Borobudur – the World’s Largest Buddhist Temple

If asked to locate the world’s largest Buddhist temple many people might suggest Angkor Wat in Cambodia (Certainly large but originally Hindu) or perhaps one of Thailand’s temples so famous for their beauty. Relatively few people would point to the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, and the temple of Borobudur on the island of Java which after 1000 years still stands impressively as the world’s largest Buddhist temple.

aerial photo of borobudur
An aerial view of Borobudur temple
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Borobudur temple is located in Central Java about 40km north-east of Yogyakarta. The temple is fundamentally a large square step pyramid built out of an estimated 55,000 cubic-metres of andesite volcanic stone upon a natural hill. At its base each side measures 118 metres. Whilst the first six levels are square the top three levels switch to a circular design. The pyramid structure is topped off by a large stupa reaching to a height of 35 metres. What makes Borobudur unique is the 504 Buddha statues across every level of the complex and the 2,672 beautifully preserved carved stone reliefs which depict scenes from everyday life as well as scenes from Buddhist mythology. There is a huge amount of detail in these carvings for a visitor to take in as well as spectacular views from the top levels. Borobudur is surrounded by the lush green country of Java’s Kedu Plain with no less than three volcanoes towering in the distance, Mounts Sumbing, Merbabu and Merapi. The latter is Indonesia’s most active volcano.

view of volcano from Borobudur
Spectacular views of Mount Merapi from the top of Borobudur temple

Climbing the Buddhist Universe

The layout of Borobudur is in fact a cosmological map of the Buddhist universe. Seen from above the shape of the pyramid is that of a traditional mandala whereby a square with four cardinal entry points gives way to a circular centre point. Moving from outside to inside one crosses three regions of Buddhist cosmology; Kamadhatu is the realm of desires, that of ordinary people; Rupadhatu is the realm of forms, where beings have controlled their earthly desires but are still bounded by physical form; Arupadhatu is the formless realm, of beings who have achieved sufficient merit to escape not just desires but even form and location.

Diagram of borobudur levels
Borobudur represents the Buddhist cosmos

As one climbs the temple of Borobudur one enters each of these realms. These first four levels around the temple represent the Rupadhatu realm, of beings who have controlled desire. Starting at the east facing entrance the carved stone reliefs depict mainly Jataka scenes, that is scenes from the Buddha’s life, organised to instruct devotees as they proceed clockwise around each of the first four levels in turn.

gallery of borobudur
One of the lower Rupadhatu galleries of Borobudur

On the four Rupadhatu levels there are also 432 Buddha statues located in niches along each side of the temple . On the east facing terraces these statues are all in the Calling the Earth to Witness posture. Moving round to the south the statues are in the Alms Giving posture and then to the west they are in the Concentration & Meditation posture. On the north facing levels they are in the posture of Courage, fearlessness. Around the fifth uppermost balustrade of the Rupadhatu levels the Buddha images facing in all directions are in the Reasoning & Virtue posture.

buddha statues
East facing Buddha statues in the Calling the Earth to Witness posture

On reaching the fifth level one moves into the Arupadhatu formless realm of nirvana, represented by the shift to a circular layout. This realm is perhaps the most famous aspect of Borobudur due to its iconic perforated stupas. A total of 72 of these stupas are arranged on three circular terraces around the main central stupa. On the first two Arupadhatu levels the stupas have rhombic perforations whereas on the third and highest level the openings are square. In each of the 72 stupas there is a Buddha statue in the posture of Turning the Wheel of Dharma.

top level of borobudur
The upper Arupadhatu levels of Borobudur representing nirvana

The central stupa represents the centre of the Buddhist universe. It looks rather truncated because it is missing its original chattra, a three-tiered stone parasol that would have topped the stupa. There is known to be an empty room at the centre of the stupa which would be expected to contain the most highly revered images and relics. It is not known when or how these were lost.

Archaeologists have discovered traces of coloured pigments and gold leaf on the reliefs and believe that rather than the drab volcanic stone we see today Borobudur was once covered in white plaster, painted in vivid colours and covered in gold. It would have been a truly awe inspiring sight 1000 years ago.

The Hidden Foot

One of the mysteries of Borobudur concerns the lowest level of the temple representing the Kamadhatu realm of desires. On an initial climb of the temple the first level appears to start in the second level realm of Rupadhatu with tales of the Buddha’s life. In fact the lowest Kamadhatu realm is represented by a gallery of carved reliefs which are hidden under an encasement and are hence known as the “hidden foot”. This Hidden Foot was only re-discovered during European led restoration activities in 1885. It is not known exactly why this lower level has been covered up. Some postulate that the encasement had to be added due to structural problems with the overall structure.

hidden foot exposed
Borobudur’s south-eastern corner where the “Hidden Foot” has been left on show

There are a total of 160 completed panels in the hidden foot depicting scenes from everyday life and providing didactic instruction on karmic cause and effect. Other panels appear to be incomplete with inscriptions still visible providing instructions to the sculptors. These inscriptions have provided valuable evidence in dating the construction of Borobudur. Today only the southeast corner of the hidden foot is still visible to visitors, the rest of the foot encasement having been restored.

stone carvings of hidden foot
One of the 160 panels of the “Hidden Foot” depicting everyday life and karmic cause and effect

Greater India

So how is it that the world’s largest Buddhist temple is in the middle of the world’s largest Muslim nation? The answer is that the Muslim faith did not spread to Indonesia until the 13th century and did not reach central Java until the 16th century. For nearly a millennia prior to that much of south east Asia had been heavily influenced by Indian culture. It is speculated that a combination of traders and Hindu Brahman scholars from India traveled throughout the region spreading their language, monumental stone architecture and predominantly Hindu religion. This massive export of culture appears to have taken place in several waves but the reasons behind it are not well understood. But from the 9th to the 13th centuries there was a peak in Indian influenced cultures across the region. During this period over 4,000 Hindu temples were built across the plain of Bagan in modern Myanmar whilst in Cambodia over 1000 Hindu temples arose around Angkor. In modern day Indonesia on the island of Sumatra a powerful Buddhist empire known as Srivijaya had emerged by the seventh century and also reached its peak in this same period.

temples of bagan and angkor
The Hindu temples of Bagan and Angkor all date from between the 9th and 12th centuries as Indian culture reached its zenith in the region

On Java surviving inscriptions describe a new ruling family from the middle of the eighth century known as the Sailendras. This dynasty favoured Buddhism over Hinduism and with them begins the construction of Buddhist temples such as that at Kalasan, 13km east of modern Yogyakarta, and later Mendut and Pawon just a few kilometers east of Borobudur. Construction of the great temple of Borobudur began around 782 under the reign of Samaratungga and proceeded in five phases until about 840.

mendut temple
Mendut is a Buddhist Temple built in the early ninth century as construction of Borobudur temple was in progress

Rediscovery

Very little is known about the society that the Sailendra’s ruled over but after the fourteenth century it fell into decline. The vast stone monuments they had built lay neglected and almost forgotten as the jungle retook the space.

In the case of Borobudur it was the arrival of Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant General of the British East Indies from 1811 to 1816, that revived interest in the temple. Raffles was keenly interested in Javanese culture, publishing The History of Java in 1817.

Thomas Stamford Raffles
Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant General of the British East Indies from 1811 to 1816

In 1814 whilst on a tour of Central Java he heard of a massive monument buried in the jungle and sent a Dutch engineer, Cornelius Hermann to investigate. With two hundred men Hermann spent two months cutting back the jungle to expose the temple. This initial work was continued for several further decades by Christiaan Lodewijk Hartmann, exposing the complete monument. Hartmann however, kept no records of his work and rumours persist that he removed the central stupa’s main Buddha image.

Studies of Borobudur proceeded slowly throughout the nineteenth century and for much of this period statues were lost to souvenir hunters. Even Siam’s King Chulalongkorn visited in 1896 and departed with eight cart loads of artifacts, some of which can be seen today in Thailand’s National Museum in Bangkok.

borobudur in 1872
The first photograph of Borobudur taken by Isidore van Kinsbergen in 1872

The first photograph of Borobudur was taken in 1872 by Isidore van Kinsbergen, who found the monument had again fallen into a state of considerable disrepair. In fact ten years later the chief inspector of cultural artifacts recommended to the government that due to the risk of collapse Borobudur should be dismantled and its treasures housed in museums. Fortunately an archaeologist was appointed instead to thoroughly assess the state of the site. The resulting survey reassured all that collapse was not imminent and the monument was saved.

The discovery of the Hidden Foot in 1885 re-ignited interest in Borobudur. Between 1890 and 1891 a photographic record of this previously unknown lower level was made before the encasement was rebuilt around the base of the monument. The colonial Dutch government was finally prompted to allocate funds to restoring and protecting the monument. This paid for Theodor van Erp, a Dutch army engineer, to successfully dismantle and then rebuild the upper levels of the monument between 1907 and 1911.

borobudur in 1911
Borobudur in 1911 following Theodor van Erp’s restoration showing the reconstructed chattra pinnacle

As part of his work Van Erp restored the three tiered stone parasol or chattra atop the main stupa but later removed it again as he was dissatisfied with its authenticity given how few original stones were found. It can today be seen standing in the grounds of Borobudur’s museum.

Van Erp's chattra
Van Erp’s Reconstructed Chattra now Located in Borobudur Museum

Although further minor restoration was conducted through subsequent years of world wars and national revolution Borobudur continued to suffer from neglect and lack of necessary funds. Finally in 1973 UNESCO coordinated an international renovation effort and over a seven year period nearly US$7 million was spent dismantling and rebuilding the entire monument with stabilized foundations and improved drainage. Following this huge project UNESCO listed Borobudur as a World Heritage Site in 1991.

Where to Go

How to Go

Borobudur is currently closed to visitors due to COVID-19. Hopefully this is just a temporary situation and usual business as described below will be resumed soon.

The best time of year to visit Borobudur is between May and October when rainfall is at its lowest. The temple is open to the public from 6am to 5pm everyday. Tickets cost IDR 325,000 (IDR 190,000 for Students). For IDR520,000 you can buy a ticket which will also allow you to visit the Hindu Prambanan temple east of Yogyakarta the following day which is definitely worth a visit.

The nearest major airport is in Yogyakarta which is about 40km from Borobudur. Siamrat found that it was considerably cheaper to fly to Bali first and then connect to internal flights to Yogyakarta rather than connecting via Jakarta. And a few extra days relaxing in Bali afterwards was a nice added bonus. From Yogyakarta it is possible to get to Borobudur by public transport but hiring a taxi is considerably easier if the funds are available (About IDR 150,000).

One of the highlights of Borobudur is watching sunrise and/or sunset from the top of the temple. Although a 40km drive from Yogyakarta sounds easy this is Indonesia and a hair-raising drive from Yogyakarta in the dark whilst you are desperately watching the clock is not the best way to start your visit to one of the world’s most serene sights. For that reason Siamrat would definitely recommend staying overnight in one of the many small hotels just a short walk from the temple entrance at Gate 1 (Pintu 1). But if possible do spend some time exploring Yogyakarta as it is also a fascinating city with rich history.

References

  1. The Indianized States of South East Asian, George Cœdès , 1968 English Edition, East-West Center Press, University of Hawaii.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borobudur
  3. http://borobudurpark.com/en/home-2/
  4. Borobudur photo 1872 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8577093
  5. Borobudur photo 1911 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8608036

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