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  • Writer's pictureShila Desai

Borobudur: A Pilgrim's Journey

Today, the world's largest Buddhist site is tourist-thronged. How did 8th CE pilgrims experience Borobudur?

All those centuries ago, Borobudur temple was one of the great pilgrimage places of the world.

For days, weeks, and months people traveled by boat, walked, went on horseback, or rode elephants to find the Enlightenment which was signified by this monument. How relevant is its message to us who live in the present-day world?

Recreation. By Studio Puskat, Yogyakarta

Let's find out by following the pilgrims' journey.

We start at the Mendut temple. Situated 3km from the main Borobudur temple, pilgrims would have first approached it on their path to Enlightenment.

Mendut Temple

The bas relief here depict animal stories from the Buddha's Jataka Tales that challenge societal viewpoints still prevalent today. On the bas relief below, a clever turtle hitches a ride with two geese by holding on to a stick with his mouth. People who watched from below cry out in astonishment, " How clever these geese are!" The turtle cannot bear the geese getting praised when he feels the praise should be addressed to him. He cannot refrain from shouting back, "No, not the geese. This was my idea!" He opens his mouth and falls to his death. Pride comes before a fall.

On another, the cat pretends to be a priest carrying a rosary in order to attract the mice. However one of the mice is very clever so he says, “Mr Cat, if you want to become a priest your outfit needs to be more complete. Besides the rosary, priests always carry a sacred bell.” The cat agrees. From now on the mice can always tell when he is coming, and they run off in time. He who tries to deceive easily gets deceived himself.

A third depicts the two headed bird head. The one on top always gets delicious fresh fruit while the bottom head only gets the leftovers. All the bottom head’s protests are in vain since the top head merely says it doesn't matter, all is going to the same stomach. In his despair the bottom head eats poisonous mushrooms and the bird dies with both of his heads. When we laugh at the greedy animals, we actually laugh at ourselves since we live in a society which behaves just like that.

Next stop would have been Pawon, the second temple before Borobudur. The walk, accomplished today by a short five minute car ride over a bridge, would have required a trek through thick forest and fording two fast-flowing rivers. The pilgrims had plenty of time to reflect on the lessons at Mendut. Or maybe they just gossiped.

At Pawon, the pilgrims would have rested and prepared themselves for the climax of their spiritual experience: Borobudur.

By this time, the pilgrims would be reflecting on differences in society that will cause a disaster. As they approached Borobudur, they would recall Buddhist teachings of the law of karma: as long as we cannot control the cause of this disaster, we shall never be in a position to prevent it. This cause and effect is birthed from uncontrolled passion, haughtiness, hypocrisy, and greed. Their effect is suffering, misery, and death. This is depicted in 160 reliefs of the foot of Borobudur temple.

However more than 1000 years ago when this temple was built, its builders covered the foot which had been almost completed. So now most of these reliefs cannot be seen anymore, only one corner has been reopened for the visitors. Perhaps the bottom plinth was covered because it needed to be buttressed, else the temple might have fallen down. Above the covered foot there are four galleries where 1300 reliefs can be found. The pilgrims used to meditate on these reliefs walking around in circles clockwise starting from the east gate.

On the following floor, the topic of their meditation is Buddha's life story represented in 120 reliefs, starting with the Buddha's mother, Queen Maya, reclining as she dreams of a white elephant piercing her side. Soon after, the queen goes to Lumbini Forest to give birth to the Buddha. The baby at birth accomplished the incredible: he walked seven steps, and at each step sprang up a lotus blossom.

And so on it goes, the Buddha's life story depicted in stone as the pilgrims filed past, rosaries in hand, chanting and absorbing the Buddha's message.

Today, Borobudur is thronged by selfie-clicking tourists. Indonesia, in an effort to halt long term damage, has slashed the number who can climb up the temples.

How would the Buddha have reacted? Perhaps with another Jataka tale.

Sourced from Studio Puskat, Buddhist Teachings, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Join us on Thursday Oct 14, 2021 for Prof. Robert DeCaroli's lecture on Borobudur. Read more here.

We are planning a textiles tour to Indonesia in May 2023. Interested? Write us!


Thanks for taking a look! I am Shila Desai, owner of E.Y.H.O. Tours. I personally handcraft itineraries, infusing them with curated activities, accommodations, and sightseeing. Together with my in-country teams, we deliver exceptional holidays every time. I invite you to leave me a comment or write

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