Building of Borobudur Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Buddhist monument Borobuḍur, located in Central Java (Indonesia), was built during 775-840. It has been suggested that it was built by the Sailendra family as an expression of Sailendra’s pious devotion to Buddhism. Its stepped pyramid shape, beautiful bas-reliefs covering a total surface of more than half an acre, and large size have captured scholars’s attention for nearly a century.

Summary of Event

Borobuḍur is a Buddhist Buddhism;Java Java;Buddhism monument built over a natural hill located in the middle of the fertile Kedu plain 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Yogyakarta on the island of Java, Indonesia. The monument, made out of dark volcanic rocks, is a solid structure with no interior space, unlike other Buddhist temples. Architecture;Java Java;architecture It is a stepped pyramid with projections on four sides and crowned by a large dome-shaped structure known as a stupa. Each side measures approximately 400 feet (122 meters), and the monument at its highest point reaches about 103 feet (about 31 meters). Overall, the structure is divided into two parts: five lower concentric square terraces and three upper circular platforms. Walls and balustrades at each lower level form a pathlike space, where circumambulation might have taken place, and seventy-two perforated stupas are placed on concentric circular platforms at the upper level. [kw]Building of Borobuḍur (775-840) [kw]Borobuḍur, Building of (775-840) Borobuḍur[Borobudur] Southeast Asia;775-840: Building of Borobuḍur[0710] Architecture;775-840: Building of Borobuḍur[0710] Engineering;775-840: Building of Borobuḍur[0710] Religion;775-840: Building of Borobuḍur[0710]

Unfortunately, there is no written documentation concerning the construction of Borobuḍur, its use in worship, or its religious background. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to determine how this monument was built, how it was used in worship, what it represents, and even who built it. Most scholars suggest that the Sailendra Sailendra family (Lord of the Mountain) family must have been involved in the building of Borobuḍur. The Sailendras were devout followers of Buddhism who (as evidenced by many Javanese inscriptions) were active from the late eighth century to the mid-ninth century in erecting Buddhist temples and images. Borobuḍur is thus assumed to be one of the Sailendras’s achievements.

It is still uncertain whether “Borobuḍur” is the ancient name of the monument. At the early stages of the studies on Borobuḍur, it was suggested that because boro is a derivative of Sanskrit vihāra (monastery) and budur means “to emerge (from the plain)” in a modern Indonesian dialect, “Borobuḍur” thus means “hill monastery.” However, this theory has been widely rejected because the latter part of the name, budur, means nothing in Javanese. The ninth century historian Casparis argued that the phrase Bhūmisambhāra Bhudhara (which literally means “mountain of the accumulation of virtue in passing through [ten] stages of a Bodhisattva”), which appeared in one Javanese inscription, might have been the original name of the monument. Like many mysteries surrounding Borobuḍur, that regarding the name itself is unsolved.

What is most striking at Borobuḍur is the presence of an extensive series of bas-reliefs on the walls and the balustrades of the monument. Almost 1,460 stone panels depict famous Mahāyāna Buddhist texts, including Mahākarmavibhanga Mahākarmavibhanga[Mahakarmavibhanga] (great classification of actions), Lalitavistara (life of Śākyamuni Buddha), Avadānas (heroic deeds), Gandhavyūha (Sudhana’s search for wisdom), and Jātakas (birth stories). Because the circumambulation is done in a clockwise direction, these bas-reliefs are meant to be read from right to left. The Mahākarmavibhanga is depicted in a “hidden foot” at the outer wall of monument’s lowest level, which was completely covered at some point in its construction. The reason the original foundation was covered is unknown. However, the most convincing explanation is a technical one: At some point during its construction and after the depiction of the Mahākarmavibhanga had been finished, an additional terrace must have been added to the original outer wall to prevent the building from collapsing under the weight of the monument. This process resulted in the covering of a series of the Mahākarmavibhanga bas-reliefs and the construction of a wide pilgrimage path around the monument.

The original foundation was accidentally discovered in 1885, and soon after the entire series of 160 bas-reliefs was photographed in 1890-1891, it was covered again to prevent any tragic collapse. Therefore, today only photographs of the Mahākarmavibhanga bas-reliefs remain, with the exception of several panels at the southeastern corner that were uncovered by the Japanese during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in the 1940’. The Mahākarmavibhanga reliefs illustrate various actions of human beings. They were meant to teach visitors which actions are good or bad and which kind of rewards or punishment would follow a specific action, such as robbery, laziness, or the killing of a living creature. It also has been suggested that the hidden foot was intentionally covered because the scenes of these earthly lives were thought to be inappropriate for worshipers to view.

Moving up the monument, the next stories depicted are Jātakas and Avadānas, which can be found on the second and third levels of the monument. The Jātakas are “birth stories” that are mainly related to the self-sacrifices performed by Buddha in his previous lives, and the Avadānas are about the heroic deeds of various people from nobles to merchants. Another important Mahāyāna Buddhist text depicted at Borobuḍur, called Lalitavistara Lalitavistara , tells the life story of Śākyamuni Buddha. Meanwhile, the walls and balustrades from the second to the fourth levels are devoted to the story of a young practitioner, Sudhana, in search for wisdom. This text is called the Gandhavyūha Gandhavyūha[Gandhavyuha] , and it is one of the most popular Mahāyāna Buddhist Mahāyāna Buddhism[Mahayana Buddhism] texts in Asia.

One unfinished Buddha image, now kept at a museum next to the monument, is thought to have been originally enshrined inside the larger stupa at the very top of the monument, yet it should be noted that it is still controversial whether this image was originally placed inside the larger stupa. More than 432 other Buddha images are kept in the decorated niches on the four sides of the monument facing outward. The features of these Buddha images are all alike, but their mudrās (hand gestures) mark their different locations: a gesture of the seal of the touching the earth, or bhūmisparśa-mudrā, in the east; a gesture of having no fear, abhaya-mudrā, in the west; a meditation pose, dhyāni-mudrā, in the north; and a pose of charity, vara-mudrā, in the south. In addition, 64 Buddha images in the niches at the fifth level display a teaching gesture, vitarka-mudrā, and those inside the perforated stupas at the upper circular platforms make a gesture of turning the wheel of the wisdom, dharmacakra-mudrā.

Interpreting the architectural form of Borobuḍur is a very difficult task. In the early 1930’, the historian Paul Mus once suggested that Borobuḍur represents a huge stupa, a place to keep Buddha’s relics, but no relic has been found at Borobuḍur. Some scholars have tried to explain it as a mandala, a diagram of the cosmic world in Buddhism, because the architectural plan of Borobuḍur is reminiscent of the form of a mandala with its combination of circles and squares. Specific Buddhist texts such as Avatamsaka-sūtra (flower adornment sutra, or lotus sutra) have also been suggested as the basis for the monument’s architectural design. None of these theories, however, has been confirmed.

It is generally agreed that the route from the bottom to the top of the monument symbolizes the religious path that Buddhist worshipers should follow. Starting from the earthly lives of the Mahākarmavibhanga, worshipers are meant gradually to find the ultimate truth of Buddhism as they ascend the monument, and at the top level they can finally see Buddha images through the small holes of the perforated stupas. Borobuḍur is therefore often read as the embodiment of the Buddhist cosmic world, which is composed of three spheres: the kāmadhatu (sphere of desire), the rūpadhatu (sphere of form), and the arūpadhatu (sphere of formlessness), each of which corresponds to the bas-reliefs at the hidden foot, the four square levels, and the three circular platforms, respectively.

Two other small Buddhist temples, Candi Pawon and Candi Mendut (candi means “temple” or “monastery”), stand on the route toward Borobuḍur and share artistic and architectural styles with Borobuḍur. These temples must have served as places to welcome pilgrims who visited Borobuḍur. The type of Buddhist ceremony that might have taken place at Borobuḍur is unknown.


Considered by many to be one of the wonders of the world, Borobuḍur represents a wholly distinct form of architecture, restricted to Central Java and built under the Sailendras’s rule. It is larger in scale, more elaborately decorated, and more complex in plan than Hindu architecture dated prior to the 780’. Similar ideas of representing the Buddhist world as a form of architecture as in Borobuḍur were applied to other Javanese Buddhist temples, such as Candi Sewu and Candi Kalasan in Central Java.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chihara, Daigoro. Hindu-Buddhist Architecture in Southeast Asia. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1996. A good survey of Southeast Asian architecture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dumarçay, Jacques. Borobuḍur. Translated by Michael Smithies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. A good survey of Central Javanese architecture, including Borobuḍur.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fontein, Jan. The Sculpture of Indonesia. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1990. The catalog for a 1990 exhibition, including three very good introductory essays on Indonesian art and architecture by three eminent scholars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frédéric, Louis. Borobuḍur. Photographs by Jean-Louis Nou. New York: Abbeville Press, 1994. Contains photographs of all of Borobuḍur’s bas-reliefs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gómez, Luis O., and Hiram W. Woodward Jr., eds. Barabuḍur: History and Significance of a Buddhist Monument. Berkeley: Regents of the University of California, 1981. A collection of nine articles written by eminent scholars, presented at the International Conference on Borobudur held on May 16-17, 1981, at the University of Michigan. Glossary, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miksic, John. Borobuḍur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas. Photographs by Marcello and Anita Tranchini. Singapore: Periplus, 1990. Miksic’s text on Borobuḍur’s architecture, art, and history, and on each of its bas-reliefs, offers an excellent accompaniment to the photographs.

Categories: History