You are walking through the hushed darkness before dawn. You see only what your flashlight illuminates: the pocked stone walkway, the shoes of the people walking in front of you, and the shifting orbs of their flashlight beams darting across the path ahead as it snakes through the lush grounds of the Manohara Hotel just outside of Yogyakarta, Indonesia on the island of Java.
You hear only the soft patter of footsteps, whispers and breathing, and you cannot distinguish the stone temple you are approaching from the volcanic hills that rise behind it in the distance. But by the growing flutter in your gut, and by the increasing slope of the path, you know you are nearing the base of Indonesia’s Borobudur Temple – one of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world.
Surrounded by lush jungle and volcanic hills, Borobudur is a three-tiered pyramid that stretches into the heavens over an existing knoll. Beginning in the eighth century and lasting through the ninth, some two million stones were carted to this rural hilltop from local riverbeds to be stacked and carved. It rises from its wide base into three levels of high-walled balustrades where each ornately carved surface depicts different deities and Buddhist teachings. From these levels, the temple opens into unwalled circular platforms, where 72 openwork stupas house stone Buddhas that face outward from the central upper dome, the final tier to the temple. The carving covers a surface area of over two and a half thousand square meters.
You are climbing stone steps through the starlight, rising into the ancient tiers of the pyramid. You pass through stone arches and landings between the steep stairs where dark channels intersect your route upwards: these are the levels of high walled terraces. Your legs ache with each tall step, but finally you step through the last arch and the walls open into the sky and mounds of stone point to the heavens. You find a place to stand, and lean gently into the rough rock. It is here, atop this carved precipice, where you will wait for the light of dawn to grow steadily in the east, and eventually, for the sunlight to break over the mountains to burn off the morning mist.
Indonesia today is a country dominated by Islam, but its past is textured with a history of changing faith from Animism to Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam over the centuries. Because of these shifts in devotion, the country is home to a myriad of stone temples and other religious relics that stand as remnants of religions come and gone. Of these, Borobudur is the most widely visited, and for good reason. For the faithful, this temple was not merely a pyramid to climb or a mountain of carvings to summit like it is for travelers today. It was meant to be experienced slowly. Entering through one of the four arched stairways at the bottom, Buddhists walked around each of the tiers from bottom to top, taking hours to pour over the carved stone depictions of Buddhist teachings. And when they finally reached the top where the square tiers open into a circular rotunda it was a reward to behold the jungle vista, an awakening from the internal experience of the slow journey up.
Over its lifetime since the initial construction some 1,200 years ago, Borobudur has seen revivals and reconstruction. It took nearly two centuries to build, and was a holy site frequented during the peak of Buddhism in Indonesia, and after. For some reason, Borobudur was totally abandoned in the fifteenth century, but there was a resurgence of visitors and much conservation work done on the temple in the 19th century. UNESCO helped restore the temple in the1970s, and today hundreds of visitors visit Borobudur each day. Some are faithful Buddhists who come to make the pilgrimage up through the carvings, but many are travelers seeking a truly Indonesian experience.
Regardless of visitors’ faith, Borobudur is an intrinsically spiritual place to visit, especially at sunrise. Although hundreds of people climb the temple in the chilly dark before dawn, the tall stones and large platforms offer chances to feel totally alone. As the sky grows lighter, people disperse from the top eastern side into all levels of the temple. You can wander anywhere up, down, or around. You can see the silhouettes of volcanoes in the distance over the tops of palm trees and lush forest, or you can enter the high-walled levels and get lost in the tactile scriptures that surround you. In these moments you can feel alone in the hush of early morning, inside the labyrinth of stone and your own thoughts. You are surrounded with the textures and sentiments of Indonesia’s past, and even in one of the world’s most densely populated countries at one of its most prized temples, you can reflect on your individual journey, wherever you may be heading after you turn and take the steps back down to the valley floor.