Borobudur: Storytelling in Stone

Noyna Roy

Last updated: Apr 3, 2017

Author Recommends


Prambanan temple, the oldest Hindu temple dedicated to the holy trinity
Borobudur, in Central Java, the famous Buddhist temple that's the jewel in Java's crown


Take a horse ride through the village to see how the locals live


Sample salak, a kind of fruit native to Indonesia
Chicken and mutton satays (meat on a stick) by the roadside


A selfie in front of the sulphur lake at Dieng Plateau


Batik (an unique Javanese cloth dyeing technique) prints in vivid floral patterns from local markets

To begin where we started our journey, read Bali:More than Just Beaches.

We woke up at 5 o’clock to the sound of the alarm ringing in our ears. I got up, packed the chargers and jumped into the shower. After eating a quick breakfast, we climbed into the car and said goodbye to our Bali villa. The roads were empty except for a few people going to office in the morning. I didn’t feel like leaving Bali because it had been a really fun trip, but there was so much more to see!

I slept on the plane. When we were about to land, Mom woke me up and showed me the volcanoes below from the window. The clouds were scattered over the rice fields like snowflakes on grass and it looked gorgeous. At the airport, we took a taxi. The car ride was about 2 hours long. The Indonesian countryside was magnificent, with the lush green rice fields against the bright blue morning sky. Our taxi driver was very cheerful and talked to us about Yogyakarta and its politics—apparently the newly elected president Joko Widodo hailed from his region.

The Manohara Hotel is the only one that is allowed in the Borobudur complex. It is a simple but an extremely comfortable hotel. We had to wait for some time whilst the rooms were being cleaned because the previous guests had just left. We were welcomed with a tamarind drink. It was extremely refreshing after the long car ride. We followed the receptionist to our rooms to find our bags already waiting there for us. We rested for some time in the hotel room and then called the taxi driver who had brought us to the hotel to head to the famous Prambanan temple to view the sunset.

Prambanan Temple

Prambanan Temple

Our taxi driver took us via the village route, pointing out the famous Volcanic mountain, Mount Merapi to us. We saw orchards of salak, a kind of tree native to Indonesia, and many vendors on the road were selling the salak fruit. We also saw a few interesting-looking mosques along the route, with shiny metallic domes. But we hardly saw many people on the road even though Indonesia is supposed to be a densely populated country.

Prambanan temple is a photographer’s delight. It is the oldest Hindu temple dedicated to the holy trinity (Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu) in ancient Java. It was built to mark the return of Hinduism under the rule of the Sanjaya dynasty in 850 AD. It is said that this temple was built on the tenth fault, which is why it constantly crumbles to the ground and has to be rebuilt after every earthquake. These temples were abandoned in 930 AD due when Mount Merapi erupted and were only rediscovered by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1880. Today, it is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The compound has hundreds of temple ruins, however, the three tall dark temples were made to honour the holy trinity. It never stops to amaze me how much Indian architecture and culture influenced the rest of the world in ancient times. There were shivlings in each of the temples, and there was also a statue of goddess Durga.


Borobudur Temple


We woke up early to go to see Mom’s favourite monument, Borobudur. The Borobudur, in Central Java, is a 9th  century Buddhist temple that is built on several levels. The temple is a three-dimensional mandala, the first representing the world of desire, the second, the world of form and the third, the world without form. The climb up the levels wasn’t that steep but I recommend that you wear sneakers instead of flip-flops. As we climbed the temple, we stopped at each level and observed the carvings. Each bas-relief had a different story carved on to the hard surface that depicted a lesson in cause and effect. All the stories were about Buddha and his life lessons. (I recalled reading some in the Jataka tales). At each level, there were statues of Buddha.

At the very top, there were big stupas with Buddhas ensconced inside them. I enjoyed peeking into the holes to check if there was a Buddha inside. There were many groups of children from schools who were visiting the great monument. Many of them wanted to take a picture with me!

There is a lot of mystery around the origins of Borobudur. No one is exactly sure who built it. It was Sir Raffles (again!) who first wrote about this fantastic temple. Turns out, the entire monument was buried in ash from volcano eruptions and lay hidden under forest growth for over 1,000 years in plain sight. 

The bas-reliefs that tell a story


The next day, after breakfast, we started the four-hour long car ride to Dieng Plateau, my first visit to a geothermal site. The car journey was beautiful. It was interesting to see the way the farmers planted their produce on the slope and used drip-irrigation networks. As we went higher up the mountain, you could see clouds of sulphur coming from the lakes at the site. We soon arrived at the famous sulphur lake. The lake had bubbles of sulphur floating up to the surface. It made the lake look really eerie and it smelled horrible. My grandmother didn’t like the smell so she decided to stay away. On the way down, we came across two exotic new fruits—Carica, a type of papaya and another called Cabe Gendot. Mom bought some Carica and it was really sweet. Since it was getting very late, we stopped at a satay shop to buy some satay for dinner. We sampled some delicious mutton satay and my aunt bought a delicious dessert, consisting of toasted layers of bread, jam and butter. What a delicious way to end the day!

Mom went to Borobudur again the next morning. When she came back, she told me that on one side there was a magical chanting going on and on the other, there was a teacher explaining the concepts of Buddhism to a bunch of young children. As she sat in front of the reliefs, she noticed it was like a jigsaw puzzle, which had been assembled together with great detail. Gunardarna, who is said to have built Borobudur, had actually applied an intricate interlock technique to build this temple. She also saw a cleaner cleaning the crevices between the carvings of the temple with forceps! As she watched him clean, Mom realized that these people cared so much about their temple. As she described the scene to me, it came alive in my imagination.

Horse Cart Ride through the Village

A local we met on the horse cart ride


‘Clip, clop, clip, clop,’ went the horse’s hooves against the ground, trotting through the village. My camera was out and I was taking many pictures of the beautiful houses in the village. Our horse’s name was Salamet. The horse’s caretaker manoeuvred us through the little village. There were chickens walking across the road with their little chicks. There was a monkey who was sitting on the tree. When I took out my camera and started to take a picture of him, he posed for me and screeched. We came across a house, which had many birds in cages. I found it rather mean to keep them in a cage, but I still took pictures of them. The best part about the ride was through a rice field. There were women walking with big sacks of rice on their back. We passed a banana tree with big banana flowers and a rambutan tree with the vibrant red fruit hanging off the branches. On the way back, we stopped in front of a little temple, which did not have any statue of a god inside, but I said a little prayer, nonetheless.

The Yogyakarta leg of our journey was coming to an end. Next stop: Surabaya.