The top priority for most visitors to Yogyakarta is to see and experience the wonders of Borobudur and Prambanan, Indonesia’s most famous monuments to faith and past ages. But surprisingly, many of them are only vaguely aware of the extraordinary back-stories of these famous ancient places.
Contents quick access ...
BOROBUDUR IS MORE than just the world’s biggest Buddhist temple. It is a special, iconic place with a fascinating story of glory, to abandonment, to inundation, to rediscovery, to restoration, and, finally to recognition as a man-made wonder of the world.
It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and Indonesia’s most visited tourist attraction.
Once you have been there you will understand why.
Pictures capturing the feeling of Borobudur – TOP – A monk walks between the stupas in the soft light of sunrise (Pic – Alain Bonnardeaux – Unsplash), and in the statue of the Buddha (ABOVE) ancient sculptor and modern photographer have captured an air of contemplation. Pic- theculturetrip.com.
Some mind-stretching statistics –
The temple is in the form of a stepped pyramid with nine stacked platforms (six square and three circular) rising from a square base with sides measuring 123m (Longer than a football field).
It is decoratedwith 2,672 relief panels and 504 statues of the Buddha. The central dome is surrounded by 72 statues, each seated in contemplation inside a perforated stupa (dome shaped Buddhist shrine) to create an aura of peace and tranquility.
The total structure consists of more than 1.6 million blocks of the volcanic rock andesite, cut, placed, and joined WITHOUT the use of mortar.
The temple’s three main levelseach represent a stage on the way to the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment.
Symbolizing this spiritual journey, a pilgrim who begins at the eastern stairway and walks clockwise around each of the monument’s nine levels covers more than 5km (3 miles) before reaching the top.
Construction around 1200 years ago and said to have taken 75 years
The Sailendra Dynasty built Borobudur from around 750 during its reign over the Mataram kingdom with construction estimated to have taken 75 years.
It also reflects strong Indian influence through the Gupta art of its intricate and many sculpted reliefs.
Borobudur can be awe-inspiring when viewed from the ground. But it’s even more spectacular when viewed from the air.
If you take a few moments to view the YouTube videos below you will better appreciate what you are seeing when you visit.
This evocative video (5:16 mins) is by Milosh Kitchovitch from his “AMAZING PLACES ON OUR PLANET” series. You can see more of his wonderful work at www.youtube.com/user/milosh9k/
This one-minute clip is from the documentary series Aerial Indonesia by Singapore’s Channel News Asia. It provides a quick and slightly dizzying bird’s eye view of this marvellous monument.
A population fleeing volcanic eruptions and conflict
Borobudur sits in the shadows of Mt Merapi, one of the world’s most active volcanoes There are also another three volcanoes in the area.
Eruptions, together with conflicts, saw a mass movement of population from the region to East Java and Bali around the 11th century.
A subsequent widespread conversion of Javanese people to Islam and the decline of Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms in Java led to the complete abandonment of Borobudur in the 14th-century.
Remind yourself when you see the mass and scale of the huge and magnificent temple standing there before you that due to that abandonment, neglect and volcanic eruptions, Borobudur lay hidden for around three centuries under volcanic ash and jungle.
Mt Merapi is Indonesia’s most active volcano and a short distance from Borobudur. It has played a key part in the story of the temple.
A shroud of ash enveloped Borobudur Temple from a Mt Merapi eruption in 2010. The clean-up was a major task. Pic Borobudur Conservation Centre.
In 2018 and again in November 2020 conservation authorities brough in workers to cover stupas and some floor areas of Borobudur to protect them from fears of impeding Merapi eruptions. Chemicals in the ash can cause damage to the temple stonework – Pic voi.id.
It’s barely more than 200 years since this massive structure was uncovered
During the Napoleonic wars an invasion and a brief war led to the Britich taking over the administration of Java from 1811 to 1816.
The appointed governor-general, Thomas Stamford Raffles (later the founder of Singapore), took an interest in the history of Java.
He learned of a ‘big monument’ deep in a jungle near the village of Bumisegoro and in 1814 (not so long ago) sent Hermann Cornelius, a Dutch engineer, to investigate.
Over two months, Cornelius and his team of 200 men cut down trees, burned vegetation and dug away earth to begin to reveal the temple.
Then along came the looters and vandals
The re-discovery of Borobudur sparked world-wide interest. But the unprotected temple was to endure looting and vandalism during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
On a visit to Java in 1896 the then King of Siam (Thailand) was permitted to take home eight cartloads of Borobudur sculptures, some of which are still museum exhibits in Bangkok.
Borobudur has since been protected and preserved. The restoration work continues today.
However, the largest restoration project was undertaken between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian Government and UNESCO. Many countries contributed funds towards the restoration program.
In 1991 UNESCO listed the monument as a World Heritage Site.
Restoration teams faced huge challenges
The history of volcanic eruptions, abandonment, neglect and the depredations of looters and vandals meant the restoration teams worked in a very different setting compared to the structure you see today.
Grainy historical photos show some of the difficulties of the challenge they faced.
The historic photo above reveals the challenges facing restoration teams at Borobudur temple. If you look closely you will spot workers on the second level. The pictures below shoe the extent of damage on the upper levels. Keep these in mind for a comparison with what you see when you visit.
Indonesian and international pilgrims come for annual Buddhist Waisak festival
Borobudur is one of three ancient temples in its immediate area.
The smaller Pawon and Mendut temples are about a kilometre and three kilometres to the east, accurately positioned in a perfect straight line.
On the first full moon in May both Indonesian and international Buddhist pilgrims gather at Mendut for meditation and prayers marking the annual Waisak Festival.
Monks in saffron robes then lead a procession to Pawon and on to Borobudur, guided by the light from candles and the moon above. The Buddhist pilgrims are joined by thousands of local and international visitors.
The event celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. At Borobudur prayers and offerings are made to the Buddha, seated serenely in the stupa at the peak of the temple.
Buddhists and visitors from throughout Indonesia and abroad gather at Borobudur for the Waisak Festival coinciding ith the first fu;ll moon in May.
The event concludes with Pradaksina when the Monks ask for charity towards the Indonesian people.
This triggers the simultaneous release of thousands of sky lanterns to soar into the darkness, symbolizing enlightenment for the entire universe.
To attend this event, you should book tickets and accommodation well in advance.
Thousands of lanterns launched in the night sky as a symbolic climax to the Waisak Festival at the time of the first full moon in May
A powerful symbol and monument to past epochs of greatness
Indonesians are righty proud of the aesthetic and technical mastery in the creation of Borobudur and view it as a powerful symbol of past greatness.
Under its cultural criteria, UNESCO listed the temple as representing ‘a masterpiece of human creative genius’.
Restoration and maintenance work is ongoing, and you may see artisans restoring stonework and reliefs. Here are some examples of striking restored reliefs and carvings:
A true devotee of ancient art and legends could spend days, weeks, months and years studying a treasure trove of intricate carved bas reliefs telling stories of the Buddha and ancient mythology at Borobudur..
Planning your Borobudur visit as at September 2022 (spoiler alert - changes in the offing)
Borobudur is about an hour (40km) from central Yogyakarta. You might consider joining a tour group or engaging a private driver/guide to take you there.
The journey is interesting, and a tour leader or driver/guide will point out sights (and other minor temples) along the way.
The current entrance fee for international visitors is Rp350,000 (*about USD$25) per adult which goes towards restoration and maintenance. Opening hours are 8am to 5pm.
Tour organizers and visitors alike sing the praises of viewing the sunrise or the sunset at Borobudur. You will pay a premium of about AUD$20 over the usual admission to do so (2020).
A visit for the sunrise means you will need to be at the Manohara ticketing point by about 4.45am and in place on the shrine by around 5.30am. Which in turn means waking very early and travelling through the dark or staying in close-by accommodation.
Sunset can be a little easier. Your premium ticket will allow you simply stay beyond the normal closing time of 5pm to view the descent into darkness from the shadows of the stupas.
I have done neither but people who viewed the sunrise or the sunset from the temple’s upper levels say it is stunning (weather permitting) and well worth it. Frankly, I say the same about my mid-morning visit.
A spectacular Borobudur sunset as captured by Singapore photographer Jason Denning.
For an informative visit be sure to hire a professional guide
For an enjoyable and informative visit make sure you hire a professional guide – they are available from near the entrance. Our group of four hired a guide for about AUD$10 an hour.
His explanations were so helpful and interesting that we happily topped up the fee with a sizeable tip. He explained some of the restoration work, the stories depicted in some of the reliefs and their origins, the history of the original construction period, and much more.
Some of the short staircases are a little steep and the treads narrow, but if taken steadily the climb it is not too arduous. Don’t be in a hurry. Pause to explore the reliefs a and other features at some levels as you go.
Be sure to wear appropriate shoes. Wear a hat, apply sunscreen protection, and carry a bottle of water – it can be hot in the middle of the day.
Like all holy places in Indonesia, visitors to Borobudur are expected to dress modestly. Shorts and mini skirts for women are not acceptable. Attendants may politely offer a sarong to visitors dressed inappropriately (or perhaps you can bring your own). Shoulders should be covered.
You can expect to be assailed by hawkers around the gateway as you depart. The usual rules apply – smile (a lot) politely and keep walking.
However, you may very well find some of the items on sale very tempting. And the vendors are good at making their selling feel like fun.
THE BIG PICTURE
Like so many of the great monuments and structures around the world the wonderfully restored Borobudur is in danger of being hartmed by its popularity.
UNESCO has recommended that visitor numbers should be limited to a maximum of 1,200 people a day to avoid damage. That’s potentially around 435,000 people a year.
But in pre-pandemic 2019 recorded visitors totalled 3.3 million and that’s around 8,000 people a day.
Most current visitors are Indonesians who are rightly proud of this important relic of past glories. They pay a much lower entry fee than international visitors.at Rp50,000 (AUD$5).
Indonesia has around 279 million people and Borobudur is undoubtedly a celebrated monument which many want to see. Do the math.
To make matters worse a new major tollway is planned to pass not far from Borobudur and expected to carry about 26 million road users a year – how many might decide to break their journey to visit this famous landmark?
The Government has been wrestling with this conundrum.
Earlier in 2022 it announced plans to increase the entry fee for international visitors to US$100 and Indonesian citizens to IDR750,000 (about AUD$75) as a rationing measure.
The announcement caused a predictable outcry and the responsible Minister has deferred implementation of the planned increases.
Charges compared for other great monuments
Critics pointed out visitors paid only 30 Euro to visit the Acropolis in Athens and 18 Euro each for the Colosseum and the Forum in Italy.
In India visitors pay US$35 to $30 to visit the Taj Mahal and the rate reportedly includes a guide or photo service.
There, for the moment, the Borobudur over-crowding problem stands. It means you need to CHECK for any potential changes in entry fees or restrictions before you visit.
It also probably means that it might be smart to schedule your trip while the present rules and entry fees remain in place.
For what it is worth, having visited Borobudur, I would pay US$100 admission, especially if I knew it would be helping to fund restoration and maintenance.
But I understand this would be a big ask for a visiting family group.