From the neat and tidy streets of Singapore, a short flight brought me to the sprawling and chaotic maze of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I was traveling to the Indonesian island of Java to visit the magnificent temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. And to meet my friend, Courtney, whom I’d met on Couchsurfing, back in 2011.
Courtney has been backpacking around the world for nine months–exploring Europe, the Middle East and much of Asia. Since the start of her journey, we’d planned on meeting somewhere along the road for a few weeks. So, when I managed to get nearly a month off work this past May, I chose to join her in Southeast Asia, for a visit to Indonesia’s preeminent beaches, volcanoes and cultural relics.
Though Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country on Earth, the archipelago nation has a deeply-rooted, multi-religious history and identity. And today, while almost 100 percent of Java’s population adheres to Islam, the island’s two main sites, Borobudur and Prambanan, are Buddhist and Hindu respectively.
On my first full day in Yogyakarta, Courtney and I joined two other travelers from Bhumi Hostel. Together, we hired a taxi for a day trip to the enigmatic and iconic Borobudur.
Borobudur is the world’s largest single Buddhist structure. It rises from the steamy jungles of Central Java and boasts a dramatic backdrop of mist-shrouded volcanoes and mountains. Despite its historic and religious importance, Borobudur was only re-discovered in the late 1800s, after laying hidden for centuries under a blanket of tangled vines and volcanic ash.
Today, after a lengthy restoration, it is considered to be one of the greatest temples on Earth.
Borobudur’s shape symbolically aligns with Buddhist cosmology. The temple contains six levels of walkways and a large, stupa-covered platform at its summit. At its base, the temple’s reliefs depict a world driven by passion and desire. Layers of narrow corridors take visitors past thousands of decorative panels that contain illustrations of Buddhist doctrines and images of daily Javanese life. As the levels spiral upward, the depictions progress toward nirvana, or enlightenment.
Seventy-two bell-shaped stupas lie at the top of Borobudur, each concealing statues of the Buddha. And in these stupas, each Buddha has a different hand gesture, or mudra. These mudras represent the five compass points in Buddhism–North, South, East, West and Zenith.
When we reached the top of the structure, dozens of schoolchildren swarmed around us for photo opportunities. We could hardly count to three before another giggling group approached us for a picture.
Between photo ops, my companions and I spent much of the afternoon admiring the postcard-worthy views of the temple’s iconic stupas and lush, mountainous surroundings.
After our wonderful afternoon taking in the sites of Borobudur, we headed back to Yogyakarta for the evening.
The next day, Courtney had a bout of food poisoning that kept her bedridden. While she recovered, I teemed up with two other travelers from the hostel and spent a sweltering afternoon among the towering, 9th Century ruins of nearby Prambanan.
Prambanan is somewhat overshadowed by the more internationally renowned Borobudur, but the temple is equally impressive. The temple lies just 17km East of Yogyakarta and is easily accessible by public bus. A combination ticket for Borobudur and Prambanan allows foreigners entrance to the two temples for $32–a steep price by Indonesian standards, but pennies compared to the value of visiting these two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Prambanan’s main temple, Candi Shiva Mahadeva, rises 47 meters above its surroundings. The vibrant reliefs carved onto the inner wall of the gallery illustrate scenes from the Ramayana–a 24,000 verse Hindu epic that recounts the life of Lord Rama and his wife, Sita.
Flanking Candi Shiva’s tower are two slightly smaller temples dedicated to Brahma and Vishnu respectively.
My new companions and I walked around the complex and peeked into its various temples. As with Borobudur, I was surprised to see how few other western tourists had made their way to the ruins. Local tourists and schoolchildren, however, were everywhere–asking for photos of us and, in some cases, even blatantly holding their camera phones in front of our faces for photo opportunities.
After posing for countless photos, we strayed from the crowds and ventured toward the smaller temples of Prambanan–Candi Lumbung, Candi Bubrah and Candi Sewu. Though the former two lie largely under scaffolding and resemble little more than rock piles, the latter is remarkably well-preserved.
Candi Sewu is the largest and most impressive of the surrounding temples. Though it lies merely half a mile from the main Hindu temple, Candi Sewu is actually a Buddhist temple–the second largest in Indonesia after Borobudur.
Prambanan is primarily Hindu, yet the area consists of over 500 temples that are both Hindu and Buddhist in origin and design. Thus, Prambanan and its surrounding temples are not only valuable architectural and cultural relics, but also standing proof of past religious cohabitation on Java.
The history of the temples has not always been a peaceful one, however. In 2006, an earthquake inflicted significant damage on Borobudur and Prambanan, causing many of the ancient stones to collapse.
The earthquake wasn’t the first obstacle threatening the longevity of the temples, nor will it likely be the last. To date, the archeological sites have survived a 1985 bombing, vandalism and volcanic eruptions. On a volcanic island that is susceptible to natural disasters, the survival of both Borobudur and Prambanan will take continued effort.
And yet, despite centuries of obstacles thrown their way, the temples still rise enigmatically from the surrounding verdant jungle–dazzling visitors with their grandeur–while remaining as magnificent and regal as ever.
Note: Chloe has put together a wonderful post for those interested in visiting Borobudur at sunrise.