Today, the Borobudur Temple floats above the landscape of Central Java like a lotus bud on a pond, serenely impervious to the throng of tourists and trinket salesmen all around it. It’s hard to imagine that for centuries, this exquisite and imposing Buddhist monument lay buried beneath layers and layers of volcanic ash.
Origins of Borobudur:
We have no written record of when Borobudur was built, but based on the carving style, it most likely dates to between 750 and 850 CE. That makes it approximately 300 years older than the similarly beautiful Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. The name “Borobudur” probably comes from the Sanskrit words Vihara Buddha Urh, meaning “Buddhist Monastery on the Hill.” At that time, central Java was home to both Hindus and Buddhists, who seem to have peacefully coexisted for some years, and who built lovely temples to each faith on the island. Borobudur itself seems to have been the work of the predominantly-Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty, which was a tributary power to the Srivijayan Empire.
The temple itself is made of some 60,000 square meters of stone, all of which had to be quarried elsewhere, shaped, and carved under the scorching tropical sun. A huge number of laborers must have worked on the colossal building, which consists of six square platform layers topped by three circular platform layers. Borobudur is decorated with 504 Buddha statues and 2,670 beautifully-carved relief panels, with 72 stupas on top. The bas relief panels depict everyday life in 9th century Java, courtiers and soldiers, local plants and animals, and the activities of common people. Other panels feature Buddhist myths and stories, and show such spiritual beings as gods, bodhisattvas, kinnaras, asuras and apsaras. The carvings confirm Gupta India’s strong influence on Java at the time; the higher beings are depicted mostly in the tribhanga pose typical of contemporary Indian statuary, in which the figure stands on one bent leg with the other foot propped in front, and gracefully bends its neck and waist so that the body forms a gentle ‘S’ shape.
At some point, the people of central Java abandoned Borobudur Temple and other nearby religious sites. Most experts believe that this was due to volcanic eruptions in the area during the 10th and 11th centuries CE – a plausible theory, given that when the temple was “rediscovered,” it was covered with meters of ash. Some sources state that the temple was not fully abandoned until the 15th century CE, when the majority of the people of Java converted from Buddhism and Hinduism to Islam, under the influence of Muslim traders on the Indian Ocean trade routes. Naturally, local people did not forget that Borobudur existed, but as time went on, the buried temple became a place of superstitious dread that was best avoided. Legend tells of the crown prince of the Yogyakarta Sultanate, Prince Monconagoro, for example, who stole one of the Buddha images housed within the small cut-stone stupas that stand on top of the temple. The prince became ill from the taboo, and died the very next day.
When the British seized Java from the Dutch East India Company in 1811, the British governor, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, heard rumors of a huge buried monument hidden in the jungle. Raffles sent a Dutch engineer named H.C. Cornelius to find the temple. Cornelius and his team cut away the jungle trees and dug out tons of volcanic ash to reveal the ruins of Borobudur. When the Dutch retook control of Java in 1816, the local Dutch administrator ordered work to continue the excavations. By 1873, the site had been studied thoroughly enough that the colonial government was able to publish a scientific monograph describing it. Unfortunately, as its fame grew, souvenir collectors and scavengers descended on the temple, carrying away some of the artwork. The most famous souvenir collector was King Chulalongkorn of Siam, who took 30 panels, five Buddha sculptures, and several other pieces during an 1896 visit; some of these stolen pieces are in the Thai National Museum in Bangkok today.
Restoration of Borobudur:
Between 1907 and 1911, the Dutch East Indies government carried out the first major restoration of Borobudur. This first attempt cleaned the statues and replaced damaged stones, but did not address the problem of water draining through the base of the temple and undermining it. By the late 1960s, Borobudur was in urgent need of another renovation, so the new independent Indonesian government under Sukarno appealed to the international community for help. Together with UNESCO, Indonesia launched a second major restoration project from 1975 to 1982, which stabilized the foundation, installed drains to solve the water problem, and cleaned all of the bas relief panels once more. UNESCO listed Borobudur as a World Heritage Site in 1991, and it became Indonesia’s largest tourist attraction among both local and international travelers.
For more information on the temple of Borobudur and tips on visiting the site, see “Borobudur – Giant Buddhist Monument in Indonesia” by Michael Aquino, About.com Guide to Southeast Asia Travel.