Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Revisiting Borobudur

When I first started writing this blog one of my first posts was about Borobudur, an incredible Buddhist monument located about 90 minutes away from Jogjakarta in Central Java.  Yesterday I went again to the 1200-year-old monument, and so I thought it would be a good idea to expand on my first post.  Yesterday was my forth or fifth trip to Borobudur, but this time was different: I brought a book and hired a guide.  I had always wanted to go through the galleries of Borobudur to understand the stories that are illustrated on the hundreds of stone reliefs that line the walls (1).  Though it would take days to really examine and interpret every relief, the couple of hours I spent reading while browsing really enhanced my appreciation of the structure.

The Pilgrims' Path

It is thought that Borobudur functioned mainly as a sort of teaching tool for people on the path to spiritual enlightenment.  People seeking enlightenment would have arrived with a familiarity with certain Buddhist texts which described the life and times of various key figures in Buddhism.  The pilgrims would then walk clockwise around the monument ten times (a total of around 5 kilometers) viewing the different series of reliefs along the walls.  Familiarity with the texts would have helped the viewers contextualize the highly symbolic scenes depicted in the relief.  Unfortunately most of the old Javanese Buddhist texts have been lost (2), and so some of the reliefs remain undeciphered.   Over the years scholars have made connections between some of the reliefs and surviving texts.  The first "aha moment" came in 1885 when S.F. Oldenburg, a Russian scholar, figured out that some of the reliefs on the lowest exposed level correspond to a collection of stories called the Jatakamala.  Over the next 40 years or so other scholars made further connections.

One interesting fact that I learned from my book is that there is a whole series of more than 160 reliefs that are hidden.  Originally these scenes were exposed and would've been the first ones pilgrims viewed when they came to the monument.  The panels, known collectively as the Mahakarmavibhangga, are intended to show people rewards for specific good behaviors and punishments for specific bad behaviors.  As the monument got bigger during later stages of construction, though, the weight proved too much for the foundation and it collapsed in some places.  To solve this problem the early engineers added a broad promenade of stones around the whole base of the monument, which unfortunately covered up the lower reliefs.  These were only discovered in 1885, and at that time they were all uncovered, photographed, and covered back up.  No one living has ever seen these reliefs.  Fortunately, though, during restoration the construction crews left one corner exposed so visitors can get the idea of what Borobudur looked like before modifications.  There's a picture to the right so you can see 4 of the reliefs along with a cutaway of the promenade.

After the pilgrims walked around the lower level, they would move up to the next level and walk around the monument again, slowly viewing the reliefs as they went along.  On the first exposed level there are four sets of reliefs, so pilgrims would walk around this level a total of four times before moving on to the next higher level.  The second, third, and fourth exposed levels each have two sets of reliefs, so the pilgrim would circumambulate (walk around) each of these two times.  To complete the entire circuit a pilgrim would make a total of ten trips (3).

The Reliefs
Balustrade (outer wall) and inside gallery reliefs from the first level.
There are several sets of reliefs at Borobudur.  Below is a short description of each of the sets of reliefs and where you will find them.  In order to view the reliefs in order, climb the eastern staircase to the first level.  If you want to follow the path of the pilgrims you will start with the lower carving on the outside wall (usually called the balustrade).  Then on your second circuit follow the carvings above this one.  After that start on the lower set of reliefs on the inside wall, and on the fourth and final circuit of the lowest level follow the uppermost reliefs on the inside wall.  On the next level up, start with the outside wall and then move to the inside wall.  

  • Mahakarmavibhangga:  These are the hidden reliefs that are described above
  • Guardian figures:  These are on the outside of the first level's outer wall.  You can see a portion of them in the picture above.
  • Jatakas:  These start with the lower series of reliefs on the outside wall on the first level.  Jatakas ("birth stories") are stories about the previous lives of the Buddha and include stories about when he was incarnated both as people and animals.  Many of these are fables which illustrated the importance of some virtue.
  • Jatakamala and other Jatakas:  Upper set of reliefs on the outside wall of the first level.  The Jatakamala is a specific set of Jatakas.  
  • Manohara and other Avadanas:  These begin with the lower level of reliefs on the inside wall of the first level.  An Avadana ("Heroic Deeds") is a story about the previous life of an important Buddhist saint.  There are many of these, and Manohara is just one but it's described in detail with 20 relief panels here.  It's quite an interesting story.  Several other Avadanas are depicted with 2-4 panels until you get to the story of King Rudrayana, which covers 22 panels.  
  • Lalitavistara:  This is the upper line of reliefs on the inside wall of the first level.  The Lalitavistara ("The Unfolding of the Play") describes the life of Guatama Buddha with a total of 120 panels covering the life of the Buddha up until the time that he delivered the First Sermon.
  • Jatakas and Avadanas:  These are located on the outside wall of the second level
  • Gandavyuha part one: Located along the inside wall of the second level.  The Gandavyuha ("The Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble") is the story of a young man named Sudhana and his journeys in search of wisdom.  In all 460 panels are devoted to this story on several levels of the monument.  These reliefs are more esoteric than those on lower levels, and it is thought that they weren't meant for all pilgrims, because not everyone would be able to grasp the meaning of these lessons.  
  • Gandavyuha part two: Located on the outside wall of the third level.
  • Gandavyuha part three: Located on the inside wall of the third level.
  • Gandavyuha part four:  Located along the outside wall of the fourth level.
  • Gandavyuha part five:  Located along the inside wall of the fourth level.  

Go To Borobudur

Two reliefs from main gallery of the first exposed level
You can get to Borobudur in about an hour and a half from Jogja, depending on the traffic.  Make sure you take an umbrella, because it rains frequently there (though if you forget you can buy or rent one there).  It currently costs US$15 for foreigners to get in (US$7 for children), but if you have a KITAS you can get in for the local rate of Rp30,000.  At a minimum you'll spend 2 hours there, but you could easily spend the whole day.  I would highly recommend hiring a guide at the entrance; there is an association of guides coordinated by a central authority.  The guides come from the surrounding area, and if my guide is any indication, they know what they are talking about.  The fixed price for the guide is Rp75,000 for an hour and a half, which is well worth it.  I also found that reading a bit before hand really enhanced my experience this time around.  I took my book with me and had people following me while I read the descriptions of the stories depicted in the reliefs.


(1)  There are 1460 reliefs in all.

(2)  Although it is accepted that Javanese and Sumatran (Muaro Jambi) centers of Buddhism had extensive libraries, texts were written on things like palm leaves that deteriorate over time, so nothing is left.

(3)  Ten represents the number of steps of development through which a bodhisattva must pass to become a Buddha.


Miksic, John, and Marcello and Anita Tranchini.  1991.  Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas.  Periplus: Singapore.  158pp.


  1. I didn't know that such beautiful places existed in Java. It really is marvelous to see the labors of the Javanese people in this monument. It shows how much they believed in and revered the Buddhist teachings.

  2. The Borobudur monument sounds like such an amazing place. The stories of Buddhas life are portrayed around the temple for viewers of all ages and Buddhist education. I really like the picture of the refurbished old corner of the monument. And I also like the image of rewarding the good and punishing the bad. I would love to visit their temple to further my enlightenment.

  3. I love visiting Indonesia. The rich history physical structures and the deep intuitive culture that carries with it. Makes it like a part of your life to learn this historic island, before death!

  4. These reliefs are more valuable than some may think because of its deep cultural origins. They teach us things of past experiences of indonesia and can open the doors to new information about Borobudur like were found in 1885. I would love to visit this place in the future, no doubt. Its too bad the texts written on palm leaves were never recorded on a more permanent medium.

  5. This monument seems like "museum" that you can enjoy while learning about different reliefs. I realize that "hands on" is more important to collaborate with the class lecture. I wish that there is a tour guide talk about the reliefs as well. It will be helpful with the book you have at the entrance.

  6. I would love to learn more about the meaning behind the stories left on these stone walls. Being born and raised in Southern California it is not customary for me to be able to explore my own back yard as such a mecca for historical accounts as depicted here at Borobudur. The depth of historical records is easily seen in the fact that "there is a whole series of more than 160 reliefs that are hidden."