Sunrise at Borobudur

Last weekend, my mom, cousin and I traveled to the giant 9th-century Javan temple known as Borobudur.

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This is the largest Buddhist temple in the world.

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In fact, the whole thing is so large (it’s 404 ft x 404 ft at the base) that any attempt to photograph it ends up having a strange mounded effect — and you can barely see the top stupa at all when you’re standing down below.

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There’s a lot we don’t know about Borobudur: we don’t know how or why it was constructed, we don’t know who oversaw the building project, and we don’t know the origin of the name (it was first recorded by Sir Stamford Raffles in his history of Java). We do know that at some point very roughly between 1000 and 1300, the temple was abandoned (but we don’t know why) and covered over by thick jungle vegetation. And we know that in 1814, Raffles heard about the monument and sent a Dutch engineer named Hermann Cornelius to uncover it — and people have been flocking to visit ever since that project’s conclusion in 1835.

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Borobudur was designed as one enormous pyramidal stupa (Buddhist shrine). It has three levels that symbolize the three worlds of Buddhist existence: the world of desires (populated by humans, ghosts, and much nastier things) at the bottom …

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… the world of forms (populated by gods) in the middle …

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… and the formless world (populated by full Buddhas) at the top:

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We went for a sunrise visit, which means that we scrambled straight up to the top level to join the Buddhas for the darkness …

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… and then first morning light.

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The Islamic call to prayer — Java is now a Muslim island — rang out through the semi-darkness just moments afterward:

 

It was a cloudy morning with fog hanging low in the valley …

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… so the sun had to work to peek through …

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… but as the sun rose higher …

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… we were treated to a few fleeting moments of dramatic sweeps of color…

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… before the clouds came back in and began to crowd out the light.

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It was hard to decide whether to take a million photographs or just sit back and watch the scene unfold.

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The top level of Borobudur is by far the most visited and photographed.

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It is dotted with seventy-two round stupas …

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… some of which have square holes …

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… and some of which have rhombus-shaped holes:

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Each of the stupas is about twice the height of a person …

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… and each one has a large Buddha statue hidden inside!

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Most of these Buddhas are without their heads — of the original 504 Buddhas at the site, nearly 300 have had their heads taken by thieves and collectors — so you usually look through the diamond-shaped perforations on the stupas and just see a torso with hands turning the wheel of dharma (and, in this case, my cousin Esther on the other side):

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Other Buddhas at the top level sit outside of stupas in stone rings (and are the site of much photography) …

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… while still others line walls further down (they would have been inside stone niches at some point) …

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… towering over the scene far below:

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But Borobudur isn’t just about Buddhas and stupas (though those are the most famous parts). It’s also about beautiful archways …

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… terrific gargoyles …

 

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… and bas-reliefs!

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There are 2,672 relief panels in total, which portray everything from daily life in Java to local flora and fauna …

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… to stories of royalty and divine beings.

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You could spend a whole day studying these …

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… and trying to figure out what’s going on (what’s up with the figures flying on some kind of a snake-like carpet above the elephant?):IMG_4098.jpg

We also met and saw interesting people at Borobudur.

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We participated in an impromptu “learn the mudras (hand gestures) of the Buddha” class …

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… and had at least six different groups of strangers ask to have their pictures taken with us.

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If you get tired of all of the stone, there’s plenty of beautiful greenery around the base and grounds of Borobudur — it’s all very peaceful and well-maintained. You’ll find flowers …

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… tree-lined walks …

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… lush green lawns …

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… strange fruits hanging in the air …

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… and giant gnarled trees:

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They keep the grounds spotlessly clean, which helps add to the overall feeling of serenity. It’s clear in all sorts of ways, from the discreetly-hidden gift shops to the perfect sweeping of the gravel, that this is still a sacred space.

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If you choose to go to Borobudur at sunrise, here are a few tips and things to know before you go:

  1. It’s pricey. One ticket will cost you roughly $34 USD. That’s not much for seeing and helping to preserve an ancient monument, but by the cost standards of everything else on Java, it’s a king’s ransom. Cheaper tickets are available later in the day — and if you’re Indonesian.
  2. The sun begins to show its light at about 5:15 am year-round. If you’re staying in Yogyakarta, getting to Borobudur before sunrise means waking up before 4:00 in order to see the full transition from dark to light.
  3. The sunrise crowds start thinning out by around 6:30 — and then new crowds start swarming in by 7:30. So if you want time to take (nearly) people-free photos, the sweet spot is right in that hour.
  4. The sunrise ticket comes with a flashlight (to be turned in at the end for a small but pretty souvenir scarf) and a mediocre breakfast, which is served anytime between 6:00 and 9:00 in an attractive open-air cafeteria.
  5. If you’re wondering what you can and can’t do on the grounds, they provide an extremely thorough list:

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Many people will choose to race over to Prambanan, a giant Hindu temple complex, once they’ve left Borobudur. But we would recommend against this unless you (a) are pressed for time in the area or (b) have boundless energy for temples and heat. Prambanan is a long drive from Borobudur, and two giant temple areas in one day is exhausting. Instead, once you’re done with Borobudur, you can take the much shorter drive for a brief visit to the lovely and nearly empty Candi Mendut.

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This small (by comparison) Buddhist temple was completed by 824 AD, making it slightly older than Borobudur. You can walk up the stairs to a dark central chamber that houses the Dhyani Buddha Vairocana:

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There are more bas-reliefs here, including depictions of bodhisattvas …

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… animals …

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… and tales from the Jataka (stories of the Buddha in animal form) — this is from the story of the too-chatty tortoise and the birds:

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There clearly used to be more temple buildings on these grounds, because Candi Mendut is surrounded by organized piles of rubble:

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But my favorite part of the Candi Mendut grounds was this stupa-shaped topiary!

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For something entirely different, you can stroll past the enormous banyan tree (and then past the long line of gift shops, the first we’d seen all day) …

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… and over to the Mendut Monastery next door.

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It’s a good place to meditate …

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… though I found myself entirely distracted by the spectacular display being put on by the local butterflies.

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Then I started to take a look at the religious iconography — and I had to wonder why someone had decided to build mini-replicas straight out of Angkor Wat’s (specifically, it’s four-faced archway and its elephant wall).

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… and its elephant wall:

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The borrowed statues were interesting, but definitely unexpected. Oh, and I also want to know who tied this wooden bird up in a tree:

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This made me laugh — I’m glad to know that someone in the monastery has a sense of humor!

 

 

2 responses to “Sunrise at Borobudur

  1. Pingback: Prambanan: Towers to the Gods | Traveler Tina·

  2. Pingback: 10 Reasons to Visit Yogyakarta | Traveler Tina·

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