Borobudur is so big that unless you approach it in a systematic order, it will quickly overwhelm you, and you’d miss out on much of the interesting parts. You should provide at least an hour – ideally, give three hours (if you stop often, and are really a hardcore enthusiast, allow even more) to fully cover the entire monument, of which 30 minutes is already taken up for walking from the main entrance to the monument and back.
So, here are 6 Tips How to Explore Borobudur:
1. Start from the base. Make a full circle around the whole monument if you have time. Look out for the section that shows the exposed original carvings, most of it now covered. (During the construction of Borobudur, the monument became so heavy that it was in danger of disintegrating. To prevent that, the builders had to strengthen its base by adding reenforcement. Unfortunately, this covered the bottom panels. Now restorers have left expose one small portion of the “hidden foot” so that visitors can have a look.)
2. Make your way up the series of galleries. There are all together four levels of these galleries, and you should walk clockwise around them. If you wish to immitate pilgrims, then start by entering from the eastern staircase, then work your way clockwise around the monument, until you come back to the eastern staircase, then climb up to the next level, and do the same, all the way until you complete all four levels. Mind you, it’s going to be a journey of 1200 meters (1.2 km) equivalent to 3/4 of a mile. If you’re game for it, allow ample time. It is recommended that you engage a guide who can explain to you the meaning of the reliefs.
3. On Level 1 gallery, you will find two sets of reliefs on each side of the gallery. On the left side are two sets, the one on top depicts Buddhist stories called Jataka; the one below are stories of Avadanas, previous incarnations of people who later became Buddhas. On the right wall are also two sets of reliefs, the one on top illustrates the life story of Gautama Buddha according to the Lalitavistara scriptures, the one below are stories of Manohara and other Avadanas stories.
4. On Level 2 gallery, there is only one set of reliefs on each side. The one on the left are Jatakas and Avadanas. The one on the right are tales taken from the Gandavyuha scriptures.
These are considered the “main theme” of Borobudur, about the pilgrim Sudhana who visited 110 gurus on his quest to become a bodhisattva, until his eventual admittance into the palace of Maitreya on Mount Sumeru. The Gandavyuha saga was to continue onto Levels 3 and 4, covering the left and right walls of these galleries.
5. Stairs run up Borobudur on the east, west, north and south sides of the monument. You can therefore bypass the galleries (after a while, most look the same!) and climb straight to the top. An elaborate gateway greets up at the entrance of each level. Originally, only Level 3 and 4 galleries had these gateways, but later on, the gateways were also added to Levels 1 and 2. At the top of the arch, you can see a fearsome beast carved in stone. It is Kala. Passing through the gateway is like entering through his jaw.
6. Above the four levels of galleries is the round terraces. This section is devoid of galleries. Instead it comprises three levels of circular terraces on which are the signature stupas