Our trip to Borobudur began at 4:00am from Jogjakarta. We had rented a motorcycle from the guesthouse the night before and took it out in the morning as all the mosques began the first call to prayer at 4:30. Within a half hour the traffic was its usual heavy, chaotic flow and we only made a couple of wrong turns before finding the road that our guesthouse owner assured us was “one right turn and then straight all the way, just follow the signs”. Borobudur is the number one tourist attraction for Java, drawing the biggest crowds and the most tourism money for the Indonesian government of any temple or activity, but even so, the only sign we saw was small, inconspicuous and right at the turn-off from the main highway. For this and other reasons, most people find their way to Borobudur on a tour bus. The ride was rewarding though because as we were nearing the entrance to the temple grounds, we stopped to watch the sun rising over Mount Merapi; a very active and unstable volcano that many Javanese consider the spiritual center of the island.
It took us two hours to reach the temple but once inside the grounds we were surprised to find there were relatively few visitors as of yet. There was a low lying fog which dampened the sound as we approached the main entrance. Borobudur was built in the 8th century CE and is estimated to have taken 75 years to complete. The temple has nine platforms, six square three circular and is the shape of the tantric Buddhist mandala.
There are approximately 2 670 exquisite bas-reliefs in Borobudur that are divided by subject and location into the three realms of Buddhist cosmology: the world of desire, the world of forms and the world of formlessness.
The first three levels of the temple depict the world of desires; kings and riches, love and war, merchants and fashions of the 8th century. The next three levels depict the world of forms; people lining up to listen to the Buddha’s teachings and giving offerings. The last three levels which are circular are ringed with bell-shaped stupas and represent the attainment of enlightenment, the realization of the non-existence of self, the fact that everything is connected and that therefore nothing has a form of it’s own but is all intertwined with the rest of the universe. There are 72 buddha statues seated inside perforated stupas and in the center at the very top, one large stupa.
The first couple hours were very peaceful as we admired the bas-reliefs but slowly more and more school groups came. The volume slowly rose as single teachers – each with 100 or so kids – yelled over megaphones, trying to no avail to get them not to sit of the stupas or deface the carvings. The school groups were taken up the front of the temple to the iconic bell-shaped stupas, left there to wander on their own then called back down. Borobudur has up to 90 000 people visiting per year, 80% of which are local tourists. Conservationists have been saying for years that they needs to be limits on the number of visitors climbing the temple as the structural integrity of the building is being compromised. Apart from being bored and sitting around on thousand year-old Buddhist carvings, a favourite game for the children was take cellphone pictures of the foreigners. At first this is kind of endearing and as most of the students came from small towns where they never see tourists, people tended to be obliging. But after five dozen pictures the experience became wearing. We could not stop to look at anything for more than a couple seconds without being asked for a photo and where there was one soon there were twenty, each wanting an individual pictures a group picture, a picture with funny faces, another picture because the first one wasn’t good enough. Of the seven hours we spent in the temple it is not an exaggeration to say that four were spent being photographed or interviewed by local english students, or both. The students for the most part were very polite and friendly but the main issue we had with the temple was the overcrowding.