The Magnificent Borobudur Temple

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The world's largest Buddhist temple and one of Indonesia's biggest attractions is Unesco World Heritage–listed Borobudur Temple. It's built from two million stone blocks in the form of a massive symmetrical stupa, literally wrapped around a small hill. Standing on a 118m by the 118m base, its six square terraces are topped by three circular ones, with four stairways leading up through carved gateways to the top. Viewed from the air, the structure resembles a colossal three-dimensional tantric mandala.

Starting at the main eastern gateway, go clockwise around the galleries of the stupa. Although Borobudur is impressive for its sheer bulk, the delicate sculptural work is exquisite when viewed up close. The pilgrim’s walk is about 5km long and takes you along narrow corridors past nearly 1460 richly decorated narrative panels and 1212 decorative panels in which the sculptors have carved a virtual textbook of Buddhist doctrines as well as many aspects of Javanese life 1000 years ago—a continual procession of ships and elephants, musicians and dancing girls, warriors, and kings.

On the third level, there’s a lengthy panel sequence about a dream of Queen Maya, which involved a vision of white elephants with six tusks. Monks and courtiers interpret this as a premonition that her son would become a Buddha, and the sequence continues until the birth of Prince Siddhartha and his journey to enlightenment. Many other panels are related to Buddhist concepts of cause and effect or karma.

Some 432 serene-faced Buddha images stare out from open chambers above the galleries, while 72 more Buddha images sit only partly visible in latticed stupas on the top three terraces – one is considered the lucky Buddha. The top platform is circular, signifying neverending nirvana.

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 9 am and 3 pm. The ticket also allows a visit to the Samudra Raksa Museum, which houses a full-size replica of an 8th-century spice trade ship, that was remarkably designed and built based from an image depicted on one of the panels that adorn Borobudur Temple.

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