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Sunrise at Borobudur

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Under the veil of darkness, I saw little more than a hulking presence that towered in the distance. Our flashlights illuminated small details along the path: heavily worn steps, the edges of a gateway, and then a bell-shaped, perforated stupa. I had arrived with Bama, my longtime travel companion, and fellow bloggers Bart and Badai. All of us were repeat visitors to Borobudur, but none had yet witnessed the glory of a new day from its terraces.

The four of us sat on a ledge, awaiting the dawn with a small crowd of spectators. In time the sun rose over the slender cone of Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano, and its dormant neighbour Merbabu. Beneath a boundless sky bathed in pink and flaming orange, our surroundings gradually took shape. From this colossal mandala encrusted with spires, archways and elaborate bas-reliefs, I looked out in awe as the mist burned off the forest, the nearby hills and palm-fringed fields. To visit Borobudur a second time, nearly twenty years later, was to see it with new eyes.

Much has changed since those days. Indonesia is no longer led by a pompous military dictator, but a humble, democratically elected ‘metalhead of state’. I am no longer a ten-year-old wishing to be an architect, but Borobudur inspires the same feelings of reverence and wonder. Now that I am older, it strikes me as being even more magnificent than I had ever recalled.

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A new day dawns over Borobudur

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Stupas hewn out of volcanic andesite

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Sumbing, another active volcano, rises to the northwest

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Temple silhouettes, with Merapi (centre) and Merbabu (left) in the distance

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Mist on the Kedu Plain

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Each stupa was built around an image of Buddha; this one has been exposed

More than a thousand years after it was completed (around 825 AD), Borobudur remains the world’s largest Buddhist temple. The structure is adorned with 504 Buddha statues and more than 2,600 individual bas-reliefs, depicting the biography of the Buddha, his former lives, and everyday scenes in eighth-century Java. Today Borobudur is still used for its original function; once a year, thousands of monks and pilgrims converge on the monument to celebrate Vesak, commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha.

Buddhists and Hindus believe in samsara, an endless cycle of rebirth, and Borobudur has undergone a physical rebirth of its own. Motivated by the threat of collapse, conservationists dismantled it stone by stone between 1975 and 1982 in a large-scale restoration. Each block was meticulously catalogued and cleaned, the foundation stabilised, and a modern drainage system installed. By the early nineties, after the renovation was complete, the temple was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But Borobudur wasn’t always as celebrated. For centuries the monument lay hidden and overgrown, neglected under layers of volcanic ash from nearby Merapi.

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Sacred geometry on the upper terraces, which represent ‘Arupadhatu’

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Arupadhatu (the formless world) is the highest realm in Buddhist cosmology

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Light and shadow

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In search of solitude

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Among the ancients

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Looking northwest, towards Sumbing

In 1814, during a brief period when the British ruled Java, it was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who brought Borobudur to the world’s attention. The governor had heard of a great monument that lay deep in the jungle of Central Java, and he tasked a Dutch engineer, H.C. Cornelius, to excavate the site. It took two months to remove the earth and hundreds of trees obscuring the temple, before its faded glory was finally revealed.

Even in its ruined state, Raffles regarded Borobudur and its Hindu counterpart, Prambanan, as “admirable as majestic works of art”:

“The great extent of the masses of building covered in some parts with the luxuriant vegetation of the climate, the beauty and delicate execution of the separate portions, the symmetry and regularity of the whole, the great number and interesting character of the statues and bas-reliefs, with which they are ornamented, excite our wonder that they were not earlier examined, sketched, and described.”

Borobudur is no longer cloaked in tropical foliage, but those words, for the most part, still ring true. And that same wonder that Raffles felt 200 years ago remains for all those who come, lingering in the stillness of dawn’s first light.

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Another shot of the famous Buddha at Arupadhatu

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Bathed in the glory of the sun

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The middle section of Borobudur, symbolising ‘Rupadhatu’ (the world of forms)

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Sutras in stone

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Temples and maidens

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Paying homage to the Buddha

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Morning meditation

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Dwarfed by the central stupa

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‘The Borobudur Ship’ – an 8th-century double outrigger

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The ship forms part of an elaborate bas-relief

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Fill in the blanks

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Finding a niche in ‘the world of forms’

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Borobudur as seen from its base, which represents ‘Kamadhatu’, the world of desires

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The smouldering cone of Merapi

65 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wonderful post James, and superb photos. I hope we get to Borobudur one day. It looks magnificent.
    Alison

    April 30, 2016
    • Thank you, Alison. I think you would both appreciate its enduring beauty. The combination of majestic architecture and spirituality – not to mention the solitude of a tropical sunrise – is totally compelling.
      James

      April 30, 2016
  2. As a repeat visitor, it was one of the best time in Borobudur I’ve ever had James. My long time wish came true, enjoying the sun rose over Borobudur!

    Very good article and photos James. As usual I always enjoy to read your writing, it flows gently.

    April 30, 2016
    • I’m glad to hear it, Bart. It was a picture-perfect sunrise for sure. Considering how cloudy it got later that morning, we really lucked out with the weather. Makasih banyak for the kind words!

      April 30, 2016
  3. Well written and easy to read. I also hope to see the sunrise from Borobudur in the future! 🙂

    April 30, 2016
    • Salamat Enrico. 🙂 The experience is a must – particularly if you want to avoid the midday crowds!

      April 30, 2016
  4. If I remember it right, last year’s visit was my fifth. Yet every time I return to Borobudur, I am always astonished by its sheer size and intricate carvings. It’s also fascinating to think how much temple-building technique had evolved in ancient Java, from modest Hindu temples in Dieng to a colossal stepped pyramid that is Borobudur. Superb photos, James!

    April 30, 2016
    • We must have spent at least four hours at Borobudur… and it still feels like I only explored a fraction of the temple, or at least seen a small portion of its exquisite carvings. It was overwhelming in its beauty. I’m sure I will return someday in the future. Makasih, Bama!

      April 30, 2016
  5. It’s one of my favourite places in Indonesia, just after volcanoes 🙂

    April 30, 2016
    • I can see why! And yes, I also love seeing the volcanoes up close. 🙂

      April 30, 2016
  6. Was here in 1990 always remembered the high pitched sounds of the cicades continuously piercing out ears! AL Prambanan was also a wonderful site to visit too!

    April 30, 2016
    • Wow, 1990! I imagine Borobudur wasn’t quite as popular for foreign or Indonesian tourists back then. Funny as I don’t recall hearing any cicadas… they must have been fast asleep!

      April 30, 2016
  7. Amazing🙌

    April 30, 2016
    • Absolutely. You have to see it for yourself!

      April 30, 2016
  8. Stunning photos! Wish I was there.

    April 30, 2016
    • Thanks for reading – Borobudur is a true wonder of the world.

      April 30, 2016
  9. Absolutely stunning photos, James! The light on the stupas and the mist floating behind are magical. I scrolled back and forth many times to see the images again. The history is fascinating as well. When oh when am I going to get to all these places I want to see with my own eyes?!

    April 30, 2016
    • Thanks, Lex! “Magical” was a word that kept cropping up as I wrote this post, though I didn’t use it because I wanted the pictures to speak for themselves. The mist added such an ethereal quality to the place – it felt like being on a holy mountain. Fingers crossed you’ll make it to Indonesia soon!

      April 30, 2016
  10. Wow! Can’t think of anything else to say as dawn fills the sky with blue light outside my home office window. During America’s craziest and most disturbing presidential election yet, there’s a lesson to learn from Borobudur’s history.

    April 30, 2016
    • Crazy and disturbing is right – we have been following the developments very closely here in Asia. It is alarming to see just how popular that motor-mouth billionaire has become.

      April 30, 2016
  11. This place is amazing! The photos are really beautiful=) Definitely would like to go there someday

    April 30, 2016
    • Borobudur is one of my favourite ancient sites in Asia, if not the world. The nearest major city is Yogyakarta – if you don’t mind a stopover in Singapore you could even fly there from Moscow. 🙂

      April 30, 2016
  12. Absolutely stunning photographs and descriptions. I love the morning meditation photo particularly.
    Peta

    April 30, 2016
    • Thank you, Peta. It is incredible to think that those sculptures have survived over a thousand years of wind and rain, volcanic eruptions, creeping tree roots and neglect. We are so fortunate to see them in such good condition.
      James

      April 30, 2016
  13. I didn’t know the whole structure had been pulled apart stone by stone. A wonderful piece which brought back memories of my 1989 trip when I took my nine year old daughter who wasn’t a bit interested. She wanted to get to the markets below.

    May 1, 2016
    • It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it? To think that they dismantled more than a million stones and put them all back together again. Has your daughter ever gone back a second time?

      May 1, 2016
      • No. We spent about seven weeks in Indonesia so saw a good chunk of Java and Sumatra. She’s only been back to Bali.

        May 2, 2016
  14. Great photos. Lovely time of the day too. Wonderful sequence of the light brightening over the stupas.

    May 1, 2016
    • Thanks! I was a bit concerned that some might be put off by the number of photos with stupas in them, but as you mentioned, it was all about capturing the changing light.

      May 1, 2016
  15. I didn’t know that it had been covered in ash and foliage. That is pretty amazing that it was forgotten about for so long. You have some really beautiful photos, by the way.

    May 1, 2016
    • I can just imagine the faces of the guys who dug out Borobudur… it’s not every day you get to recover an ancient temple from the the jungle! Thanks so much, Jeff. That’s a big compliment, coming from a gifted photographer like you!

      May 1, 2016
      • No kidding. A lot of the temples in Mexico are the same way – the jungle took them over.

        I think you had a prettier sunrise, but Mark Zuckerburg was at Borobudur at sunrise when we were there, so, there is that.

        May 2, 2016
      • Did you take a selfie with him? Pics or it didn’t happen.

        May 2, 2016
  16. Your pictures are absolutely brilliant ❤

    May 1, 2016
    • Glad you enjoyed them so much! Thank you for the kind words. 🙂

      May 1, 2016
  17. Fascinating place. Loved your sunrise photos, James! 🙂

    May 1, 2016
    • Much appreciated, Nandini! 🙂 If you ever get to Borobudur, I think you would see some strong Indian influences in its bas-reliefs.

      May 1, 2016
  18. James I don’t think I have adequate words to describe the beauty of those photos at sunrise. they make me want to leap on a plane as well as take photography classes.

    May 3, 2016
    • Thanks Sue – I’m glad the pictures inspired such feelings in you. Their beauty has less to do with skill and more with being there at just the right time!

      May 3, 2016
  19. Absolutely fantastic, James! I really love your writing style, as it’s always so informative. I don’t always comment on your posts, but I nearly always read them. And the photography is fantastic as always. 🙂

    May 3, 2016
    • Thank you so much, Stephen. Best of luck with the preparations for your Sydney to Melbourne bike ride – I’m sure it will set you up well for your RTW trip! 🙂

      May 3, 2016
      • I am so looking forward to it. My new butterfly handlebars arrived at the bike shop, today, so I will be taking my bike in next Monday (working on Saturday) to have them fitted. Also will be having pannier racks fitted. Then I just need to buy a new saddle, and pannier bags, and tent, and this, and that. haha. 🙂

        May 3, 2016
  20. Spectacular photographs. Might be the best you have shared.

    May 4, 2016
    • Wow, that’s a major compliment right there. Thanks so much!

      May 4, 2016
  21. Thank you for sharing the stunning photos James… I give my four thumbs and other people’s as well 😀 😀 😀
    Been there in the midday with the crowds of people, in the afternoon until I was kicked out in the evening, at dawn till morning like your experience and when there was a dance performance with irradiated backlights on the top of Borobudur…. but still never get bored to visit Borobudur…

    May 4, 2016
    • Makasih banyak, Riyanti. 😀
      As you said, Borobudur is a place to revisit again and again. Although I would rather not go at midday with the crowds and the harsh sunlight bleaching out my photos. The night-time dance performance sounds magical – I’d love to see it.

      May 4, 2016
      • Agree with you, James.
        Unfortunately the dance performance is a yearly event. Sometimes in August, some other time in October. If you’re interested, you have to check and recheck the official web of Borobudur park about this. 😀 Salam… saya suka bahasa Indonesia-mu 🙂

        May 4, 2016
      • Thanks for the tips, Riyanti. Bahasa Indonesia-ku belum lancar, harus belajar lebih cepat. 🙂

        May 5, 2016
  22. This was, truly, just beautiful.

    May 5, 2016
    • Much appreciated – thank you for reading and commenting.

      May 5, 2016
  23. James…well, brilliant, as usual. But this post seems extra-brilliant for some reason. Obviously the photos are stunningly awesome (and I never use the word “awesome”). But your writing in this post seems so…I don’t know…mature.
    I was amazed that Raffles found the place…what a guy that dude was. Have you seen his hotel in Singapore (joking). I also didn’t know it had been so hidden. And now I’m wondering where all the foliage went, because when I was there, I don’t remember much foliage around the place? And I wanted to see it early in the morning, so stayed right nearby…before the tourist buses arrived! Merapi was emitting a bit of smoke (which, I guess, isn’t unusual), but made for good photos. You and Bama make a great team…love reading both your takes on places you go!

    May 5, 2016
    • Thanks so much, Badfish – you are too kind! Well, I think most people know Raffles for his hotel in Singapore (and two statues down by the riverbank). Also the huge, foul-smelling flower that carries his name. The foliage was already cleared by the 1870s – there are a couple old photos from that period showing the temple sans jungle growth.

      May 5, 2016
  24. Gorgeous, love this place! Great photos.

    May 6, 2016
  25. Amazing!

    May 8, 2016
    • It was an incredible experience. Thanks for dropping by!

      May 8, 2016
  26. The biggest mandala in the world c’est beau

    May 10, 2016
    • I couldn’t agree more – Borobudur is such a masterpiece.

      May 12, 2016
  27. Beautiful photos! The mist really adds something to the photos.

    May 22, 2016

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