Wonder of Borobudur


Stupa cut open to make Buddha image inside visible

His is the view as you enter the park, enhanced by umbrellas hung for International Wesak Celebration.

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Nestling on a hill, on the vast green Kedu Plain (The Garden of Java) in central Java, between two volcanoes, Sundoro-Sumbing and Merbabu-Merapi, and two winding rivers, the Progo and the Elo, Borobudur Temple has survived not only ravages of time, neglect, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions but also terrorism. According to Guinness World Records it is the largest Buddhist temple in the world, being a 60,000 m³- (2,118,880 ft³-) stone structure that is 34.5 m (113 ft.) tall with a base measuring 123 x 123 m (403 x 403 ft.).

Having had the fortune of seeing this marvellous sight, one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world, again after a lapse of over thirty years, I was fascinated by its construction, significance and, more than anything else, the amazing story of survival. It could have been lost for ever if not for the efforts of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the then British ruler of Java, who in 1814, sent a team to explore the site after being informed of its location by native Indonesians. Worldwide interest was sparked by this discovery and Borobudur has since been restored several times.

The largest restoration project was carried out between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and UNESCO and, thereafter, the monument was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over one million stones had to be removed and set aside like pieces of a massive jig-saw puzzle to be individually identified, catalogued, cleaned and treated for preservation before being reassembled. The foundation was stabilised and all 1,460 narrative relief panels on the walls and balustrades were cleaned. The restoration work also involved the dismantling of the five square platforms and the improvement of drainage system by embedding water channels into the monument. This colossal project cost almost seven million US dollars.


Indonesia is an archipelago consisting of over 13,000 islands straddling the equator and around 6,000 of them are inhabited. The largest island, Borneo, which Indonesians call Kalimantan, is the third largest island in the world and the largest in Asia. It is shared with Malaysia, which occupies around 23% of it and Brunei, which occupies only 1% of it. Indonesia shares two other islands; New Guinea with Papua New Guinea and Timor with East Timor. Though there are other large Islands like Sumatra and Sulawesi, Java is the most important island; it is said to be the most populous island in the world.

Indonesian archipelago was once home to Homo erectus, known as "Java Man". In modern times, India seems to have had major influences, ‘Srivijaya’ naval kingdom flourishing from 7th Century, during which Hinduism and Buddhism being introduced. Muslim traders brought Islam to Indonesia in the 13th century, which spread gradually to become the major religion in the 16th century. Today, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country with 225 million followers but the Buddhist/Hindu influence is all over there to see. All the Indonesians we met were very keen to impress on us that they did not believe in extremism, which is very reassuring.


Jakarta, the capital, is a modern city full of theme parks and a beautiful skyline while Old Jakarta has a medieval charm about it with colonial buildings. The Jakarta Airport is vast. SriLankan flies every morning to Jakarta, taking about four hours, enabling a connecting one-hour flight the same evening to Yogyakarta, the closest airport to Borobudur. After an overnight stay in Yogyakarta, a road trip of sixty to ninety minutes, depending on traffic, takes one to Borobudur.


Borobudur archaeological park has won many awards, which again is not surprising as it is a combination of lusciousness with serenity. The presence of many school children at the site gives the impression that Indonesians are not influenced by extremist propaganda; they are justly proud of their heritage but there have been exceptions. Shortly after the last restoration by UNESCO and the Indonesian Government, on 21 January 1985, nine stupas were damaged by bombs, one of the ten planted by extremists not going off. The Government relentlessly pursued the culprits and jailed them including a blind Muslim preacher, who was jailed for life, for masterminding a series of attacks.

As you walk a few hundred yards inside the park, you see the Borobudur Temple, in the distance, against the blue sky and as you get closer the enormity strikes. To appreciate the monument fully, a climb to the top is a must; that gives the added bonus of admiring the vast vista surrounding; greenery that extends as far as eyes could see merging with the clear blue sky, dotted with rivers and volcanos.

Who built Borobudur is not known but, according to available data, it was constructed in the ninth century during the Sailendra dynasty. It took 75 years to build Borobudur, which was completed in 825 CE, during the time of King Samaratungga, his daughter Pramodhawardhani playing an important role.


Borobudur temple consists of nine stacked platforms; the lower six are square and the upper three circular. The temple is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues in different ‘Mudras’. The central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa.

The monument has three divisions symbolizing the three "realms" of Buddhist cosmology; Kamadhatu (the world of desires), Rupadhatu (the world of forms), and Arupadhatu (the formless world). Ordinary beings live out their lives on the lowest level, the realm of desire which is represented by the base of the structure. Those who have burnt out all desire live in the world of form alone, which is represented by the other five square platforms. Enlightened ones go beyond even form and experience reality at its purest, the formless ocean of nirvana, represented by the three circular platforms and the central stupa on top. The decorations in each of the three levels are in keeping with these concepts. Pilgrimage starts from the base and winds through all levels, viewing the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world and end on the top. One of the stupas on top has been opened up to show the Buddha statue inside and the apex of the main stupa has been taken to a nearby museum.


Around 14th Century Borobudur was abandoned, maybe due to the decline of the Buddhist/Hindu dynasty, to be covered by volcanic ash and trees.

Borobudur, located in the vicinity of volcanos, has got covered by volcanic ash repeatedly. The eruption of Mount Merapi, only 28 km away, in October and November 2010, resulted in a 2.5 cm thick layer of volcanic ash falling on the temple complex. Kelud volcano in Eastern Java, located 200 km away, erupted on 13th January 2014 spreading volcanic ash over a wide area including Borobudur. On both occasions, the complex had to be closed for days.

An earthquake of 6.2 magnitude damaged Yogyakarta in May 2006 but, fortunately, Borobudur was not affected.

Security has been tightened following reports that the local branch of the ISIS is planning to destroy Borobudur. Buddhists the world over should be thankful to Indonesia for conserving this wonderful monument.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...