen in the symbols, forms, and carvings.
There are many ways to observe and describe this mystical, symbol-rich construction. Some say it was meant to be a sacred mountain and the dwelling of gods, while others are convinced that the temple is a gigantic textbook of Buddhism philosophies to achieve enlightenment.
While there are interesting insights in some of those notions, an important way to fathom the significance of Borobudur’s construction is by understanding its ground plan. When viewed from above, the Borobudur Temple represents the form of a giant, three dimensional Buddhist Mandala, which is a diagram of the cosmos and the human mind.
The temple’s three tiers represent the three realms of Buddhist cosmology. Kamadhatu, or the world of desires is embodied in the pyramidal base of five concentric squares terraces. Rupadhatu, or the world of forms, is represented by the circular platforms above the base. Finally, Arupadhatu, or the formless world, was manifested in the monumental stupa of Buddha on the top of the temple.
Borobudur in Buddhist pilgrimage
Today Borobudur Temple is still one of the most popular spots worldwide for Buddhist pilgrimage. Just as the temple symbolizes the path to enlightenment, the act of worship in Borobudur is performed in a walking pilgrimage.
Pilgrims will follow the passageways that go around the monument in a clockwise direction and gradually ascend, leading towards the center and most elevated stupa. The stone walls that guide the pathways are ornately carved with reliefs, providing guidance and retaining focus for those embarking the mini enlightenment journey.
During the walk, pilgrims will be presented with 1,460 narrative panels that tell different stories and teachings of Buddhism. Once pilgrims reach the circular platforms in the temple’s body, the scene changes into Buddha statues sitting inside stupas, encircling the main monument that represents enlightenment.
What to do in Borobudur
If you’re interested in going through the pilgrimage path, it’s possible to hire a guide to walk you through and explain the reliefs with all their stories and meanings. Many tourists choose to just see a few reliefs on the base and ascend right to the upper part and enjoy the breathtaking sight of the iconic Buddha stupas.
From the top of the temple, tourists can enjoy the view of two twin mountains that surround the temple, Sundoro-Sumbing, and Merbabu-Merapi. An even more magical experience is watching the sunrise from this temple and observe the first rays of light illuminate different parts of the temple.
If you have the chance, stop by the Pawon Temple and Mendut Temple, located 1.5 km and 3.5 km east of Borobudur respectively. These two temples may not be as massive and majestic as Borobudur, but they are still pretty magnificent. Some scholars even argue that these three temples are closely related, due to their many resemblances and the fact that their location forms a single straight line.