Travels with a Gourmet

a food lover's travels, memorable meals, culinary trials and gastronomic experiences

Borobudur stupas before and after sunrise

The phone rang for our wake-up call at 4:00 a.m.  It was quiet and dark outside when we walked up to the bar for a light breakfast of coffee, orange juice and a croissant before we were driven to Borobudur.  We arrived there in about twenty minutes and were given small flashlights to light our path towards the temple.  At the foot of the temple, we couldn’t see a thing, just a big black structure looming over us.  As we started the long and steep climb to the top (around 150 steps), we still couldn’t make out the stupas (bell-shaped structures that represent Buddhism) that ring the structure on the upper levels.  We finally made it to the top where a few people were sitting quietly, waiting for the sunrise.

Borobodur, another UNESCO world heritage site, dates back to the 8th and 9th century and is the largest Buddhist temple in the world.  It is huge structure made up of black stones and built on three tiers.  The pyramid base is made up of five square terraces decorated by bas reliefs of Buddha’s life.  Then comes three more levels of circular terraces topped by a total of 72 open-work stupas, each housing a seated Buddha.  Finally the top level has one large central stupa that stands empty but may or may not have housed a large Buddha.
A few of the 504 Buddhas of Borobudur 

Sunrise was at 6:10 a.m. and as we reached the top of the temple just before 5:00 a.m., we had over an hour to sit and listen to the sound of silence. As soon as a bit of light appeared in the sky, the stupas started to become visible and little by little Borobodur made itself apparent to us.  The sheer breadth and height of the monument is hard to imagine and a surprise to discover as the sun started to appear on the horizon.  It was misty that day and so we didn’t see a perfect sunrise but being on top of the temple in the quiet of dawn was a spiritual experience.

We found out later from our guide that Borobudur was hidden underneath volcanic ash and left undiscovered until 1814 when British governor Thomas Stamford Raffles (Singapore’s founder), heard the legend of the ancient monument and sent a Dutch engineer to investigate.  It was only much two decades later in 1835 that the entire monument was unearthed.

Bas reliefs telling the story of Buddha’s life and gargoyles guarding the gates to the temple
Our guide also told us about the 72 Buddhas seated inside each open-work stupa, all facing outside.  When we peeked inside a few, we could see that indeed there were Buddhas (most without faces or with broken hands) that were housed inside each structure.  He told us of a legend that those who could touch Buddha’s hands through the openings would be granted luck.  Apparently, hardly any Asians have the long arms to reach in and touch Buddha’s hands making it impossible and showing a basic tenet of Buddhism stating that life is suffering and that the path to enlightenment or nirvana is extremely difficult to achieve.  My husband reached in and with a bit of stretching touched Buddha’s hands easily while I couldn’t even get anywhere close to Buddha so I guess the guide was right.
We continued our tour by going around the five lower levels looking at the bas reliefs of Buddha’s life from when we has conceived by the Southern Nepalese king Shuddodana Gautama and his wife Mahamaya.  Hundreds of bas reliefs depicting Buddha’s life and teachings are preserved and show the noble truths and eightfold path of Buddhism.  He also told us how the number nine figures prominently in Borobudur – 72 stupas (7+2=9), 8 levels plus 1 giant stupa at the top (8+1=9), 504 Buddhas (5=4=9), the significance of which I missed.  We went down slowly and just as we were descending the steep stone steps, the temple started to fill with other tourists who had been waiting at the gates for the 6:00 a.m. opening. At the bottom, we took one last look upwards at this amazing monument and then slowly walked away.

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