It’s difficult to say exactly when and why Borobudur was built, as there are no written records to be found. Archeoligists and historians estimate that Borobudur was built during the Sailendra dynasty, in mid 8th century, and took around 75 years to complete. Borobudur is only one of several temples located in central Java built during this era.
Borobudur was built during an era where power shifted between two rival families, the Buddhist Sailendras and the Hindu Sanjayas. Both built large temples, this one being Saildendras largest temple while Prambanan was the Sanjayas greatest temple.
Even though these two dynasties were rivals, archeologists have come to believe that there was never a large scale religious conflict on Java. They point to the fact that temples of different religion have been allowed to remain, even during times when the rival was in power.
Borobudur was later abandoned, for what reason is still unknown. What is known is that the center of power moved from central Java to east Java in the 10th century and that several volcanic eruptions took place during the same period. If the eruptions caused the abandonment is hard to say, but many say it is the most likely reason for the abandonment.
Others believe Borobudur was used actively as a temple all the way into the 16th century, until the majority of the population converted to Islam. Again, the exact reason why it was abandoned is impossible say.
Even though Borobudur lay hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth; the monument was not completely forgotten. According to the Javanese history scripts, smaller rebel battles have taken place close to the temple and some notes associate the temple with bad luck and misery.
One script mentions the misfortune of the crown prince of the Yogyakarta Sultanate – who despite the curse of the temple – paid it a visit in 1757. Upon returning to his palace after the Borobudur visit, he fell ill and died the very next day.
Borobudur was discovered for the first time by foreigners in the early 19th century, during the short British rule of the Dutch East Indies. The appointed Governor, General Thomas Stamford Raffles, had heard about a hidden temple in the jungle in central Java and he decided to investigate it.
He sent an expedition of around 200 men who managed to find the temple. In order to get a grasp of the sheer size of the temple, they were forced to clear it of vegetation and dig away loads of earth. Reports of the founding were sent back to the Governor, who ordered Borobudur to be fully revealed. The work on removing all the earth was finished in 1835.
Although fully exposed in all its beauty, appreciation of the site developed slowly and it served for some time largely as a source of souvenirs and income for “souvenir hunters” and thieves.
Borobudur started to receive some attention in the early 20th century, when a restoration project was initiated. Due to the limited budget, the restoration was primarily focused on cleaning the sculptures.
According to native folk tales, there used to be a brick-paved road with walls on both sides connecting Borobudur, Pawon and Mendutto each other. The three temples have similar architecture and ornamentation deriving from the same time period, which suggests that some ritual relationship existed between the three temples.
In the late 1960s, the rather newly formed Indonesian Government initiated a major restoration project in order to bring Borobudur back to its former glory. They requested help from the international community in order to renovate and protect Borobudur.
The Indonesian government and UNESCO then undertook the complete overhaul of the monument in a big restoration project between 1975 and 1982. The project involved more than 600 people and included improving the foundation, cleaning of all the carvings and also a new drainage system. These restorations saved the temple from slowly disintegrating and made Borobudur what it is today.
Why visit Borobudur ?
The massive Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. In Indonesian, ancient temples are known as candi; thus “Borobudur Temple” is locally known as Candi Borobudur.
This amazing temple not only serves as a shrine to the Lord Buddha, but it is also a place for Buddhist pilgrimage. It also serves as Indonesia’s most visited site, as it attracts lots of travelers each year. No wonder – as it is one of the most fascinating temples ever built.
Borobudur is a spectacular temple not to miss. The temple is essentially built as one massive stupa. A stupa is a Buddhist burial mound for Buddhist leaders and holy relics. According to the Buddhist cosmology, there are three stages of mental preparation.
Each one of these preparations is linked to one of the many worlds or “planes” that exists within Buddhism. Borobudur is based around these three stages of mental preparation where each platform represents one of the three stages of mental preparation.
The temple has a total of nine platforms, of which the lower six are square and the upper three are circular. The first platform, the base, represents Kāmadhātu – the world of desires. The rest of the square platforms represent Rupadhatu – the world of forms and the upper three circular platforms, together with the main stupa, represent the formless world – Arupadhatu.
The walls on the lower platforms are covered in beautiful relief panels, depicting stories from Buddhism. The main part shows the descent of the Lord Buddha from the Tushita heaven and ends with his first sermon. The panels on the wall are read from right to left, while on the balustrade read from left to right. This conforms with the ritual performed by pilgrims who move climb the temple in a clockwise direction while keeping the sanctuary to their right.
At the upper circular levels, visitors to Borobudur will find seventy-two small stupas surrounding one large central stupa. Visitors paying close attention to these stupas will see that they are decorated in different ways.
The outer levels have diamond shaped holes, while the inner levels have square holes. The diamond shaped holes stands for instability, the square holes for stability and the main stupa is solid which stands for eternity. This one again refers to the formless world – Arupadhatu – and represents how the world of forms changes to the world of the formless.
Each stupa holds a Statue of Buddha – each one except the main stupa which is empty. Of the original 504 Buddha statues covering Borobudur, over 300 are damaged and 43 are missing. Since the monument’s discovery, Buddha heads have been stolen as collector’s items, which is the reason why many statues are headless.
The hidden foot
In 1885, a hidden structure under the base was accidentally discovered. When the “hidden foot” was fully reviled they say that it also contained reliefs which, like the base, describe the world of desire.
Only a small part of the hidden foot can be seen, as majority of the hidden foot is covered in a stone encasement, for which reason is unknown. The main theory however, is that the encasement base was constructed long ago to add extra weight to the base, as the original base might have been incorrectly designed.
Today, Borobudur is the single most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia with several million visitors each year.
Borobudur is located on top of a small hill near the larger town of Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. For the exact location of Borobudur, check out the Location Map to the right.