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Borobudur, The Greatest Buddhist Temple in the Ninth Century

Borobudur Temple

Borobudur Temple, Indonesia

Borobudur is one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world. Founded by a king of the Saliendra dynasty, it was built to honour the glory of both the Buddha and its founder, a true king Bodhisattva. The name Borobudur is believed to have been derived from the Sanskrit words vihara Buddha uhr, meaning the Buddhist monastery on the hill. Borobudur temple is located in Muntilan, Magelang, and is about 42 km from Yogyakarta city, Indonesia.

Borobudur was built by King Samaratungga, one of the kings of Old Mataram Kingdom, the descendant of Sailendra dynasty. Based on Kayumwungan inscription, an Indonesian named Hudaya Kandahjaya revealed that Borobudur was a place for praying that was completed to be built on 26 May 824, almost one hundred years from the time the construction was begun. The name of Borobudur, as some people say, means a mountain having terraces (budhara), while other says that Borobudur means monastery on the high place.

For centuries, Borobodur lay hidden under layers of volcanic ash. The reasons behind the desertion of this magnificent monument still remain a mystery. Some scholars believe that famine caused by an eruption of Mount Merapi forced the inhabitants of Central Java to leave their lands behind in search of a new place to live. When people once again inhabited this area, the glory of Borobudur was buried by ash from Mount Merapi.

Borobudur was rediscovered in 1814 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who, during his visit in Semarang, received a report indicating the discovery of a hill full of many carved stones. The hill was believed by the local inhabitants to be the site of an ancient monument called budur. Raffles then commissioned a team led by Cornelius to investigate the hill.

It was in 1835 that the site was cleared. Some efforts were made to restore and preserve the colossal monument since then. Unfortunately, in 1896 the Dutch colonial government gave away eight containers of Borobudur stones, including reliefs, statues, stairs and gates, as presents for the King of Siam who was visiting Indonesia.

A restoration program undertaken between 1973 and 1984 returned much of the complex to its former glory, and the site has since become a destination of Buddhist pilgrimage. On January 21, 1985 the temple suffered minor damage due to a bomb attack. In 1991, Borobudur was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Structural Design of Borobudur Temple

Representing the existence of the universe, Borobudur perfectly reflects the Buddhist cosmology, which divides the universe into three intermingled separate levels. The three levels are Kamadhatu (world of desire), Ruphadatu (world of forms), and Arupadhatu (world of formlessness).


Borobudur Temple

Borobudur temple is built to represent many layers of Buddhist theory. From a birds eye view, the temple is in the shape of a traditional Buddhist mandala. A mandala is central to a great deal of Buddhist and Hindu art, the basic form of most Hindu and Buddhist mandalas is a square with four entry points, and a circular centre point. Working from the exterior to the interior, three zones of consciousness are represented, with the central sphere representing unconsciousness or Nirvana.


The phenomenal world, the world inhabited by common people.

Borobudur Level KAMADHATU

This base level of Borobudur has been covered by a supporting foundation, so is hidden from view. During an investigation by JW Yzerman in 1885 the original foot was discovered. Borobudur’s hidden Kamadhatu level consists of 160 reliefs depicting scenes of Karmawibhangga Sutra, the law of cause and effect. Illustrating the human behaviour of desire, the reliefs depict robbing, killing, rape, torture and defamation.

Evidence suggests that the additional base was added during the original construction of the temple. The reason for adding the base is not 100% certain, but likely to be either for stability of the structure, to prevent the base from moving, or for religious reasons – to cover up the more salacious content. The added base is 3.6m in height and 6.5m wide.

A corner of the covering base has been permanently removed to allow visitors to see the hidden foot, and some of the reliefs. See image to the right.

Photography of the entire collection of 160 reliefs is displayed at the Borobudur Museum which is within the Borobudur Archeological Park.


The transitional sphere, in which humans are released from worldly matters.

Borobudur Level RAPADHATU
BBorobudur Relief in Level 2

The four square levels of Rapadhatu contain galleries of carved stone reliefs, as well as a chain of niches containing statues of Buddha. In total there are 328 Buddhas on these balustraded levels which also have a great deal of purely ornate reliefs .
The Sanskrit manuscripts that are depicted on this level over 1 300 reliefs are Gandhawyuha, Lalitawistara, Jataka and Awadana. They stretch for 2.5km. In addition there are 1 212 decorative panels.


The highest sphere, the abode of the gods.

Borobudur Level ARUPADHATU

The three circular terraces leading to a central dome or stupa represent the rising above the world, and these terraces are a great deal less ornate, the purity of form is paramount.
Borobudur Level ARUPADHATU
Borobudur Stupa

The terraces contain circles of perforated stupas, an inverted bell shape, containing sculptures of Buddha, who face outward from the temple. There are 72 of these stupas in total. The impressive central stupa is currently not as high as the original version, which rose 42m above ground level, the base is 9.9m in diameter. Unlike the stupas surrounding it, the central stupa is empty and conflicting reports suggest that the central void contained relics, and other reports suggest it has always been empty.

 The reliefs in Borobudur walls

Borobudur Relief

There was a long series of main relieves at the first alley, either at the main wall or at the inner side of Kutamara wall. Relieves at the Kutamara wall depicted Jataka’s and Awadana’s, a story of Buddha’s life which expressed as Bodhisatwa, due to his good deeds in the past. Sometimes, Buddha is expressed in the form of animals such as rabbit, monkeys etc. As it was told in animated stories, the story was adopted from Sanskrit book, Jatakamala. Only one third of the relieves were known, the rest was still unclear.
The lower relieves of the main wall contained the same story. The upper relieves also had the same story as the lower one. The story contained the life of Buddha consisting of 120 frames until he began teaching Buddha religion. The first frame began from the South of stairway of the curved gate at the East, and follow the path of the sun (the temple on the right side). The life story of Buddha was adopted from Lalitawistara book.

Borobudur Relief

At the second alley, Jataka and Awadana story were continued on the inner side of Utamara, and on the main wall, story was began with stories adopted from Gandhawyuha. This story was so long that it occupied the main wall and inner side wall of Utamara at the third and fourth alley. The story showed the adventure of a Sudhana who met Bodhisatwa Maytreya (the future Buddha) to have religious lesson from the Buddha. Later on, the Sudhana met with Bodhisatwa Mandjusri, and finally he met with Dyani Bodhisatwa Samanta Badra, who gave the highest wisdom. Most of those stories expressed the use of spiritual strength and unusual happenings.

There were many beautiful ornaments inscripted at the wall of the fourth alley, because the fifth alley did not contained any ornaments. The fifth alley is a transitional alley to the next platform, the round platform. The next round platforms also did not contained any ornaments at all (Kaylan,1959).

UNESCO/CLT/WHC, Borobudur Park, Powertripberkeley

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