Dating from the 8th and 9th centuries, and built from two million blocks of stone, Borobudur is the world's largest Buddhist temple and one of Indonesia's most important cultural sites. The temple takes the form of a symmetrical stone stupa, wrapped around a hill and nestled in a compound of trimmed lawns fringed with tropical hardwoods. Remarkable for the detail of the stone carving, this beautiful monument looks particularly enigmatic at dawn and dusk – a sight worth the extra entry fee.
Borobudur was conceived as a Buddhist vision of the cosmos. Rising from a square base, it comprises a series of square terraces topped by three circular platforms, linked by four stairways that thread through carved gateways to the summit. Viewed from the air, the structure resembles a 3Dl tantric mandala (symbolic circular figure) through which Buddhist pilgrims could thread a path from the everyday, represented in stone relief, towards a contemplation of nirvana at the monument's crowning stupa.
Paralleling the spiritual journey towards enlightenment, the 2.5km of narrow corridors lead past rich sequences of stone reliefs that can be read as a textbook of early Javanese culture and Buddhist doctrine. The main entry point is via the eastern gateway; from here a clockwise rotation around the lower terraces reveals a carnal world of passion and desire; some friezes here are deliberately hidden by an outer covering of stone, but they are partly visible on the southern side of the monument. Bad deeds are punished through lowly reincarnation, while good deeds are rewarded by reincarnation as a higher form of life.
Nearly 1460 narrative panels and 1212 decorative panels grace the monument's six terraces and a guide can help bring this pageant – the ships and elephants, musicians and dancing girls, warriors and kings – to life. Some sequences are played out over several panels. On the third terrace, for example, the dream of Queen Maya, involving a vision of white elephants with six tusks, is represented as a premonition that her son would become a Buddha, and the sequence crescendos in the birth of Prince Siddhartha and his attainment of enlightenment. Many other panels are related to Buddhist concepts of cause and effect or karma.
Little guidance is needed to feel the impact of the upper platforms with their multiple images of the Buddha. A total of 432 seated statues and 72 further images (many now headless) adorn the latticed stupas on the top three terraces. The very top platform is circular, signifying the eternal. Whatever one's beliefs, the view from the monument's summit, especially on a humid day when mist rises from the surrounding paddy fields, is sublime – and made all the more spectacular if anticipated by slowly ascending through each of the terraces in turn.
Admission to the temple includes entrance to the Karmawibhangga Museum, featuring 4000 original stones and carvings from the temple, and the Borobudur Museum, with more relics, interesting photographs and gamelan performances at 9am and 3pm. The Museum Kapal Samurrarska houses a full-size replica of an 8th-century spiceship, which was remarkably designed and built based on an image depicted in one of the panels that adorn Borobudur Temple.
Tickets for the temple, which include a free audio guide, can be purchased online. A combined Borobudur–Prambanan ticket is only valid for two days and does not include the sunrise or sunset surcharge. Families take note that even high school children need to show a student ID card (or a letter from the school) to get the student discount rate.