Borobudur - the World's Largest Buddhist Monument Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Borobudur - the World's Largest Buddhist Monument

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Buddhism, now more than 2,500 years old, has influenced many countries. In some, its power has all but disappeared, yet vast monuments to this reflective way of life remain. Borobudur, on the island of Java, Indonesia, is one such monument.


The monument, or temple, is essentially a massive stupa. As the philosophy of Buddhism grew, followers began to commemorate significant places and events in the historical Buddha's life with 'stupas' or burial mounds (stup in Sanskrit1 means 'to accumulate'). Though these man-made hills were first built for kings, they were soon adopted by the Buddhist fraternity or sangha as sites for worship and for the dedication of cremated monks and leaders. Circumambulating2 devotees were supposed to find meditative inspiration from these dome-like memorials.

Development of Buddhist Culture in Indonesia

By the 1st Century AD, Buddhism and Hinduism had reached the shores of the islands of Indonesia, brought by Indian merchants and Brahmin priests. Over the next four centuries, the philosophy and script of the ancient Indian languages Sanskrit and Pali were absorbed by the indigenous Austronesian population. The first stone inscription in an Indic script appeared in the 5th Century and was written by King Purnawarman3, attesting to a high level of cultural assimilation.

During the initial spread of the Buddhist philosophy in India, no human representation was allowed as Buddhism sees salvation through meditation and not through supreme creator gods. Instead, images of the Bodhi tree (under which the Buddha obtained enlightenment), a foot or a dharmachakra4 were used. However, as time passed, Buddhism came to be popularised through the introduction of mythic gods and goddesses. This led to great Buddhist art being used as a means of proselytisation5 among lay people. It was this trend for anthropomorphic Mahayana6 images that was exported to Indonesia and can be seen in the artwork of Borobudur.

The Temple and its Meaning

The construction of Borobudur is said to taken place between 778 AD and 842 AD under the patronage of the Sailendra dynasty7. Using elements of Indian culture they admired, Javanese architects grafted imported ideas onto pre-existing burial mounds to form a syncretic8 architecture, the result of which was Borobudur.

Designed as a giant mandala (the Sanskrit word for circle), some 1460 reliefs9 and 1212 decorative panels wrap around this vast mound of carved volcanic stone. Gupta10 and post-Gupta11 in style, the east-facing temple is built on three main levels: first, a pyramidal base with six concentric square terraces; next, three concentric circular terraces; and, finally, a central stupa mimicking Mount Meru - a holy mountain in the Buddhist canon.

The first level, Kamadhatu (world of desire), depicts a world of suffering and the inevitable law of karma. On this level are at least 160 frames of reliefs, which show examples of cause and effect. The scenes are based on the manuscript Karmawibhangga. This base level is partially buried.

The second level, Ruphadhatu (world of forms), is covered with bas-reliefs based on the holy manuscripts of Lalitavistara, Jataka-Awadana and Gandavyuha. Lalitavistara tells the story of the Buddha's life from his origins as Prince Siddhartha to his final enlightenment as the Buddha. Jataka-Awadana describes the Buddha's past rebirths as king, priests, slaves, gamblers and animals. Gandavyuha tells the story of a man named Sudhana and his search for higher wisdom.

Beyond this, on the final level, is Aruphadhatu (world of formlessness). There are no carvings on this level, just a stupa 15 metres in diameter surrounded by 72 smaller stupas in which 'dhyani' or meditative Buddhas sit with a mudra or hand gesture symbolizing one of the five directions (north, south, east, west and centre). Circular in form, this upper realm is meant to be sublime and without worldly distraction.

Origins of the Name 'Borobudur'

There are many different theories about the etymology of the name Borobudur. One says that the name derives from a nearby inscription, 'Kawulan I Bhumi Sambhara', dated 842 AD. 'Kawulan' indicates a holy site. 'Bhumi Sambhara' might have been corrupted into 'Borobudur'. Another states that boro means temple or monastery and budur may be the name of a village. A third theory claims that the name has its roots in the Sanskrit words 'Vihara Buddha Uhr', meaning 'Buddhist monastery on the hill'. No one theory has been verified.

Use of the Temple

Evidently, the Buddha was venerated at the temple. Unlike comparable later temple structures in Cambodia, there is little extant evidence that the temple was built to consolidate the power of a deva-raja or god-king. There is evidence, however, to suggest that the whole sanctum would have been covered in brightly painted stucco, giving off a rainbow-like shimmer in the tropical sun. In this syncretic Javanese world, both Hindu and Buddhist dynasties ruled over Borobudur till some time in the 10th Century, when the place was suddenly abandoned. The reasons for this are a mystery, but it may have been due to an increasing number of volcanic eruptions from the nearby Mount Merapi.

Rediscovery of Borobudur

In 1814, Sir Thomas Stamford-Raffles (British Lieutenant Governor of Java) and two hundred men investigated the ruined sanctuary. They spent weeks removing the soil, ash and vegetation that had covered the temple, eventually revealing a collapsed mountain of stone. Restoration was begun in the late 19th Century by Theodor van Erp, a Dutch army engineer officer. More extensive work was completed from 1972 to 1983 under the watchful eye of UNESCO12 and teams of Japanese and Indonesian experts.

Now included in UNESCO's World Heritage List, Borobudur surely ranks as one of the world's most magnificent monuments. Its design, setting and overall atmosphere are truly meditative and architecturally brilliant. Now a major tourist attraction for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, the temple is often very busy, and becomes the focus for devotees at Waicak (usually in May), the day on which Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Dawn and dusk offer the most quiet and serene times to visit Borobudur.

Further Reading

  • Discover more about the Maitreya Project: the building of a vast bronze Buddha and a new temple and education complex in northern India.
  • Plan a visit to Indonesia with the Lonely Planet guide to the country.
1The traditional scriptural language of Mahayana Buddhism.2Walking all the way round.3King of Tarumanegara, the first known kingdom on Java, which encompassed virtually all of modern West Java from the 5th to the 7th Centuries AD.4The Sanskrit word for 'wheel of law.' The wheel symbol symbolises the teachings of Buddha, with its eight spokes of understanding, thought, speech, actions, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.5Attempting to convert people from one belief or opinion to another.6Mahayana, meaning 'Great Vehicle', is one of two major schools of Buddhism. The other is Hinayana - 'Lesser Vehicle'; this group refers to themselves as Theravada - 'the Way of the Elders'.7The kings of the Sailendra dynasty ruled much of Java from the 7th to the 9th Century AD.8Amalgamating different religions, cultures or schools of thought.9Carvings in the stone that stand out from the surface.10North Indian Hindu dynasty c.320 - c.550 AD.11Various North Indian Hindu kingdoms c550 - c750 AD.12United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

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