Although there is some debate as to how demographics are measured here, Indonesia is generally recognized as the world’s largest Muslim nation. So to many, it might come as some surprise that the country boasts one of Buddhism’s most significant architectural achievements: breathtaking Borobudur.
Borobudur, constructed in the 8th century, has often been described as the world’s largest Buddhist stupa. “Largest” is quite a difficult term to pin down as is the exact definition of “stupa”, but it is certainly among the largest stupa-like structures and certainly ranks with other famous Buddhist mega-structures, including Kesariya (India), Bodhnath (Nepal), the Shwe Dagon Pagoda (Myanmar), the Jetavanarama Dagobah (Sri Lanka) and the Phra Pathom Chedi (Thailand), which officially holds the title as tallest Buddhist stupa.
The size debate aside, Borobudur is unquestionably the most ornate and artistically significant of the above mega-structures. The temple-stupa is really more of a massive walk-through tantric Buddhist mandala suggesting unexpected Vajrayana Buddhist influences here in the middle of the plains of Java (very cool). The six separate levels of Borobudur are lined with 2672 unbelievably detailed relief panels and 504 statues of Buddha making the massive structure one of Buddhism’s most important sculptural achievements as well. We have never seen a purely Buddhist stupa that compares in scale, although there are vaguely similar, less ornate structures around Angkor Wat.
The overwhelming historical significance and artistic achievement represented by Borobudur means that this site can be flooded with tourists. Many visitors rush through Borobudur and neighboring Prambanan in an effort to check two major monuments off their list in a single day (which, in a way, is kind of a good thing as the place clears out before noon). But it is worth taking extra time to really observe the site as the light changes during the day and there are literally kilometers of amazing sculpture to examine.
One little warning. Indonesia likes to advertise Borobudur by lumping it in with Bagan and Angkor. Such comparisons are silly and often lead to disappointment for anyone who has visited these destinations. Borobudur is an extraordinarily impressive architectural achievement, but it is a single stupa and can no way be compared to the monumental cities of Bagan or Angkor. It would be like comparing Notre Dame to all of Venice or Istanbul – it just doesn’t make sense. Go with an understanding of what you are visiting, and you will love it.
We strongly recommend for those with a little extra time to consider staying overnight at Borobudur rather than doing a daytrip from Yogyakarta. The little village around the monument is quite enjoyable and surprisingly friendly, and biking around the surrounding countryside is a great way to take in a little of rural Java.