Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Indonesia, a country located in the southern part of Southeast Asia, consists of 17.500 islands, becoming the world's largest archipelago. Such a plethora of islands ensures a rich and varied cultural heritage, and due to its geopolitical strategical location the country has been influenced by several neighboring nations, which marked its history and architecture. 1500 years ago and under the Indian influence, Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms flourished in these islands. Centuries later, Muslim traders brought the Islamic religion and today Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. The production of spices favored trade with China, which later the European powers fought to control. A Dutch colony since the early seventeenth century, brutally occupied by the Japanese in 1942, Indonesia gained its independence just after the Second World War.

In the midst of the Indonesian island of Java (famous for the discovering of some of the earliest known fossils of the Homo Erectus the "Java Man"), 40 km northeast of Yogjakarta, stands the splendid shrine of Borobudur, a wonder that combines sculpture, architecture and symbolism, as well as teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism, to produce the greatest monument to Buddha in the world.

Borobudur was built between 760 to 825 AD and it was mysteriously abandoned in the fourteenth century during the conversion of Indonesia to Islam and the decline of Buddhism and Hinduism in the archipelago.

Borobudur at sunset
Photo courtesy of M3R

It was rediscovered in 1814 by the Englishman Sir Thomas Raffles, governor of Java, who led some restoration works. The major restoration was carried out by the Indonesian government and UNESCO in 1975-82, after which the Borobudur was inscribed on the World Heritage list.

Borobudur at the time of its discovery

To understand Borobudur we must see it both in its regional context of as in its architectural composition.

While in use, the temple attracted large number of pilgrims from all over Southeast Asia.The pilgrimage supposed a process of preparation before arriving to the main temple, that is why in his approach to the temple a pilgrim first found the temples of Mendut and Pawon, places that are aligned with Bodobudur.

Pawon Temple
Mandut Temple

One of the guides mentioned to me that the temple of Borobudur is located in an area where there was formerly a lake, which was then naturally dried by volcanic eruptions. It is believed that the construction of this temple on the lake resemble a lotus flower floating on a pond.

During the visit, which began at 4 am, I was able to witness the spectacle of the sunrise from the temple, where the bluish light of dawn slowly unveils the mountains surrounding the temple, while a thick fog that emanates from the Javanese jungle makes you feel like being in a not earthly place, closer to heaven.


In Buddhism, the mandala represents a landscape of the universe with Buddha in its center, and shows the different steps in the process of finding the truth.

Borobudur was built on a hill, following the layout of a giant mandala, representing the Buddhist cosmology. It consists of nine platforms divided into three sections:
- The upper three are circular platforms, called Arupadhatu, and have a slightly curved oval shape consisting of two minor axes aligned with the cardinal points and two major axes aligned with the intermediate directions.
- The six lower platforms are square, called Rupadhatu,
- Moreover, in 1885 a structure in the base was discovered and it was called Kamadhatu.

The lower platform probably also had a structural function to prevent the collapse of the structure. It was added after the temple was finished, as it can be seen in one of the corners, where the older reliefs have been exposed.

The architectural layout leads the visitor throughout a system of stairs in order to ascend to the platforms and reach the top of the structure, a clear representation of the journey towards a spiritual "enlightenment". The pilgrims walked each platform twice, in order to learn from the reliefs on each side.

Between the latest square platform and the first circular one there is an arch topped by an intimidating figure of a guardian. It is a reference to a transition to a more pure place, where evil spirits had no access.

The bell-shaped stupas contain the figure of a Buddha. This is quite unusual, I have not seen it in other Asian countries, perhaps due to a syncretism between Buddhism and ancient Javanese traditions, where ancient ascetics used go to meditate in caves.

An interesting detail is that the openings of the stupas of the first two levels are in diamond shape, while those of the stupas of the upper platform are in square shape. (Note the different form of the pieces of stone). Perhaps this symbolized the path perfection, to the enlightenment that every pilgrim aspired by climbing and meditating through the different platforms.

The last great stupa, crowned by an octagonal pinnacle, has no opening and some people say that inside there used to be a golden Buddha, stolen by a Dutchman explorer, but this theory has not been proved. The simplicity of its form contrasts with the baroque richness of the reliefs that are located in the platforms below, and I imagine that has to do precisely with the austerity and simplicity that Buddha preached.


The structure can be divided into three main elements: the base, the central part and the top, which in analogy to the feet, body and head represent the three states of mental preparation: the Kamadhatu or world of desires,the Rupadhatu or world of forms and the Arupadhatu or formless world. A 1977 study by the professor found a ratio of 4:6:9 for the composition of both the three parts of the temple as well as each of the temple main parts. This ratio is equal to that found in the temples of Pawon and Mendut as well as the impressive complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Section of the temple according to Professor Atmadi.
Image courtesy of Borobudur.tv

The researcher Mark Long, who has been studying the calendrical, astronomical and cosmological relations in Borobudur for several years, based on its own survey of the complex, proposed that the same ratio of 4:6:9 can be applied to the width of the whole monument.

North South Section, where according to Mark Long the same 4:6:9 ratio was used, such as in the height of the temple.
Image courtesy of Borobudur.tv

It is thought that the architect of Borobudur, named Gunadharma, believed that the plans of temples played a direct role in determining the fate of each occupant of the structure, so the architect's role should be to harmonize the forces of the microcosm that govern human life with the macrocosm that governs the life of the gods. Gunadharma took the tala as a measurement unit, which is the distance between the thumb and little finger when they are stretched to their maximum separation, a system widely used in India. Because this measure varies little from person to person it is possible that the tala form an important person may have been employed as a method of standardization. Mark Long has found that the extent of the tala used in the monument was 22.9 cm.

Based on his own measurements, Long stated that the overall dimensions are based on a number of talas that symbolize important events in the Hindu calendar, specifically a calendar called Vatsu Purusha Mandala. In the faces and square corners of this diagram the solstices and equinoxes are represented. The arrangement of the stupas follows a well-studied geometric pattern, avoiding, for example, being placed in the main diagonals of the monument, where it was believed the important divine energies flow.


Borobudur aside of the symbolism in their mandalic architectural layout displays also many references to the life of Buddha, both in reliefs and statues.

The reliefs have an educational role. The scenes represent the history of Buddha, his various incarnations and the path that the faithful should follow to reach Nirvana.

The Buddha statues, many of whom are maimed and some missing, are distributed differently in the square platforms than in the circular ones.
In the five square platforms, called Rupadhatu, the Buddhas, numbering 432, are located in niches, placed in rows in art outer part of the balustrades. The number of Buddhas diminishes as platforms get higher. Thus, the first platform contains 104 niches, the second 104, the third 88, the fourth 72 and the fifth 64.

Details of Borobudur

Photo courtesy of Davey Sarge

The upper platforms or Arupadhatu, contain 72 small latticed stupas (which are mound-shaped structures, typical of early Buddhism) that surround a larger stupa more. Thus, in the first level there are 32 stupas, 24 in the second and 16 in the third level.

Model top temple

While at first glance the Buddhas seem to be the same. sitting lotus position, which is sitting on crossed legs. However, the different hand position represents various states of meditation.

Detail of the interior of a stupa, showing a sitting Buddha

The following is a video of Borobudur



Jan, a filipina boddhisatva in meditation


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