Borobudur, or Barabudur (Indonesian: Candi Borobudur, Javanese: ꦕꦤ꧀ꦣꦶꦧꦫꦧꦸꦣꦸꦂ, romanized: Candhi Barabudhur) is a 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist temple in Magelang Regency, not far from the town of Muntilan, in Central Java, Indonesia. It is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. The temple consists of nine stacked platforms, six square and three circular, topped by a central dome. It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa.
Built in the 9th century during the reign of the Sailendra Dynasty, the temple design follows Javanese Buddhist architecture, which blends the Indonesian indigenous cult 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 Lord Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimage. The pilgrim journey begins at the base of the monument and follows a path around the monument, ascending to the top through three levels symbolic of Buddhist cosmology: Kāmadhātu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness). The monument guides pilgrims 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.
Evidence suggests that Borobudur was constructed in the 9th century and subsequently abandoned following the 14th-century decline of Hindu kingdoms in Java and the Javanese conversion to Islam. Worldwide knowledge of its existence was sparked in 1814 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, then the British ruler of Java, who was advised of its location by native Indonesians. Borobudur has since been preserved through several restorations. The largest restoration project was undertaken between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and UNESCO, followed by the monument’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and ranks with Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia as one of the great archeological sites of Southeast Asia. Borobudur remains popular for pilgrimage, with Buddhists in Indonesia celebrating Vesak Day at the monument. Borobudur is Indonesia’s single most visited tourist attraction.
In Indonesian, ancient temples are referred to as candi; thus locals refer to “Borobudur Temple” as Candi Borobudur. The term candi also loosely describes ancient structures, for example gates and baths. The origins of the name Borobudur, however, are unclear, although the original names of most ancient Indonesian temples are no longer known. The name Borobudur was first written in Raffles’s book on Javan history. Raffles wrote about a monument called Borobudur, but there are no older documents suggesting the same name. The only old Javanese manuscript that hints the monument called Budur as a holy Buddhist sanctuary is Nagarakretagama, written by Mpu Prapanca, a Buddhist scholar of Majapahit court, in 1365.
Most candi are named after a nearby village. If it followed Javanese language conventions and was named after the nearby village of Bore, the monument should have been named “BudurBoro”. Raffles thought that Budur might correspond to the modern Javanese word Buda (“ancient”)—i.e., “ancient Boro”. He also suggested that the name might derive from boro, meaning “great” or “honourable” and Budur for Buddha. However, another archaeologist suggests the second component of the name (Budur) comes from Javanese term bhudhara (“mountain”).
Another possible etymology by Dutch archaeologist A.J. Bernet Kempers suggests that Borobudur is a corrupted simplified local Javanese pronunciation of Biara Beduhur written in Sanskrit as Vihara Buddha Uhr. The term Buddha-Uhr could mean “the city of Buddhas”, while another possible term Beduhur is probably an Old Javanese term, still survived today in Balinese vocabulary, which means “a high place”, constructed from the stem word dhuhur or luhur (high). This suggests that Borobudur means vihara of Buddha located on a high place or on a hill.
The construction and inauguration of a sacred Buddhist building—possibly a reference to Borobudur—was mentioned in two inscriptions, both discovered in Kedu, Temanggung Regency. The Karangtengah inscription, dated 824, mentioned a sacred building named Jinalaya (the realm of those who have conquered worldly desire and reached enlightenment), inaugurated by Pramodhawardhani, daughter of Samaratungga. The Tri Tepusan inscription, dated 842, is mentioned in the sima, the (tax-free) lands awarded by Çrī Kahulunnan (Pramodhawardhani) to ensure the funding and maintenance of a Kamūlān called Bhūmisambhāra.
Kamūlān is from the word mula, which means “the place of origin”, a sacred building to honor the ancestors, probably those of the Sailendras. Casparis suggested that Bhūmi Sambhāra Bhudhāra, which in Sanskrit means “the mountain of combined virtues of the ten stages of Boddhisattvahood”, was the original name of Borobudur.
The three temples. Approximately 40 kilometres (25 mi) northwest of Yogyakarta and 86 kilometres (53 mi) west of Surakarta, Borobudur is located in an elevated area between two twin volcanoes, Sundoro-Sumbing and Merbabu-Merapi, and two rivers, the Progo and the Elo. According to local myth, the area known as Kedu Plain is a Javanese “sacred” place and has been dubbed “the garden of Java” due to its high agricultural fertility. During the restoration in the early 20th century, it was discovered that three Buddhist temples in the region, Borobudur, Pawon and Mendut, are positioned along a straight line. A ritual relationship between the three temples must have existed, although the exact ritual process is unknown.
Ancient lake hypothesis. Speculation about a surrounding lake’s existence was the subject of intense discussion among archaeologists in the 20th century. In 1931, a Dutch artist and scholar of Hindu and Buddhist architecture, W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp, developed a hypothesis that the Kedu Plain was once a lake and Borobudur initially represented a lotus flower floating on the lake. It has been claimed that Borobudur was built on a bedrock hill, 265 m (869 ft) above sea level and 15 m (49 ft) above the floor of a dried-out paleolake.
Dumarçay together with Professor Thanikaimoni took soil samples in 1974 and again in 1977 from trial trenches that had been dug into the hill, as well as from the plain immediately to the south. These samples were later analysed by Thanikaimoni, who examined their pollen and spore content to identify the type of vegetation that had grown in the area around the time of Borobudur’s construction. They were unable to discover any pollen or spore samples that were characteristic of any vegetation known to grow in an aquatic environment such as a lake, pond or marsh.
The area surrounding Borobudur appears to have been surrounded by agricultural land and palm trees at the time of the monument’s construction, as is still the case today. Caesar Voûte and the geomorphologist Dr J.J. Nossin in 1985–86 field studies re-examined the Borobudur lake hypothesis and confirmed the absence of a lake around Borobudur at the time of its construction and active use as a sanctuary. These findings A New Perspective on Some Old Questions Pertaining to Borobudur were published in the 2005 UNESCO publication titled “The Restoration of Borobudur”.
Construction. There are no known records of construction or the intended purpose of Borobudur. The duration of construction has been estimated by comparison of carved reliefs on the temple’s hidden foot and the inscriptions commonly used in royal charters during the 8th and 9th centuries. Borobudur was likely founded around 800 AD. This corresponds to the period between 760 and 830 AD, the peak of the Sailendra dynasty rule over Mataram kingdom in central Java, when their power encompassed not only the Srivijayan Empire but also southern Thailand, Indianized kingdoms of Philippines, North Malaya (Kedah, also known in Indian texts as the ancient Hindu state of Kadaram), and Khmer in Cambodia. The construction has been estimated to have taken 75 years with completion during the reign of Samaratungga in 825.
There is uncertainty about Hindu and Buddhist rulers in Java around that time. The Sailendras were known as ardent followers of Buddhism, though stone inscriptions found at Sojomerto also suggest they may have been Hindus. It was during 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. In 732 AD, the Shivaite King Sanjaya commissioned a Shivalinga sanctuary to be built on the Wukir hill, only 10 km (6.2 mi) east of Borobudur.
Construction of Buddhist temples, including Borobudur, at that time was possible because Sanjaya’s immediate successor, Rakai Panangkaran, granted his permission to the Buddhist followers to build such temples. In fact, to show his respect, Panangkaran gave the village of Kalasan to the Buddhist community, as is written in the Kalasan Charter dated 778 AD.
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; or for a Buddhist king to act likewise. However, it is likely that there were two rival royal dynasties in Java at the time—the Buddhist Sailendra and the Saivite Sanjaya—in which the latter triumphed over their rival in the 856 battle on the Ratubaka plateau. Similar confusion also exists regarding the Lara Jonggrang temple at the Prambanan complex, which was believed to have been erected by the victor Rakai Pikatan as the Sanjaya dynasty’s reply to Borobudur, but others suggest that there was a climate of peaceful coexistence where Sailendra involvement exists in Lara Jonggrang..