1 Best time to visit
1.1 Tourist information
2 Background
3 The design
4 The symbolism of Borobudur
5 The reliefs and the statues of the Buddha
6 The decline, fall and restoration of Borobudur

Best time to visit

Early morning before the coaches arrive, although even by 0600 there can be many people here. Some visitors suggest sunset is the best time to be there as the view is not affected by mist (as it commonly is in the morning). Consider staying the night in Borobudur, to see the sun rise over the monument.

Tourist information

Price does not include a guide, and although guides vary, some visitors have reported them to be useful and knowledgeable. The fee for a guide is really worth it. In theory, visitors should wait for a group to accumulate and then be shown round by a guide. However, many people simply explore the candi on their own. There is an extra
payment for those who wish to get into the temple at 0400, in time for the sunrise. Many consider this money well spent, as the temple is unusually quiet and watching the sun come up from here is quite magical.


Borobudur was built when the Sailendra Dynasty of Central Java was at the height of its military and artistic powers. Construction of the monument is said to have taken about 75 years, spanning four or five periods from the end of the eighth century to the middle of the ninth century. Consisting of a nine-tiered 'mountain' rising to 34.5 m, Borobudur is decorated with 5 km of superbly executed reliefs - some 1500 in all - ornamented with 500 statues of the Buddha, and constructed of 1,600,000 andesite stones.

The choice of site on the densely populated and fertile valleys of the Progo and Elo rivers seems to have been partially dictated by the need for a massive labour force. Every farmer owed the kings of Sailendra a certain number of days labour each year - a labour tax - in return for the physical and spiritual protection of the ruler. Inscriptions from the ninth and tenth centuries indicate that there were several hundred villages in the vicinity of Borobudur. So, after the rice harvest, a massive labour force of farmers, slaves and others could be assembled to work on the monument. It is unlikely that they would have been resistant to working on the edifice - by so doing they would be accumulating merit and accelerating their progress towards nirvana.

Art historians have also made the point that the location of Borobudur, at the confluence of the Elo and Progo rivers, was probably meant to evoke, as Dumarçay says, “the most sacred confluence of all, that of the Ganga (Ganges) and the Yumna (Yamuna)”, in India. Finally, the monument is also close to a hill, just north of Magelang, called Tidar. Although hardly on the scale of the volcanoes that ring the Kedu Plain, this hill - known as the 'Nail of Java' - lies at the geographic centre of Java and has legendary significance. It is said that it was only after Java, which was floating on the sea, had been nailed to the centre of the earth that it became inhabitable.

The design

The temple is made of grey andesite (a volcanic rock), which was not quarried but taken from river beds. Huge boulders are washed down volcano slopes during flood surges, and these were cut to size and transported to the building site. The blocks were linked by double dovetail clamps; no mortar was used. It is thought that the sculpture was done in situ, after the building work had been completed, then covered in stucco and probably painted.

The large base platform was added at a later date and remains something of an enigma. It actually hides a panel of reliefs, known as the 'hidden foot'. Some authorities believe that this series of reliefs was always meant to be hidden, because they depict earthly desires (true of a similar series of panels at Angkor Wat in Cambodia). Other art historians maintain that this is simply too elaborate an explanation and that the base was added as a buttress. Inherent design faults meant that even during initial construction, subsidence was probably already setting in. In 1885 these subterranean panels were uncovered to be photographed, and then covered up again to ensure the stability of the monument.

The monument was planned so that the pilgrim would approach it from the east, along a path that started at Candi Mendut . Architecturally, it is horizontal in conception, and in this sense contrasts with the strong verticality of Prambanan. However, architectural values were of less importance than the sculpture, and in a sense the monument was just an easel for the reliefs. Consideration had to be made for the movement of people, and the width of the galleries was dictated by the size of the panel, which had to be seen at a glance. It is evident that some of the reliefs were conceived as narrative 'padding', ensuring that continuity of story line was achieved. To 'read' the panels, start from the east stairway, keeping the monument on your right. This clockwise circumambulation is known as
. It means that while the balustrade or outer reliefs are read from left to right, those on the main inner wall are viewed from right to left. The reliefs were carved so that they are visually more effective when observed in this way.

The symbolism of Borobudur

Symbolically, Borobudur is an embodiment of three concepts: it is, at the same time, a stupa, a replica of the cosmic mountain
Gunung Meru
, and a
(an instrument to assist meditation). Archaeologists, intent on interpreting the meaning of the monument, have had to contend with the fact that the structure was built over a number of periods spanning three-quarters of a century. As a result, new ideas were superimposed on older ones. In other words, it meant different things, to different people, at different periods.

Nonetheless, it is agreed that Borobudur represents the Buddhist transition from reality, through 10 psychological states, towards the ultimate condition of
- spiritual enlightenment. Ascending the stupa, the pilgrim passes through these states by ascending through 10 levels. The lowest levels (including the hidden layer, of which a portion is visible at the southeast corner) depict the Sphere of Desire (
), describing the cause and effect of good and evil. Above this, the five lower quadrangular galleries, with their multitude of reliefs (put end to end they would measure 2.5 km), represent the Sphere of Form (
). These are in stark contrast to the bare upper circular terraces with their half-hidden Buddhas within perforated stupas, representing the Sphere of Formlessness (
) - nothingness or nirvana.

The reliefs and the statues of the Buddha

The inner (or retaining) wall of the first gallery is 3.5 m high and contains two series of reliefs, one above the other, each of 120 panels. The upper panels relate events in the historic Buddha's life - the
- from his birth to the sermon at Benares, while the lower depict his former lives, as told in the
tales. The upper and lower reliefs on the balustrades (or outer wall) also relate Jataka stories as well as
- another Buddhist text, relating previous lives of the Bodhisattvas - in the northeast corner. After viewing this first series of reliefs, climb the east stairway - which was only used for ascending - to the next level. The retaining wall of the second gallery holds 128 panels in a single row 3 m high. This, along with the panels on the retaining walls and (some of the) balustrades of the third gallery, tells the story of Sudhana in search of the Highest Wisdom
- one of the most important Buddhist texts, otherwise known as
. Finally, the retaining wall of the fourth terrace has 72 panels depicting the
- a conclusion to the story of Sudhana, during which he vows to follow in the footsteps of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. In total there are 2700 panels - a prodigious artistic feat, not only in quantity, but also the consistently high quality of the carvings and their composition.

From these enclosed galleries, the monument opens out onto a series of unadorned circular terraces. On each are a number of small stupas (72 in all), diminishing in size upwards from the first to third terrace, pierced with lozenge-shaped openings, each containing a statue of the Buddha.

Including the Buddhas to be found in the niches opening outwards from the balustrades of the square terraces, there are a staggering 504 Buddha images. All are sculpted out of single blocks of stone. They are not representations of earthly beings who have reached nirvana, but transcendental saviours. The figures are strikingly simple, with a line delineating the edge of the robe, tightly-curled locks of hair, a top knot or
, and an
- the dot on the forehead. These last two features are distinctive bodily marks of the Buddha. On the square terraces, the symbolic gesture or mudra of the Buddha is different at each compass point: east-facing Buddhas are 'calling the earth to witness' or
(with right hand pointing down towards the earth); to the west, they are in an attitude of meditation or
(hands together in the lap, with palms facing upwards), to the south, they express charity or
(right hand resting on the knee); and to the north, the Buddhas express dispelling fear or
(with the right hand raised). On the upper circular terraces, all the Buddhas are in the same mudra. Each Buddha is slightly different, yet all retain a remarkable serenity.

The main central stupa on the summit contains two empty chambers. There has been some dispute as to whether they ever contained representations of the Buddha. Those who believe that they did not, argue that because this uppermost level denotes nirvana - nothingness - it would have been symbolically correct to have left them empty. For the pilgrim, these top levels were also designed to afford a chance to rest, before beginning the descent to the world of men. Any stairways except the east one could be used to descend.

The decline, fall and restoration of Borobudur

With the shift in power from central to east Java in the 10th century, Borobudur was abandoned and its ruin hastened by earthquakes. In 1814, Thomas Stamford Raffles appointed HC Cornelis to undertake investigations into the condition of the monument. Minor restoration was carried out intermittently over the next 80 years, but it was not until 1907 that a major reconstruction programme commenced. This was placed under the leadership of Theo Van Erp, and under his guidance much of the top of the monument was dismantled and then rebuilt. Unfortunately, within 15 years the monument was deteriorating once again, and the combined effects of the world depression in the 1930s, the Japanese occupation in the Second World War and then the trauma of independence, meant that it was not until the early 1970s that a team of international archaeologists were able to investigate the state of Borobudur once more. To their horror, they discovered that the condition of the foundations had deteriorated so much that the entire monument was in danger of caving in. In response, UNESCO began a 10-year restoration programme. This comprised dismantling all the square terraces - involving the removal of approximately 1,000,000 pieces of stone. These were then cleaned, while a new concrete foundation was built, incorporating new water channels. The work was finally completed in 1983 and the monument reopened by President Suharto.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

  No related products

PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!