Asia 2013 Indonesia

The Incredible Symbolism of Borobudur Temple

There’s something about ancient sites that really inspires me. To see first hand just how ingenious humans can be, especially when faced with construction challenges a millennia ago is just mind-boggling. That’s what was running through my head as I wandered through the misty jungles towards Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world!

I admit, I had never heard of Borobudur before I started reading up on Indonesia, but it could well qualify as one of the wonders of the world. Built perfectly symmetrically around a hill, at first glance, Borobudur is nothing more than large gray behemoth. And certainly not something that will photograph well!

Borobudur Temple
Looking up at the mass of Borobudur at sunset

But step on to one of its staircases, facing the four cardinal directions, and Borobudur begins to reveal itself. This is a temple of levels, 10 in all, each representing a phase in a spiritual journey. Most people just walk straight to the top, but in doing so, you’d miss the entire message that Borobudur conveys! Its story is told in over 1,600 beautifully carved relief panels that line the entire perimeter. Angkor Wat, eat your heart out!

Borobudur Reliefs
A relief at Borobudur

At the beginnings of this mammoth temple, there is nothing but bare stone on the walls. But by the third level, you see reliefs depicting the earthly desires that the Buddha teaches you to escape. Buddhas in alcoves ominously keep watch overhead, a constant reminder that following the Buddha’s teachings will help you rise above this.

Borobudur Buddha
Buddhas keep an ever watchful eye

Continuing up to the next gallery, you move into carvings depicting the life of the historical Buddha, a real-life prince named Siddhartha who lived in modern-day India. His birth, where his mother dreamt she was impregnated a white elephant. His sheltered upbringing, which he was keen to escape. His journeys to the world outside his palace, where he encountered suffering in the form of an old man, a sick man and a corpse. And his journey to escape the cycle of suffering (the endless cycle of rebirth).

Borobudur Reliefs
A relief at Borobudur

As you reach the upper levels, the rigid square shapes and right angles give way to a totally different world. This is a world where there isn’t a single straight line. The reliefs are gone, instead replaced by circular platforms containing perfectly round, bell-shaped stupas, each with a lattice-pattern and containing a Buddha image. This represents the Buddha’s teachings about going towards enlightenment.

Borobudur Sunrise
The early morning sun shines through the lattice-work on one of the upper level stupas

The stupas are all nearly identical, minus two, where the Buddhas are exposed (making for some phenomenal photo opportunities). And once you reach the next level, you notice that the stupas have a square pattern rather than a diamond one. This is the world starting to make sense. Confusion disappearing.

Borobudur Buddha
An exposed Buddha overlooking the jungles of Java

And at the top? A giant bell-shaped stupa towering high above all others. With smooth lines and no lattice-pattern, it is the picture of simplicity. This is nirvana, where you escape from all those earthly desires and escape from the perpetual suffering the Buddha teaches.

Borobudur Sunrise
Different style stupas on the different levels of “enlightenment.” Diamond and square-shaped lattice patterns give way to a perfectly smooth Stupa. This is Nirvana.

And I have to tell you, sitting up there, looking out over the misted-over jungle towards the distant volcanoes that ring the temple, everything else just disappears. That hustle and bustle of daily life. That concern for money and your busy schedule. Hunger. It’s all gone. Suddenly, you feel just as peaceful as a Buddha, peacefully staring off into the distance.

Borobudur Sunrise
I sit and watch the incredible sunrise at Borobudur Temple

Borobudur, I’ll never forget you, for your symbolism really spoke to me!

Borobudur Stupas
Overlooking the jungle of Java from the upper layers of Borobudur

What was Borobudur like at Sunrise? Find out in my photo essay! 

What About You?

Have you visited Borobudur? Did it speak to you too?


By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

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