Friday, 15 July 2011

Borobudur - The Largest Buddhist Temple in the World

Borobudur is a Buddhist stupa in the Mahayana tradition and is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. This well known Bhudhist temple is located on the Indonesian island of Java, 40 km (25mi) northwest of Yogyakarta. In Indonesian, ancient temples are known as candi; thus "Borobudur Temple" is locally known as Candi Borobudur. The term candi is also used more loosely to describe any ancient structure, for example gates and bathing structures.


For Indonesian people Borobudur is the most prominent pilgrimage in the country  and most visited tourist attraction. During the month of June, Buddhists in Indonesia celebrate Vesak Day or 'the day of Buddha's birth, his enlightenment and his reaching of nirvana'at Borobudur temple.


In the history it was not clear who built this giant Buddhist temple and what was its purpose. The only thing that history tells is its construction time which has been little easily estimated by comparison between carved reliefs on the temple's hidden foot and the inscriptions commonly used in royal charters during the eight and ninth centuries. This corresponds to the peak of the Sailendra dynasty in central Java (760–830 AD), when it was under the influence of the Srivijayan Empire. The construction has been estimated to have taken 75 years and been completed during the reign of Samaratungga in 825.

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 was Governor General of the United Kingdom in Java. The name Borobudur was given to this temple by him. 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.

Cornelius, a Dutch engineer, assisted by about 200 men cut down trees and remove shrubs that covered the giant building. Because the building is already fragile and could collapse, then report to the Raffles Cornelius invention includes several images. Since the discovery, Raffles was awarded as the man who started restoration of Borobudur temple and got the attention of the world. In 1835, the entire area of ​​the temple has been unearthed.

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.

The Indonesian government and UNESCO then undertook the complete overhaul of the monument in a big restoration project between 1975 and 1982. The foundation was stabilized and all 1,460 panels were cleaned. The restoration involved the dismantling of the five square platforms and improved the drainage by embedding water channels into the monument. Both impermeable and filter layers were added. This colossal project involved around 600 people to restore the monument and cost a total of US$ 6,901,243. After the renovation was finished, UNESCO listed Borobudur as a World Heritage Site in 1991.



The Borobudur Temple was built in three panels. The first panel is the pyramidal base consisting of five platforms that are square. The second panel is the trunk of the cone consisting of three platforms that are circular. The third panel is a monumental stupa located at the top that serves as the main dome.

The walls and balustrades of the Borobudur Temple are adorned with fine low reliefs. The temple has a total surface area of approximately 2,500 square meters. There are 72 openwork stupas that encircle around the circular platform of the temple. Each stupa has a statue of Buddha in it. The whole structure is built on a hill and is made of 55,000 square meters of lava rock. Analyzing the shape of the entire structure, it is the shape of a lotus flower, the sacred flower of the Buddhists.

The foundation of the structure is in the shape of a square and the length of each side is about 387 feet or 118 meters. The base of the Borobudur Temple has area of 403.5 square feet or 123 square meters and the height of the walls is 13 feet or four meters. The five square platforms of the temple have heights that diminish as you go from one platform to the next level. The terrace of the first platform is settled back 23 feet or seven meters from the base’s edge. The terraces of the rest of the platforms are settled back seven feet or two meters, thus giving some small corridor at each platform.

The highest point of the Borobudur Temple is the single main dome at the center of the structure. It has a height of 115 feet or 35 meters from the ground level. The upper portion of the temple can be accessed through some stairways. The stairways are found at the center of the four sides of the temple where the arched gates are located. These gates are watched over by lion statues of about 32 in number.


The arched gates of the Borobudur Temple are decorated with the head of Kala being carved at the top center part of each portal. There are also Makaras projected at each sides of the arched gates. The main entrance of the temple is located at the eastern side of the structure where the first of the narrative reliefs are situated. The entire structure is being linked to the low-lying plain beneath by stairways on the hill slopes.

Viewed from above, Borobudur takes the form of a giant mandala, symbolically depicting the path of the Bodhisattva from samsara to nirvana, through the story of Sudhana described in the Gandavyuha Sutra, a part of the Avatamsaka Sutra. In total, this massive monument contains over 2 million stone blocks.

Some scholars think that this massive monument is a gigantic textbook of Buddhism to help people to achieve enlightenment. To read this Buddhist textbook in stone requires a walk of more than two miles. The walls of the galleries are adorned with impressive reliefs illustrating the life of Buddha Shakyamuni and the principles of his teaching.


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).

The hidden base of Borobudur was originally the first level, which contains the gallery of Kamadhatu level. It is thought that during construction Borobudur experienced a landfall that threatened the entire building. To prevent the whole monument from collapsing, the Kamadhatu level was closed and made into a new base that holds Borobudur steady.

This level of Kamadhatu pictures the world of passion and the inevitable laws of karma. The first 117 panels show various actions leading to one and the same result, while the other remaining 43 panels demonstrate the many results that follow one single effect. At least 160 relief panels were carved around this level, based on the manuscript of Karmavibhangga. What is left of these can be seen in the Southeast corner of this level.

The reliefs of the Rupadhatu level show the stories based on the manuscripts of Lalitavistara, Jataka-Avadana and Gandavyuha. The Lalitavistara reliefs, consisting of 120 panels, tell us about the life of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. It starts with the glorious descent of Buddha from the Tushita heaven. Born as Prince Siddhartha, Buddha's childhood was isolated from the outside world's misery. Accidentally witnessing the misery of sickness, decrepitude and death, young Prince Siddharta decided to escape from the worldly life and commencing his search of freedom from suffering. Siddhartha’s long and painful search finally led him to the highest level of enlightenment and made him Buddha, the Enlightened One. This story ends with Buddha’s sermon in the Deer Park near Benares.

The Jataka is a collection of stories about Buddha's previous reincarnation, chains and virtues. According to the Jataka, Buddha was born 504 times before being born as Prince Siddharta, taking on the forms of god, kings, princes, learned men, thieves, slaves, and a gambler. Many times he was born in the forms of animals such as lion, deer, monkey, swan, big turtle, quail, horse, bird and many others. But the Boddhisatva (Buddha-to-be) was distinguished from all other kings, slaves, or animals among whom he lived. The Boddhisatva is always superior and wiser than those around him.

As to the relief of Avadana, the main figure is not the Buddha himself. All the saintly deeds pictured in this part are attributed to other legendary characters. The stories are compiled in Dvijavadana (Glorious Heavenly Acts) and the Avadana Sataka (The Hundred Avadana). The first 20 frames in the lower series of stories on the first gallery depict the Sudhanakumaravana.

The series of reliefs covering the wall of the second gallery is dedicated to Sudhana’s tireless wandering during his search for the highest wisdom. The story is continued on the walls and balustrades of the third and fourth galleries. Most of the 460 panels depict the scenes based on the Mahayana text Gandavyuha, while the concluding scenes are derived from the text of Badracari.

On the last three circular uppermost terraces, 72 stupas circle the huge main stupa that crowns the top of the temple. The circular form represents the eternity without beginning and without end, a superlative, tranquil, and pure state of the formless world. There are no reliefs on the three circular terraces.


All but the largest central stupas on the upper levels contain a (more or less) life-sized statue of the Buddha kneeling, although many of these statues are missing or damaged. There are also many alcoves along the lower levels which contain similar statues but many of these are missing or damaged as well.

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