Borobudur, in Central Java, Indonesia, is the world’s largest Buddhist monument.
The largest Buddhist Monument in the world!
How does that work?
Borobudur was completed in 825CE, after a construction period of roughly 75 years. It has nine levels, which between them contain 2,672 relief panels, and 502 statues of Buddha. The panels read from right to left, and continue between levels, leading pilgrims on a long, slow climb to the summit, a symbolic representation of the ascent to nirvana.
Buddhism arrived in Java in the 2nd Century CE, brought by those travelling from India on the India to Indonesia spice route. Buddhism, alongside Hinduism grew to become one of the major religions of Indonesia.
In the 9th Century CE, Central Java was ruled by the Shailendra Dynasty, fervent followers of Mahayana Buddhism. The Shailendra, filthy rich from decades of intense rice cultivation and success at agriculture – the volcano studded landscape provided them with incredibly fertile soil – are recognised for bringing about a cultural renaissance in the region.
The other rulers of Central Java in the 9th Century CE came from the Sanjaya Dynasty, hereditary rulers of the kingdom of Mataram. The Sanjaya were Saivists, adherents of Hinduism. They built Prambanan, a massive temple complex with 240 individual shrines and a central temple reaching 47 metres in height, in response to the Shailendra’s creation of Borobudur. The two dynasties were rivals. Exactly how friendly or antagonistic the rivalry was is a source of great debate.
The Bas-relief panels of Borobudur
The bas-relief panels that encircle Borobudur are divided between narrative panels, of which there are 1,460, and decorative panels, of which there are 1,212. Together they form the largest assembly of Buddhist reliefs in the world.
The narrative panels, which by themselves reach a total length of 3,000 metres, include texts from the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, along with Jatakas (stories of Buddha before he was born as Prince Siddhartha), and, of course, the story of the birth of Buddha/Prince Siddhartha.
Borobudur was abandoned sometime in the 15th Century CE. Layer upon layer of volcanic ash was allowed to settle on the structure, slowly burying it. The jungle encroached, seedlings sprouted, vines were sent out, roots found their footing, trees grew.
Its rediscovery is credited to one Lieutenant Governor-General Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of British Singapore, and military leader during the British invasion of Java in 1811 – whom both the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and that stinky, parasitic flower found in Southeast Asia (the Rafflesia) are named after.
Sunrise over Borobudur, viewed from Setumbu Hill
If you are thinking of paying a visit to Borobudur then I highly recommend starting with a sunrise viewing from Setumbu Hill, or one of the other local highpoints.
I’m not usually a fan of sunrise viewings, but watching Borobudur slowly materialise in the mist-shrouded valley, itself a mini-peak, bedded in the landscape, part of the geography, with a backdrop of puffing volcanos, is worth the early rise.
By the time you get to Borobudur it is likely to be swamped by tourists, but at least 90% of them will be Indonesian. Borobudur receives just 300,000 foreign visitors per year. Why more Australians don’t visit, when Indonesia is literally on their doorstep, is beyond me.