Borobudur Monument

This past weekend we traveled to Jogjakarta in Central Java. We had a holiday on Friday but didn’t leave until the afternoon because flights were quite full as this is also Spring Break for the International Schools in Jakarta. Our first destination was Borobudur, about an hour north of the city.

We took a car from the airport to the Manohara Hotel at the foot of the Temple and arrived about 4:30 in the afternoon. It is the only hotel on  the Sanctuary grounds and was originally built as a cultural center for archaeologists to come to study and workshop about Borobudur and other nearby temples. We signed up for a sunrise tour and were given our tickets for Saturday morning. They included admission for Friday as well but the park closes each day at 5:00 and we thought we would just head to our room. As former lodging for archaeologists the rooms are small and simple but clean. Deciding that the A/C needed some time to cool the room Scott grabbed his camera and we headed towards the temple with the hopes to get some pictures from the bottom of the hill. To our surprise (and delight) they let us in 10 minutes before closing. By this time most of the tourists were gone and only a few groups and visitors remained. As we did not expect to be allowed admission, we had not gotten the requisite sarongs to wear on the temple so we walked around the base, taking the opportunity to get some fantastic pictures.

This is a holy place and although it is now more of a historical site and a national treasure, you can still feel a sense of peace, awe, and spirituality there. We strolled about until most of the visitors were coming off the temple and queuing up at the exit. We spotted a young man with the hotel logo on his shirt and approached him as to how to proceed through the exit and back to the hotel. He told us we had a special gate on the other side and led us over there, stopping to let Scott take a few pictures and even taking one of us. On the way down some vendors selling Buddha heads and souvenir books spotted us and immediately began to badger us to buy. Scott made the mistake of engaging one persistent fellow, Johan, in conversation and promised him that he would buy from him on Saturday. (Fortunately Johan was nowhere to be seen on Saturday and so we are (thankfully) without a cement Buddha head in our souvenir collection!)


Our room was now cool and we were hungry so we headed towards the restaurant, stopping by the desk to request an English-speaking guide for the morning. The open pavilions that house the restaurants and the reception desk are beautiful examples of Javanese architecture. From our table we could see the sun setting behind the temple. The food was much better than we had anticipated. In the center of the building there were many traditional musical instruments and a young man who played and sang traditional Javanese songs. He very patiently taught a young girl how to accompany him on one of the other instruments. Relaxed and full, we headed back to our room to try to get to sleep early.



The 4:00 am wake up call was a bit rough but at 4:30 we were in the reception pavilion with many other guests putting on our sarongs and collecting our flashlights. (Luckily we brought our own as mine did not work.) Since the park itself does not open until 6:00 am this is the only way to see the sunrise and guests from other hotels arrived to join our group.  The sunrise tour is a bit misleading as it offers no guides in any language and should maybe be called the sunrise entrance. We were aware of this and had contracted to have a private guide with us. Pak Budi introduced himself and we started up towards the temple. Many people headed straight up to the top but although it was dark, Pak Budi stopped on several of the levels to point out some of the reliefs carved into the sides of the temple. We arrived at the top about 50 minutes before sunrise. The sun is a star and on that day her paparazzi awaited her. Many people had cameras at ready, checking lighting levels, setting up tripods. We found a quiet place that was not too crowded and although Scott did want to get pictures of the sunrise we were a little put off by the lack of reverence we saw in some of the visitors.


Soon after sunrise Pak Budi found us and took us to several spots just to get pictures. His father had been a restoration worker on the temple and a photographer and he had a great eye for some of the magnificent ways to capture the beauty of the temple. After he felt certain that he had done his best as a photographic guide, he began to move us around the temple, explaining the history, the legend, and the surrounding landscapes. He was quite funny and loved to reference American movies.

There are over 500 Buddha statues on the temple. The position of the Buddha and the level it sits on determines the hand position of the statue. Pak Budi and I did Tai Chi as a way of learning the six positions. The left hand is almost always at the waist, palm up.


  • Right hand palm down – calling the Earth to witness. (East facing lower levels)
  • Right hand palm forward (“stop” position) – imparting fearlessness, courage. (North facing lower levels)
  • Right hand palm up – charity and good works. (South facing lower levels)
  • Right hand palm up on top of left, close to the body – meditation. (West facing lower levels)
  • Right hand thumb and first finger making a circle (ok sign) – teaching or reasoning, virtue. (All Buddhas on the top levels regardless of direction facing)
  • Right ring finger to left ring finger close to the body – turning the wheel of life. (All Buddhas in the Stupas on the three upper levels)

The history of Borobudur is not exact and we found several accounts and legends about who built it. (One was that a giant built it and then went to sleep becoming a mountain range to the north.) It seems agreed upon that it was built in the 8th century and took about 75 years to complete. My favorite and the one that seems most plausible based on history is that a Buddhist Sultan had it built as a way to show the people the teachings of Buddha (using the reliefs as “picture bibles”.) The top levels were for the priests and people could progress up the 10 levels as they became “enlightened”. However, he was old and the work was not completed. His daughter, the Buddhist Queen married the Hindu King that also lived in the area. The Sultan asked his son-in-law to complete his temple and the Hindu King did so to honor the wishes of his father-in-law. However, the Hindu King felt a longing in his soul to honor his gods and after completing Borobudur, he began construction of Prambanan nearby. He had a small Buddhist temple built on the corner of that complex to honor his queen and to protect the Buddhist monks. He could not finish his temple either and so it was left to his son-in-law to finish.

By the time we were more than halfway through our tour, the temple was becoming crowded with other visitors and large groups of school children (middle school and high school age.) We were stopped often and asked to take pictures with the children. A few times our guide had to intercede so that we could move along in the tour. Apparently there are many small villages where people have not seen a “real” Westerner. Some just wanted pictures. Other groups of children we met had assignments to practice their English and would ask questions about where we were from and what food we liked in Indonesia. Scott and I were amused by it although after a while I think it irritated the guide. It gave us a chance to practice a little of our bahasa Indonesia too.

We made it back to the hotel in time for a wonderful breakfast, still within site of the monument. After a short nap (for me) we checked out, meeting our guide for the rest of the weekend, Agus. What was only a few hours that morning seemed like so much more. Plans for a return visit are already underway!

Quick Facts about Borobudur:

  • Built in the 8th century
  • Indonesian name is Candi Borobudur (pronounced Chandi)
  • Borobudur is not technically a temple as there is no way to enter the monument. It is built over a hill or small mountain.
  • There are over 2500 bas reliefs, some decorative and some story telling
  • There are 10 levels including the Stupa at the top of the monument. That Stupa is thought to return the counting to zero, a perfect circle, and therefore representative of Nirvana
  • There were originally 504 Buddha statues. Many are damage and some missing. All statues are seated in the “lotus” position.
  • There are 72 Stupas that are distributed on the three upper levels in descending multiples of 8. (The number 8 has no beginning and no end.)
  • The Stupas on Borobudur are perforated. Those on the lower levels have diamond-shaped holes representing instability and those on the upper level have square holes to signify being more grounded.
  • A Stupa is representative of Buddhas holy mind. The Stupas on Borobudur differ from traditional stupas. This was thought to be artistic license of the builders injecting a bit of Javanese culture into the construction. Each Stupa houses a statue of Buddha but it is unclear whether or not they once held holy relics as well.
  • Borobudur and the surrounding area was thought to be abandoned in the 10th or 11th century when the center of power was moved from Central Java to East Java. It is speculated that this was due to volcanic eruptions from several local volcanoes.
  • Restoration was first undertaken in the 1900s. Since then a major renovation funded by UNESCO was done in 1972 and small restorations done in 1985 after a bombing and in 2010 after volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Merapi covered the entire monument in about an inch of debris. The monument was closed while workers removed not only surface ash but removed stones from the terraces in order to clean out debris from the drainage system and then painstakingly returned them to their original place.

Disclaimer: Although I have checked some of the facts as they were told to me, do not hold me to any academic accuracy as I am but a poor gullible tourist that sometimes prefers conjecture over the words “nobody knows.”

Please, please, please go to the Photo Album section of our blog to see many more beautiful pictures of Borobudur. The almost 200 pictures there are less than half of what we took during our time on the monument. Some of the surrounding landscape is equally breathtaking!

136 thoughts on “Borobudur Monument

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