Sunrise at Borobodur, Part 1

I set three alarms this morning, one for 4:00, one for 4:05 and one for 4:10. We were meeting in the lobby at 4:30 to see the sunrise at Borobodur. I wanted to be sure I woke up. My clothes were all laid out (cover your knees and your shoulders), my camelback was filled with water (we’d been warned it was steep and that it would be hot—it was steep—and it was not hot). I had a hat and sunscreen, my little notebook and my i-phone camera. I’d planned this whole post-Bali excursion just so that I could see Borobodur and this was the day.

Of course I woke up at 3:15 AM because i’d told my body we were waking up early.

On our way on the bus, Roy told us a little of the history of Borobodur. Boro means temple and bodu means hill, so Borobudor is the temple on the hill. The largest Buddhist Temple in the world, Borobodur was originally built in the 9th century in Magelang Regency in Central Java during the reign of the Sailendra Dynasty. Monks and pilgrims, following the Silk Road, came from India and China, bringing Buddhism with them, and built Borobodur with the help of the local people. It took two million blocks of lava stone and a full century to build Borobodur, and after it was completed, it was used as a temple for a hundred years.

When Merapi, one of the most active volcanos in Indonesia, erupted, the temple was buried in ash and debris and the nearby village was destroyed. The surviving local people left the region and this was end of Buddhism in Central Java. Now, 85% of the Javanese population is Muslim. Christians make up 13-14%. The rest, less than 1%, is Hindu and Buddhist. It was when the Buddhist empire collapsed, and the Muslims came to dominance, that there was a huge demand for artifacts and the site was looted repeatedly.

The first restoration of Borobodur took place in 1917 and was done by the Dutch. The second and largest restoration happened between 1973 and 1974. The entire temple was completely dismantled. Every single stone was photographed, marked, identified and cleaned. A new foundation was built, drainage was installed, and the entire temple was reassembled and restored. The restoration was paid for by local funds and UNESCO. Borobodur is now a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Some say it is the 8th wonder of the world, and now I was going to see it.

As we walked off the bus and out into the dark, the loud hum of its motor mixed with the morning call to prayer, Allahu Akbar, God is great. We were handed small flashlights. I kept mine off, preferring to walk in the darkness across a long field to the base of the monument steps. A few stars lingered in the night sky. A guard called out, “Have a good sunrise!” I walked on in the dark. As we crossed the field, the sound of crickets filled the air and soon, the iconic silhouette of Borobudor rose up before us.

Once we reached the stairs, there were 56 steps and they were steep, requiring huge steps. I had to pull myself up with my arms, and I have long legs. Soon I was breathing hard. I had to work at it and I knew my body and my knees would be talking to me later.

It was a Saturday morning and over 500 people had come to see the sunrise. Dozens walked by us, purposeful, carrying flashlights and speaking in a dozen different languages. I remained quiet, in silence. Roy led us to a stupa and told us to sit–it was the perfect place to view the sunrise. Behind us, hundreds of people perched on a curving wall, chatting and talking about the mundane details of their lives. The constant whir and click of cell phones and cameras made it hard to eke out a spiritual moment. I sat a little apart from my group at the base of one of the 72 stupas, wishing I’d brought the earplugs provided by the hotel. I soon realized if I was going to find any stillness, it was going to have to be inside myself.

As the sky turned from black to a slightly lighter black and then tinged with blue, I found that stillness inside myself. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. The sky turned grey with a tinge of pink. Under the chatter of people and the clicking of cameras I could hear the distant crow of a rooster. I closed my eyes and when I opened them, the sky was a little brighter. I could see the silhouettes of the stupas in the growing light. Roy sat next to me, scrolling on his cell phone. A welcome coolness embraced my skin. I was there for sunrise at Borobudor. I’d made my dream come true.

And if you want to know what happened next, keep reading. Be sure to read all the captions under the photos. The story continues there in small segments. Come tour Borobodur with me.

First light.

A little lighter.

Now a little purple.

And some pink.


The crowd behind us waiting for the sunrise.

As the sky grew light, the smaller stupas came into view.

The sky was a beautiful soft billowy blue grey, but it looked like the clouds were going to block the sun today.

Soon we could see the ragged triangle of Marapi, the volcano that once devastated Borobodur.

Luckily I was wrong. Here comes the sun…

Here it comes.

A little higher.

And higher.

And still higher.


Holding my breath.


After the sunrise, we walked down from the top and on each level, he explained the significance of the carvings, statues and symbolism. Roy is Christian, but he loved talking to is about Buddhism, mudras, and the stages of enlightenment.

My students were still writing in the little notebooks I gave them, making their teacher very happy.

I doubt Roy has ever had people writing down his every word before.

The holes in the stupas on the 7th level.

On the eight level, squares. On the ninth level, only a smooth circle, with no holes, representing perfection and the attainment of nirvana.

This is the literal translation of, “Do not deface.”

There was definitely a lot of this going on.


There are 72 stupas at Borobodur, each a bell-shaped form that represents the realm without form, nirvana—where there is no more temptation, desire, attachment or suffering. Most had Buddha statues inside. Some of the statues were missing and others had missing heads or other body parts. Stolen. Desecrated.

This is a water spout for drainage.

There were hundreds more like this.

This long bas relief panel that stretched along a long corridor tells the story of a spiritual seeker on the path to enlightenment.

What’s fascinating about Borobodur is that so much Indonesian imagery is mixed in with the Buddhist iconography.

This is definitely not your typical Buddhist statue.

These were the corridors we walked through. Once sunrise was past, we explored with few other people. The sunrise crowd had left and the daytime visitors had just started to arrive.


All of Borobodur was disassembled, piece by piece, and these markings helped identify which pieces belonged back together.

Father and daughter.

Two guys in Borobodur sarongs.



As we got lower and lower down, the panels began representing the earthly challenges to a spiritual life. Sharon quipped, “We’re going down into hedonism.” Roy laughed. Sharon continued, laughing. “It’s okay. I’m comfortable there.”

By 7:30, the warming sun was welcome on my skin.

On the second level were 120 bas relief panels that tell the story of the Buddha’s life and enlightenment. The early panels show all of the temptations Siddhartha Guatama faced as he sat under the Bodhi tree on his path to enlightenment.

By the time we came all the way down and reached the main entrance, hordes of people, many with selfie sticks, were pouring up the steps. Our timing was just right!


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