Borobudur Temple stands on the plain of Kedu, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of the modern city of Yogyakarta on the Indonesian island of Java. Its name is derived from Hhumtcambharabudara (“the mountain of the accumulation of virtue in the ten stages of Bodhisatva”). Crowning a 150-foot (46-meter) hill, this largest of all Buddhist buildings is a masterpiece of religious architecture. One of the world’s best-preserved ancient monuments, it was built about 300 years before many of the great Christian cathedrals of western Europe and the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia, some of whose temples are thought to have been influenced by it.
Sometime before the fifth century a.d., Hinduism and Buddhism spread along maritime trade routes between the Asian mainland and Java, Sumatra, and Bali. By about the seventh century Mahayana teachings dominated Buddhist thought in East Asia, and Java eventually became an important center of monastic scholarship. Mahayana Buddhist precepts constrained the form of such edifices as Borobudur.
Built from more than 1 million carved blocks of gray andesite lava quarried at nearby Mount Merapi, Borobudur was initiated as a Hindu precinct, probably a Siva temple, around a.d. 775. The lower two terraces had been completed when a shift in power to the Buddhist Sailendra dynasty brought the project to a halt. Naturally, the finished stages were unsuited to the liturgical needs of Buddhism; on the other hand, such a huge structure—its several levels are 17,800 square yards (15,000 square meters) in total area—was a powerful evocation of Hinduism, so after about fifteen years work resumed to convert the building into the largest stupa ever built. The stupa as a building type is almost exclusive to Buddhism: in essence it is a square base surmounted by an inverted circular bowl and capped with a spire. It was almost complete in 832 when the Hindu Sanjaya dynasty set out to reunify central Java and took over all religious buildings. Because most of the population was Buddhist, Borobudur remained a focus of that religion.
Influenced by the Gupta architecture of fourth-century India, the Borobudur Temple modeled the Buddhist concept of the cosmos, organized around the mythical Mount Meru, the “Axis of the World,” which rose from the Waters of Chaos. The whole precinct, standing on a 670-foot-square (200-meter) platform, represented a lotus flower, sacred to Buddha. Its three stages represented the major divisions of the universe: the material world, the world of thought, and the world of cosmic order and balance. From the eastern gateway, 3 miles (5 kilometers) of open galleries bore pilgrims through 10 levels of clockwise ascent to the top—symbolically, from the physical world to nirvana, the sought-after annihilation. Much of that processional way was lined with more than 24,000 square feet (2,500 square meters) of relief panels.
The lower five terraces—“the world of desire”—were square in plan, with 160 richly ornamented relief panels providing cautionary Buddhist tales, stories of Buddha’s journey toward enlightenment, and a lively documentation of daily life in ninth-century Java. The next three terraces, circular in plan, had no wall reliefs, symbolizing the world of thought. A total of seventy-two bell-shaped, stone-latticework stupas was spaced evenly along them, each containing a statue of Buddha. The uppermost stage of the temple, originally rising to a height of 140 feel: (42 meters), was a large central stupa crowned with a spire. Representing nirvana, it was empty.
Borobudur remained the spiritual center of Javanese Buddhism for about 150 years, until about 1,000 years ago, when it was suddenly abandoned. The reasons are probably complex. Its demise could have been due to natural disaster: soon after the building was finished. Mount Merapi erupted, depositing thick layers of ash over a large region and partially burying Borobudur. And at least in part, the departure from the site must be linked with the gradual transfer of power from central Java to the east, through the tenth and eleventh centuries. The jungle quickly reclaimed the great temple.
In 1814, Thomas Stamford Raffles, British lieutenant-governor of Java, hearing reports of the ruins, sent the Dutch engineer H. C. Cornelius to investigate. Cornelius found Borobudur so long neglected that his large work team took six weeks to clear vegetation and dirt enough to uncover only its outline. Spasmodic recovery work continued until the 1870s, when the last reliefs were exposed. But once the protective layer of soil was removed, the stone face began to deteriorate rapidly. Dr. Theodore van Erp began serious restoration in 1907, but it was discontinued after only four years. The newly independent Indonesian government took responsibility for preservation in the late 1940s, and a few years later it asked UNESCO for assistance. Consequently a major rescue project—costing U.S.$21 million and funded by the Indonesian government, UNESCO, private citizens, and foreign governments—-was initiated in 1971. The restoration of the monument was completed by February 1983.