Monday, 3 October 2011

3. Wonder: Borobudur

(For the Borobudur preview, please click here.)

"It's the biggest comic book in the world!"

So said my guide, an endearing and knowledgeable fellow called Budi, as he showed us around Borobudur. Looking a little like a squashed step pyramid, being only 31.5 metres in height but around 123 metres wide, Borobudur is actually a series of platforms on top of each other. The top three platforms are circular, representing nirvana, or the highest state of enlightenment, but Budi was referring to the lower six platforms, each squarish in overall shape, and for the visitor taking the form of corridors along which the walls of either side are ornately carved with tales of Buddhist mythology. These corridors and carvings are designed as a journey, a story from bottom to top, that the Buddhist pilgrim would slowly travel through as they tried to achieve understanding and enlightenment. Built, as it was, around 1200 years ago in an age where the common populace could not read, Borobudur is without textual explanation and relies on understanding of each story block, of which there are 2672. It is a comic book in stone, or as Budi also put it, a huge religious picture bible.


Of course, much of this is assumed, because save for a few inscribed stone tablets found in the area, most of what is known about the history and function of Borobudur is educated guesswork. We know more about the 3500-year-old Egyptian pyramids than we do about the 1200-year-old Borobudur. In fact, even it being a temple is in doubt: Borobudur is all surface - being built over a reshaped hill, it has no interior. This is at odds with the usual temple design, with an inner space and focus of a deity statue. Perhaps, as Budi suggested, Borobudur and the surrounding area were a vast centre of learning, with Borobudur itself open for all to read and understand. Or perhaps, as many ancient monuments seem to be, it was built as the giant boast of a king. That king would have been of the Sailendra dynasty, known to have ruled in that area of Java during that time, and was named on an inscription as Samaratungga. He didn't live to see the temple finished, but his son-in-law, a Hindu king, did so, thus uniting the two religions and empires. That's one version of events at any rate, as we really don't know. It's like piecing together the history of the British Empire from some newspaper scraps and the ruins of some old colonial mansions.

What is more certain is that around the 9th Century, Java was on a roll, and was one of the world's leading civilisations. The Romans were finished in Europe and the Dark Ages was firmly in place, the Mayan civilisation was fading, India was a mess and China, although powerful and advanced, was also closed and insular. But things were going well in Java, which was active in trading and absorbing the influences of Indian religions, and like all boomtimes there was an abundance of construction. Much survives today, and Java is scattered with old Hindu and Buddhist temples from the area, including two neighbours of Borobudur, Pawon and Mendut. These are thought to be associated with Borobudur, due to the similar architecture and the imaginary straight line that connects them.

Whether or not Borobudur was originally open to the public, there is no doubt that it is now. Up the four stairways in the centre of each face, the crowds flock. Most ignore the first six terraces and make a beeline for the summit, ignoring the kilometres of exquisite relief carvings that line the first six levels. While I fully understand this - the highlight of most buildings is the view from the top - it unfortunately misses the point of Borobudur. The tranquility of nirvana is certainly not represented when hundreds of tourists are waddling around taking photos, and the understanding of the lower levels has certainly not been attained to reach this higher state.

So my advice for anyone visiting Borobudur - be careful when you visit. Visit at the wrong time and any appreciation for this amazing and unique piece of architecture will be ruined by the crowds that jostle pass you. But visit at the right time - early morning, or late afternoon before 5pm closing - and the wonder of Borobudur will allowed itself to be revealed.

Because Borobudur is amazing. It has all the gravitas of being ancient, and still retains the sense of mystery of having being lost for many hundreds of years. Lost temples often seem to evoke a sense of Indiana Jones adventure and discovery, and Borobudur has all that. With its corridors lined by Buddhist carvings, statues of Buddha meditating in elevated niches, stone lions guarding the entrances, mythical dragons with open mouths acting as the ancient drainage system (some of which still work), and especially the upper three levels, almost free of sculpture, but filled with evenly-spaced bell-like stupas, each with a statue of Buddha inside, and commanding an astonishing view of the surrounding countryside, all of this adds up to a unique structure I've not seen anywhere else before. It is ornate and mighty, and as intended, walking through each terrace corridor with carvings either side, feels like a journey. Built from stones of volcanic origin, andesite and basalt, probably taken from a nearby river bed, Borobudur is naturally dark and even black in colour, giving it a vaguely portentous aura that would work well for a human sacrifice scene in a factually inaccurate Indiana Jones film ("Indiana Jones and the Mystery of Java" could be its name; I suggest Noel Edmonds as the human sacrifice).

While its function and history are somewhat steeped in mystery and doubt, the genius of the architecture is not. The name of the architect will never be known, although Javan folklore names him as "Gunadharna", who built it in a day, and now watches over it in the form of a nearby hill a little south of Borobudur which has the profile of a man lying down. The reality of construction is estimated to have taken a little longer, around 70 years, with a few thousand labourers, likely voluntary service. All this is guesswork of course, for no-one was taking any notes back then (or none that survived, at least). But much of the evidence is in the construction. I won't go on and on about the carvings, which to my eye are better than such gems as the classical Greek Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, but they are splendid, and definitely the work of craftsmen with a talent. Mind you, Borobudur being built from many individual blocks - around 1.6 million of them - any big mistakes could have been binned and a new block started. Nevertheless, the detail is fantastic, although it took our guide, Budi, to highlight some subtle details for us to fully appreciate them, such as the motifs that close inspection revealed to be contorted animals, and the depth of carving of wheel spokes. And, as Budi casually mentioned, Borobudur had early signs of corporate sponsorship.

McDonalds - they get everywhere.

To my eyes, one of the best things about Borobudur is probably one of the things many people don't like - you can't see the top. Being as it is much wider than it is tall, like a blocky fried egg, standing at the base, even from a distance, the wall of the uppermost of the six square terraces virtually obscures the top three circular terraces. You can just manage to see the large central stupa. For some this may seem frustrating, for me this is unquestionably a deliberate move of architectural nous. The top, representing nirvana, is not intended for quick or easy viewing. The 9th Century public, if they were allowed to view Borobudur at all, would likely have been made to study and fully understand the first six terrace corridors before being permitted to enter the realm of enlightenment. Like reading a book, the start and middle had to be digested before reaching the conclusion. Therefore, from the ground, the top would remain elusive.

And the top of Borobudur is the best bit.

Myself, and the thousands of tourists who march straight to the top, are lucky. We don't need to put in the work to enjoy Borobudur's rewards. For all I might praise the sculpted corridors, it is the top of Borobudur that blew me away. Borobudur, as well as being built on a small hill, is at a naturally elevated position anyway. As you progress up each terrace, the view of the surrounding countryside becomes wider, and better. Then you walk through the final archway, to the seventh terrace. And wow.

Borobudur changes at the top. The square terraces with carved corridors are replaced by three circular terraces, without carvings and also without walls, so that they are open. The only thing they have are bell-shaped stupas, 72 in all, each evenly spaced and perforated with square or diamond-shaped holes, and each of them containing a Buddha statue (originally, at least, a few are now without). The top level has at its centre a massive bell-shaped stupa, without perforations, although it is supposed to be hollow inside but without a Buddha. From the details of the lower levels, the simplicity of the upper is quite stark, and very effective. Learning is over, now there is enlightenment. Remove the crowds, and you have a very serene scene, and with a breathtaking view. The view, which gets better and better with each successive terrace, reaches its zenith at the top, and you have a vantage point for viewing miles and miles around, of flat countryside punctuated with the sudden bulges of hills and mountains. None of this is by chance: the architect wanted to represent nirvana and up here, on top of the world, captures its essence.


As you might have gathered, Borobudur is a commanding structure with exquisite detail and an air of gravitas. But it also has the crowds, which do their best to spoil it. I can't blame them - I make up their numbers, and together we've all paid our money to enjoy this unique monument. I love the fact that Borobudur is accessible - as perhaps it was always intended to be - and not forbidden to experience close up, such as Chichen Itza's "El Castillo" pyramid, or for the most part, Stonehenge in Britain. There are many very good arguments for not allowing the general public to walk freely within the world's best buildings, but at the core of it I feel that these special monuments shouldn't just be museum pieces, they should be enjoyed. Even though tourism represents a huge threat to Borobudur, because many people are fannies and like to rub at carvings or break off little pieces of "souvenirs" or just write their idiot names on ancient works of art, despite that I feel that a monument is still alive when people are allowed to walk within it and enjoy it. Just punish heavily the ones that abuse that trust. Cut their fingers off.

With a bit of savvy, it's easy to beat the crowds at Borobudur, and Burness and I employed a mix of savvy and luck to achieve this. Most people visit Borobudur as a day trip. Indonesians will drive there, or take a bus, and foreigners will likely use a day trip service leaving from Yogyakarta. The latter typically involves an hour or so drive in a bus, a couple of hours wandering around the site, and then back in the air-conditioned bus in time for lunch. It's absolutely not the way to see Borobudur. Crowds increase as the morning goes on, but as the afternoon wears on the busloads of tourists return to where they came. Thus, visit later in the afternoon, and enjoy a bit of time and space with your appreciation of the ancient mystery.

But even better, take a couple of days, and stay at the Manohara Hotel. I cannot recommend this strongly enough. The Manohara Hotel is within the grounds of Borobudur, and a mere five minute walk away. Check in at lunch-time, and enjoy a cheap lunch in the outdoor restaurant, sitting at the edge to get your first view of Borobudur, eating below it. There's no hurry to rush and see it; instead prolong the wait and hire a bicycle (from Joko if you want some friendly service, but the Manohara also rents them) and visit Borobudur's little brothers, Pawon and Mendut. Take a bekac (cycle rickshaw) if you're feeling a little lazier. Then hire a guide, costing about £5 for an hour (double that for two hours, although it might be a bit intense for the casual visitor), and visit Borobudur itself. The guide will go through most of the lower terraces with you, explaining the reliefs and the background of the temple - no skipping to the top here. Finally, you can reach the top, enjoy nirvana, and the fabulous view. Your guide will leave you now, and you can enjoy a stroll within the terraces at your own leisure, and hopefully without the crowds.

The next morning - 4.30am - do it again, this time without a guide but with a torch, given to you by the hotel for the special sunrise tour. You can enter Borobudur an hour-and-a-half before the first tourists, explore it by torchlight, then sit at the top as the sun rises. It's every bit as spectacular as it sounds. The crowds are restricted to those who are part of the sunrise tour, and therefore small, and there is no restriction as to how long you can stay at the top (usually no more than 15 minutes is allowed).

Have breakfast, take a nap, and then pop by again to see how awful it is with the crowds.

This I did, for one final look before checking out and getting the bus back to Yogyakarta. I don't regret it - but if it was the only time I'd seen Borobudur I can assure you it wouldn't be the 1200-year-old building I'd remember. Instead, it would be the thick crowds clogging the stairways and the neverending requests from Indonesians to have a photo taken with me. The latter was charming, baffling, and ultimately overwhelming. Locals, usually children, would politely request a photo, perhaps asking a few questions too. I would stand, smile, and have a photo taken with a random Indonesian, and they would now be the proud owners of a photo with a random foreigner, presumably to add to their collection. Burness reckons its for their version of Top Trumps. I'm more than happy to oblige, but after over seven requests in fifteen minutes, I had to escape. It was too much. I couldn't see the temple for the people, and couldn't move without being involved in another photo shoot.

Another curious feature of a visit to Borobudur these days, only introduced this year, is the wearing of the sarong.

As you can see, I wasn't sure if it really suited me. But I wasn't alone - all visitors to Borobudur must now wear this sarong. "To preserve Indonesian character" we were told upon enquiring. "A sarong company has an excellent contract," Budi remarked, with a smile.

My opinion of Borobudur overall? Ignore all my comment about the crowds, as I don't factor that in, and I was lucky enough on all but my final visit to have enjoyed a very peaceful scene. Borobudur is a work of art, and the first Wonder I've seen that is better close up than it is from afar: Sydney Opera House and Marina Bay Sands look glorious from a distance, but their mystery fades up close. Borobudur rewards close attention, and oddly still retains its likely function - for the Buddhist pilgrim, its art and story can be still be studied from level to level, in theory, before reaching the enlightened peak (although they would probably find it easier reading a book). Like the best Wonders, it grows on your appreciation, and it needs more than one viewing to fully appreciate it. Another way of putting this is that it doesn't necessarily knock you out first time. A Swiss guy we met viewed Borobudur and the relatively nearby (and spectacular) temple of Prambanan on a short day trip and was underwhelmed, more or less describing it as "just another temple". His view is valid, but too casual, and Borobudur is not a casual building. It is a detailed, finely nuanced one. Understanding, as befitting Borobudur's purpose, is required for real appreciation. And this, depending on your viewpoint, is either a strength or weakness.

How does it fulfil my criteria therefore? I have added a new one, back story, as I realise the best Wonders all seem to have a good story behind them.

Size: Short and fat would be a cruel way to put it, a massive flattened step pyramid would be kinder. Borobudur is bulky and wide.
Engineering: 1.6 million blocks placed on top of and next to each other without mortar requires a lot more than luck. Taking about 70 years and involving the reshaping of a hill, this was a large scale project over generations, involving precision and foresight. Evidence of the consequence of mistakes exist, as one face looks to have collapsed during construction, requiring the addition of a supporting wall at the base. Since then, it has survived earthquakes and the passage of time. In fact, one of its main threats also highlights what happens when less sophisticated techniques are used - the Dutch, in the late 19th Century, tried to restore Borobudur, using concrete to hold it together - and the extra weight almost caused the entire structure to collapse.
Artistry: Fantastic, and overwhelming in its detail. The sculptural reliefs are the obvious focus of Borobudur's art, but the overall structural design is also highly impressive. I love how the top is obscured from view when seen from outside, and the top itself, contrasting with the ornate lower levels, is simple and striking.
Age/Durability: Ancient and with a heavyweight sense of gravitas. Borobudur is 1200 years old from a lost civilisation, and seems timeless.
Fame/Iconicity: Indonesia's most famous attraction, but not so known in the Western world. I only heard of it when first looking for Wonder candidates, although since then have noticed it a lot more. Its fame and fortune will depends on Indonesia's.
Context: On the one hand, being positioned at the highest point of land for miles around, it allows for fantastic views, and is the dominant structure. On the other, less appealing are the hawker markets built around it, that you are more or less forced to enter upon leaving the area. Borobudur is not exactly in the jungle these days, and is surrounded by the low level sprawl of an Indonesian town and farming community. However, in its favour again, it has a reasonably large and pleasant area sectioned off to itself.
Back Story: Built by a lost civilisation with its origins lost in the mists of time, and found after many hundreds of years of being lost in the jungle, by Raffles, the founder of Singapore, Borobudur nails the back story.
Originality: Unique.
Photogenicity: Great from above, but for the normal person without a helicopter, it can be difficult to do it justice in a photo. Even the splendid top isn't captured so well.

So is Borobudur a Wonder? It's a fantastic structure and a very rewarding one to understand and pay close attention to, but I don't think it will end up as one of the Seven. I think the Sydney Opera House nudges it by virtue of its unworldly beauty and perfect harbour position, but already I can see that it's going to be difficult to compare modern works of architecture to ancient and mysterious temples. Sometimes it's better just to go by gut feeling: Borobudur is great but the Opera House is better. Just.

The List So Far

1. Sydney Opera House
2. Borobudur
3. Marina Bay Sands


  1. This is all fabulous, but mostly reminds me of my continuing disappointment that the Elgin Marbles are not, in fact, giant marbles used by the Greek gods in days of yore. Meh. But as I said, fabulous and looking forward to more. Especially more sarong wearing. Embrace it!

  2. I recall as a child, William G. Stewart of 15-to-1 campaigning for the return of the Elgin Marbles, and being genuinely bewildered to discover they weren't real marbles from Elgin (and quickly losing interest upon hearing this). It is largely due to Stewart that I oppose the return - he also (futilely) campaigned for the recognition of the 3rd millennium starting on 2001 rather than 2000, and was awfully smug about it, despite being, in fact, entirely wrong.

    I note that my sarong wearing has become the focus for many, rather than the massive, ornate and ancient temple.

  3. Thanks for your interesting way of putting it. You'll go along with us in a month's time, probably adding to the scenery.

  4. Thanks for detail information about Borobudur. I'm one of big fans of this article. This is the biggest temple in my country.

  5. Fantastically written. Thanks

  6. Fantastically written. Thanks

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