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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

A Visit to the Buddhist Temple of Borobudor

Updated: Sep 18, 2023


UK Overseas Development Aid
A Visit to the Buddhist Temple of Borobudor



A Visit to the Buddhist Temple of Borobudor

In the late 1990s, I was visiting Indonesia two or three times a year to supervise basic education and junior secondary school construction projects which were in progress in a number of provinces. One such project was in Central Java and on one visit while visiting school construction sites not far from Jogyakarta, we passed very close to the site of Borobudor, a 7th century Mahayana Buddhist temple. Having finished our site visits for the day, I took a couple of hours off to visit this extraordinary temple.


Borobudor is the world's largest Buddhist temple and consists of nine stacked platforms, six square and three circular, topped by a central dome. It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and originally had 504 Buddha statues. The central dome was surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa. Of the original 504 Buddha statues, over 300 are damaged (mostly headless), and 43 are missing, many now being in Western museums.


The temple design follows that of Javanese Buddhist architecture, which blends the Indonesian indigenous tradition of ancestor worship and the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana. The temple demonstrates the influences of Gupta art that reflects India's influence on the region, yet there are enough indigenous scenes and elements incorporated to make Borobudur uniquely Indonesian. The monument is a shrine to the Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimage. The pilgrims’ journey begins at the base of the monument and follows a path around it ascending to the top through three levels symbolic of Buddhist cosmology: Kāmadhātu (the world of desire), Rūpadhātu (the world of forms) and Arūpadhātu (the world of formlessness). Pilgrims are guided through an extensive system of stairways and corridors with 1,460 narrative relief panels on the walls and the balustrades. Borobudur has one of the largest and most complete ensembles of Buddhist reliefs in the world.

There are no known records of the construction or the intended purpose of Borobudur. It was probably founded around 800 AD which was during the period of the peak of the Sailendra dynasty rule over the Mataram kingdom in central Java, when their power encompassed not only the Srivijayan Empire but also southern Thailand and Indianized kingdoms in the Philippines and north Malaya. The construction has been estimated to have taken 75 years.


It was around this time that many Hindu and Buddhist monuments were built on the plains and mountains around the Kedu Plain. The Buddhist monuments, including Borobudur, were erected around the same period as the Hindu Shiva Prambanan temple compound and in 732 AD, the Shivaite King Sanjaya commissioned a Shivalinga sanctuary to be built on the Wukir hill, only 10 km east of Borobudur. This has led some archaeologists to believe that there was never serious conflict concerning religion in Java as it was possible for a Hindu king to patronize the establishment of a Buddhist monument and for a Buddhist king to patronise the building of a Hindu monument.


Borobudur lay hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth but the facts behind its abandonment remain a mystery and it is not known when active use of the monument ceased. Sometime between 928 and 1006, King Mpu Sindok moved the capital of the Medang Kingdom to the region of East Java after a series of volcanic eruptions and several sources cite this as the most likely period of abandonment. There is also a popular belief that the temple was abandoned when the population converted to Islam in the 15th century.


Archaeological excavation into Borobudur during reconstruction suggests that adherents of Hinduism or a pre-Indic faith had already begun to erect a large structure on Borobudur's hill before the site was appropriated by Buddhists. The foundations are unlike any Hindu or Buddhist shrine structures, and therefore, the initial structure is considered more indigenous Javanese than Hindu or Buddhist.


Approximately 55,000 cubic metres of andesite stone was taken from neighbouring stone quarries to build the monument. The stone was cut to size, transported to the site and laid without mortar. Projections, indentations and dovetails were used to form joints between stones. The roof of stupas, niches and arched gateways were constructed using corbelling (there are no curved arches) and reliefs were created in situ after the building had been completed.


The monument is equipped with a good drainage system and to prevent flooding, 100 spouts are installed at each corner, each with a unique carved gargoyle in the shape of a giant or makara.


Unlike most other temples that were constructed on flat sites, Borobudur is built on a natural hill but the construction technique is similar to other temples in Java. Without the inner spaces seen in other temples, and with a general design similar to the shape of pyramid, Borobudur was first thought more likely to have served as a stupa or shrine rather than a temple. The complexity of the monument's design suggests however that Borobudur was in fact a temple. Little is known about Gunadharma, the architect of the complex. His name is known from Javanese folk tales rather than from any written inscriptions.


The main structure can be divided into three components: base, body, and top. The base is 123 m × 123 m with 4 metres walls. The body is composed of five square platforms, each of diminishing height. The first terrace is set back 7 metres from the edge of the base. Each subsequent terrace is set back 2 metres, leaving a narrow corridor at each stage. The top consists of three circular platforms, with each stage supporting a row of perforated stupas, arranged in concentric circles. There is one main dome at the centre, the top of which is the highest point of the monument, 35 metres above ground level. Stairways at the centre of each of the four sides give access to the top, with a number of gates overlooked by 32 lion statues. The gates are adorned with Kala's head carved on top of each and Makaras projecting from each side. This Kala-Makara motif is commonly found on the gates of Javanese temples. The main entrance is on the eastern side, the location of the first narrative reliefs. Stairways on the slopes of the hill also link the monument to the low-lying plain.


The stone-work and carving are very fine with very thin joints between all of the blocks and paving and with no mortar in the joints. Despite this the structure has withstood numerous earthquakes and storms. It has been restored several times, at first during the 19th century, then at the beginning of the 20th century and more extensively during the 1970s and 80s. Most of the relief panels and other carvings are however original. The temple was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1991.


During my travels around Indonesia supervising school building projects, I came across many other Hindu and Buddhist temples and stupas but none were quite as impressive as Borobudor. The photo gallery below shows some of the photos that I took on my visit.



Gallery




 


Architecture in Developing Countries: A Resource


The design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health in rural areas of the developing world.

Nigel Wakeham is an architect who lived for 23 years in Southern and West Africa and the SW Pacific working on education, health and other projects. He has since worked for over 20 years as a consultant for national governments and agencies such as the World Bank, DFID, ADB and AfDB on the implementation of the construction components of education and health projects in many countries in the developing world.​

​The objective of this website will be to provide the benefit of more than 45 years of experience of working in developing countries to architects and other construction professionals involved in the design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health. It will provide reference material from the projects that Nigel has worked on and technical information on the design, construction and maintenance of educational and health facilities and other relevant topics and these will be added to from time to time.

I am happy to be contacted by anyone requiring further information on any of the projects or resources referred to in this website or by anyone wishing to discuss work possibilities.


 

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