Posted by: borobudurtrip | May 8, 2012

Borobudur Temple

Borobudur – Fine detail on a massive scale

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After visiting the largest Buddhist monument in the world, it is not hard to see why this is the most visited tourist site in Indonesia. The list of the Seven Wonders of the World has changed many times over the years, and often Borobudur has been included. UNESCO added the monument to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1991, and has been of great influence in restoring the monument to its former glory.

The temple is a massive step pyramid structure made from giant stone blocks, built on a hill, surrounded by valleys and hills. The levels rise up representing the stages of enlightenment.

borobudur carvings, buddha, and mandala

On the lower rectangular levels, stone carved panels tell the story of the Buddhist Sutras, in total there are 1,460 intricate scenes.

Higher terraces switch to a circular shape on which statues of Buddha sit inside perforated bell shaped stupas. These levels are a great deal less ornate, representing a rise from earthly ‘form’ to a higher state of formlessness.

504 Buddha statues sit, facing out to nature, demonstrating a range of hand positions.

The top of the monument is crowned with a massive bell shaped stupa, close to 10 metres is diameter. Currently the centre of this stupa is completely empty, and questions remain as to whether it has always been empty, or in fact held some form of icon within.

Interestingly a hidden level of stone reliefs exists at the base of the monument, depicting stories of desire.

Artistically Borobudur represents a melding of Indian monuments and the traditional terraced sanctuaries of Indonesian art. In plan view, the monument represents a Mandala, which is a schematized representation of the cosmos, often drawn repeatedly as a meditative mechanism.borobudur_sudhana_and_queen_of_night

Looking back

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Borobudur Temple was built by Sailendra dynasty between 750 and 842 AD. In terms of world wide religious structures, it was very early, it would be 300 years before Cambodia’s Angkor Wat was constructed, 400 years before work began on the great European cathedrals.

At this time the Saliendra dynasty built a great number of monuments, both Hindu and Buddhist, in the region there are even temples where the two religions combine, alternating symbolism.restore_borobudur

Abandoned at around 1100AD when the power shifted from central to western Java, ash from the local volcanoes covered Borobudur and the vivacious jungle then grew up around and over it.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles is credited with the re-discovery of Borobudur in 1814. Raffles, who is known as a great admirer of history and culture, alerted the rest of the world to its existence and commissioned a clear up of the site, removing the trees, undergrowth and earth that had built up.

1907 to 1911 saw significant restorations lead by Theo Van Erp.

UNESCO and Indonesian government undertook a complete overhaul of the monument in a big renovation project from 1975 to 1983.

Getting there & getting in

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borobudur_buddhaBorobudur is located 40 km northwest of Yogyakarta, 7 km south of the town of Magelang, Central Java.

We recommend you organise a car and driver through either our Visitor Assistance Centre or your hotel. This way you can also have transport ready to take you back when you are ready to head back.  The other alternatives are a tour group mini-bus, or even a taxi.

The local buses can be a bit of a rough travel experience, but if you are game the bus leaves from Giwangan bus terminal in Yogyakarta and drops off in Borobudur bus station which is a little over 1km walk from the te

Layer up

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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.



According to this Buddhist cosmology, the universe is divided in to three major zones. The Borobudur temple represents these zones in its rising layers.

Zone 1  Kamadhatu

The phenomenal world, the world inhabited by common people.

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.

borobudur_exposed_footA 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.
Zone 2 Rapadhatu

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

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.
Zone 3 Arupadhatu

The highest sphere, the abode of the gods.

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.

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.borobudur_x_section

Hand out

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buddha_handsThe total of 504 Buddhas are in meditative pose, and the 6 different hand positions represented throughout the temple, often according to the direction the Buddha faces.

These ‘mudra’ symbolise concepts such as charity, reasoning and fearlessness, it is said they tell a story that Buddha’s serene face does not.


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Borobudur was left to the ravages of nature in the 8th Century when the power of Java shifted to the East of the island. The reason for this shift is unknown, but it is often speculated that there was a volcanic eruption and people moved to be away from it.

borobudur_restorationThere are manuscripts that relate stories of Javanese re-visiting the site in the 18th Century. But it was the ‘re-discovery’ by the British Sir Stamford Raffles in 1814 that led to greater recognition and also preservation efforts.

In 1815 Raffles commissioned an initial clean up, where 200 labourers spent 45 days felling trees and moving earth from the remains. Many areas of the temple were sagging.

Activities continued with documentation and interpretation of the reliefs. It was during the work of Ijzerman in 1885 that the hidden reliefs at the base of the temple were discovered. It was these hidden reliefs that also revealed some Sanskrit instructions left for the carver, with lettering that was so distinctive that the construction of the temple was able to be dated, to the middle of the 9th century, during the time of the Saliendra dynasty reign.

A few scenes had been left unfinished, with instructions to the stone carver inscribed in Sanskrit, and the style of lettering is so distinctive that it can be dated specifically to the middle of the 9th century.

In 1907 a large scale restoration was carried out under Dutchman Van Erp that finished in 1911. The work was significant and definitely safeguarded the temple for some time. However, many of the pieces were not put back in their original positions during the restoration.

restoration3In 1956 another assessment of the temple was made by a Belgian expert who was sent by UNESCO. His assessment concluded that water damage was significant, and would need to be stemmed if the temple was to have a long term future. The hill below the temple was eroding, the foundations were being weakened and also the reliefs were being eroded.

Preparatory work began in 1963, which amongst other things discovered that the hill was not a natural hill as had always been assumed, but areas of it were loamy soil, mixed with stones and stone chips. The initial work assessed the scale of a restoration to be gigantic, and the Indonesian Government then submitted a proposal to UNESCO in 1968 outlining the works needed.

restoration4UNESCO gave full support and commenced work to raise funds for the restoration. From 1968 to 1983, research through to restoration took place under UNESCO. Specialists from the world over came to assist in the dismantling, and re-engineering of the site. A great deal of work was also done to develop procedures to prevent the microorganisms eating away the stone.

The UNESCO world heritage listing of Borobudur Temple was inscribed in 1991.

The Temple Corridor

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Accurately in line with Borobudur are two smaller temples, Pawon and Mendut. Given the time in which these temples were built, the accurate positioning achieved remains a mystery. Pawon is 1.15km, and Mendut 3km from Borobudur.

The three temples are used to form a route for the Waisak day festival each year. Held each year on the day of the full moon in April or May the festival commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha.

This important day in the Buddhist calendar sees many local and international pilgrims walk in procession from Mendut, through to Pawon and then on to Borobudur. It is a colourful and festive occasion supported by the Indonesian government.





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