At the heart of Java island in conservative Muslim Indonesia, I finally caught the first glimpse of one of the most sacred and largest Buddhist structure in the world. Beyond the shrubs and trees and through the haze in early morning light, the well trodden steps led to the summit of a low hill and on to the elevating levels of holiness in Candi Borobudur. Amazing!

For centuries, the chandi or temple - a mammoth shrine dedicated to Buddha and place of pilgrimage lay under volcanic ashes, abandoned and covered by jungle. The biggest of the major restoration works which was undertaken by UNESCO and Indonesian government between 1975-1982 resurrected its magnificence and religious stature. It is today a much visited monument by local tourists, Buddhist pilgrims and international travellers. Following the Bali and Jakarta bombings between 2002-2005, many foreigners stayed away from Indonesia but with the current situation seemingly calm, tourists have included this world heritage a 'must see' once more.

Building was said to have taken place from the 8th to 9th centuries during the heyday of the empire of the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty in Central Java. It takes the general shape of a stupa and from an aerial perspective, the giant structure is in the form of a tantric mandala representing Buddhist cosmology and state of mind. The shrine comprises of ascending levels of 6 square platforms followed by 3 circular ones. A main stupa tops the entire structure at its centre and the total height was originally 42 meters. Several lightning strikes have since reduced it to 35. Surrounding the main stupa are 72 Buddha statues seated inside perforated stupas in the round platforms. In the square platforms, 432 Buddha statues in different sitting positions adorn balustrades and niches in the walls.

An impressive total of 2,672 relief panels cover an aggregate surface area of 2,500 square meters. Many of these wonderful carvings narrates the life and teachings of Buddha. Every piece of decoration is a masterpiece and every relief feature has a moral story to tell. The exquisite workmanship rival those in the great temples of ancient Angkor city and it is interesting to note that those are actually 'younger'.

Our learned guide, a non Buddhist - the majority of residents in Java are Muslims - was an expert in Buddhism. The Buddhist concept of life and rebirth (as contrary to reincarnation) is not an easy one to follow, yet he impressed us (3 'born-Buddhist' friends) with in-depth explanations and academic precision. 'Waisak' - as it is called here, Wesak or Vesak in other parts of the world, is a very important day commemorating the present Buddha, Sakyamuni's enlightenment. Pilgrims perform the ritual of circumambulating the ascending levels of platforms depicting levels of Kamadhatu (world of desire), Rupadhatu (world of forms) and the ultimate Arupadhatu (world of formless) or enlightenment. It represents the elevation of the human mind from the lowest level of desires and animal instincts to the highest state void of lust, desires and forms.

Borobudur is located in the once glorious Kedu Plains known as the 'garden of Java' near present day Yogyakarta city, the centre of learning and culture in Indonesia. It is also where another UNESCO World Heritage site, the ancient Hindu temple complex of Prambanan is found nearby. However, the beautiful monuments within the complex are less fortunate. They lost their importance as places of worship since majority population converted to Islam from the 15th century onwards. Borobudur, on the other hand, regained its stature as a centre of great spiritual relevance to Buddhists throughout Indonesia after restoration.


The outer wall at each level of the 'world of forms' have wonderful decorations of religious symbolism and niches carved for Buddha's statues in various sitting positions.
An 'open' stupa displaying the Buddha statue inside at the 'World of Formlessness'.
View from North-west, the temple takes the general shape of a mammoth stupa

The East entrance - through the haze, the magnificent temple reveals itself in early morning light.

There are 6 levels of square platforms - the base represent the 'world of desires' and the next 5, the 'world of forms'.

'People gossiping' at the 'hidden foot' in the 'world of desires'. This section of reliefs were not covered back after its discovery to allow for viewing.


The life of Buddha told in narrative carvings.


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