What is Borobudur Temple? - Definition, History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

After leaving India, Buddhism spread to Indonesia and took hold there. In this lesson, we'll look at Indonesia's most famous Buddhist monument and see how its architecture reflects the teachings of the Buddha.

The Borobudur Temple

Buddhism is one of India's most successful exports. The religion developed in the Indian subcontinent, and over time spread across nearly all of Asia. That's pretty common knowledge, but did you know where Buddhism went first? After leaving India, one of the first places to adopt Buddhism wasn't in China or Japan - it was Indonesia.

As a result, Indonesia has some of the oldest Buddhist monuments in Asia, as well as some of the most spectacular. The crown jewel of these is the Borobudur Temple (pronounced BOro-buh-deur), located in central Java. Not only is it a stunning example of traditional Indonesian architecture, it's also the largest Buddhist monument in the world.


History of the Temple

The story of the Borobudur Temple begins with the Shailendra Dynasty (sometimes spelled Syailendra). This ruling family concentrated their power in central Java in the 8th century CE, and grew to control all of Java and parts of Sumatra. Some scholars think that the Shailendra came to Indonesia from India, while others think they were native to the island. Regardless, they clearly had some cultural connections to India and were major proponents of Mahayana Buddhism, which they actively spread across Indonesia.

Their biggest achievement was the Borobudur Temple, which was built over roughly 1,200 years from the 8th through 9th centuries. What they accomplished was an engineering marvel for the time; the 95-foot tall step pyramid is made of locally sourced stone set without mortar.

For centuries, Borobudur was a major pilgrimage site, attracting the faithful from as far away as India and China. It seems to have been very popular, but then was inexplicably abandoned in the 15th century. We don't know why Borobudur was left to be reclaimed by the jungle, but it remained lost for roughly 400 years before the colonial governor of British Java decided to have it excavated.

The excavations freed Borobudur from the jungle, but also left it open to looters. Finally, in the 1960s a massive campaign was launched by the Indonesian government and UNESCO to save and restore the site. Statues were taken out of private collections, stones were returned, and piece-by-piece Borobudur was cleaned, rebuilt, and reopened to the public. It is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a stunning example of Indonesian architecture, but it has also reclaimed its role as a Buddhist pilgrimage site.

The Temple Complex

So, what makes Borobudur so special? The complex itself is very impressive, and noted particularly for an immense amount of artwork. There are over 500 statues of the Buddha spread across the site, and the walls of the pyramid are covered in reliefs of the life and teachings of Buddha. In fact, there are roughly 2,520 square meters of reliefs at Borobudur. That means that if you took all these reliefs off the walls and laid them out, you could completely cover half of a football field.

One of the many reliefs of Borobudur

Aside from its extensive artwork, Borobudur is also notable for the intricate symbolism of its architecture. To see this, we have to look at the pyramid as three separate but related tiers. First is the base, which is the step pyramid made of five concentric square terraces. That's where most of the height of the complex comes from. Sitting on that is a conical base with three circular platforms and 72 openwork stupas (individual Buddhist temples or shrines), each one containing a statue of the Buddha. At the very top is the monumental stupa, the ultimate temple to the Buddha.

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