In the muted, ephemeral light of a Javanese full moon, they walk. They lay flowers and light candles among ancient stone temples. It is the noble life they contemplate and with every step they resolve to follow the revered Five Precepts, a set of Buddhist commandments against theft, infidelity, lying, intoxication, and doing harm to other living beings. Morality, simplicity, and humility guide them.
This is Indonesia’s Waisak celebration, considered Buddha’s Birthday even though it encompasses the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautama Buddha. The world over, the holiday is celebrated by Buddhists during the full moon of May or June – in Myanmar, China, Tibet, Thailand, and beyond. In Indonesia, it is commemorated with this magical and ritualistic stroll among a trio of temples built during the ninth-century Sailendra dynasty: the Mendut, Pawon, and Borobudur.
There’s no secret about what makes this temple-to-temple walk so magical. Its setting, on Java’s elevated Kedu Plain, between two twin volcanoes and two rivers, casts a spell on visitors of any religious persuasion. But there’s something else at work here – something beyond the pure physical beauty – and it’s been a source of mystery among the devout and among scholars. These aren’t just any temples: they were positioned along a perfectly straight line. And no one knows why.
Even locals can only guess. One legend has it that a brick road – enclosed by a wall on either side – once connected these three holy sites. Whatever the true story, their similar architecture and ornamentation first confirm that all three temples were built around the same time. Second, they may have symbolized the sacred unity of Buddhism. They may have even played a ritualistic role under a full moon, similar to the one that draws pilgrims here still today.
All told, pilgrims walk about three kilometers (just under two miles). The first two temples on their route are fairly modest in size, but elaborate in adornment. At Mendut, the small building is surrounded by a terrace, created for pradakshina, the circumambulating ritual of walking clockwise around a divine site. Animal stories and Buddhist divinities are carved into the exterior stonework and three statues sit upon thrones within. The small temple of Pawon, the second on the journey, is considered a “jewel of Javanese temple architecture” for its simplicity, symmetry, and harmony. Carvings of the tree of life (or kalpataru, said to fulfill all desires) decorate the walls alongside divine Buddhist beings.
Compared to the single-chamber buildings of Mendut and Pawon, Borobudur is a vast spiritual palace whose name means “holy building on a hill.” Indeed, with its multiple tiers – the bottom six are square and the top three are circular – it is the largest Buddhist monument in the world, constructed from two million blocks of stone. From the air, this complex resembles a colossal mandala. Remarkably, more than 2,600 bas-relief panels and 500 Buddha statues adorn the site. Once pilgrims arrive at this breathtaking spot, they know their journey is just beginning. A path surrounds the temple and leads them through an elaborate network of stairs and corridors. As they ascend the temple, they pass through three stages of mental preparation: Kamadhatu (the world of desires), Rupadhatu (the world of forms), and, at the top, Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness). Along the way, the story of the Buddhist divinity Sudhana is told in 1,460 carved panels. It is a journey at once historic and uplifting.
You can explore Mendut, Pawon, and Borobudur for yourself during Discovery Tours’ Indonesia: Java & Bali adventure.