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Borobudur: A Temple By The People, For The People

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Located at Magelang Regency, Central Java in Indonesia, stands the Borobudur, a Mahayana Buddhist temple built between AD750 and 850. It is widely considered as one of the world’s seven wonders and also the largest Buddhist monumental temple complex in the world. Yet, the most intriguing aspect of this temple is not only its size but what this temple can tell us about the life and the belief of the Central Javanese civilisation existing in that time. The mandala layout, the extensive relief panels and its construction context not only makes Borobudur stand out from the rest of the temples built during its time, but they also reveal much about the religious, social and physical context in which the temple is built like no other temple. After analysing the context of the construction of Borobudur, I conclude that Borobudur is a temple is built ‘by the people, for the people’ evidenced by its architectural elements. I will discuss the temple in threefold: layout, relief panels and construction.


Borobudur is the only surviving monument of its type in which the entire layout is shaped according to Mandala. (Fig 1) Mandala is an instrument or symbol found in Buddhist and Hindi ceremonies to initiate people into higher spiritual level through meditation or prayer. Mandala means ‘circle’ or ‘discoid object’ in Sanskrit but in Buddhism specifically, the word became to mean a diagram with pictures or statues of gods in specific positions. Mandalas are usually painted on flat surfaces or drawn on the ground with a coloured powder [1] (Fig 2) but in this case, it forms the entire layout of the temple. The temple consists of nine stacked platforms, six square and three circulars, surrounding the central stupa. Each platform forms a series of open-air paths that radiate around a central axis Mundi, also known as the cosmic axis. The statuary in the niches on the balustrades at four compass directions resembles and symbolises the four Buddhas who surround the Supreme Buddha. The Borobudur’s design that is consistent with the mandala concepts shows that the temple itself serves as a huge mandala.

Most of the other Buddhist temples have rooms or chambers to hold icons, such as Candi Singhasari(Fig 3) but Borobudur is structured with open-air passageways and terraces. The stark contrast of Borobudur’s layout from other temples seems logical to conclude that its purpose also differs from the typical Buddhist temple. Instead of housing the deities in chambers, the statues of gods who are emanations of Buddha stands along the passageways which send a message that the gods are ‘among the people’. Furthermore, the absence of balustrades on the upper terraces invites the devotees to an open space where there is no segregation between them and gods. This suggests that the temple is not built to house the Buddhas, but instead as space for the devotees to achieve the practical end of transforming to a bodhisattva, who a person who can reach Nirvana, the goal of the Buddhist path. Devotees circumambulate clockwise along walkways that gradually ascend to its uppermost level. In this process, the devotees could be inducted into higher states of consciousness to reach ‘enlightenment’. Upon reaching the upper terraces after the fourth gallery, the layout is designed to experience a different realm. As the devotees move from the condensed, heavily decorated, rectilinear shapes and enclosed galleries of the lower levels to the simple, curvilinear form on the open, elevated platforms that take in distant views from all direction, the intention of the transition is no doubt to create the sense of liberation through spaciousness as the devotees reach ‘enlightenment’.Fig 4 As remarked by Miksic, Borobudur provides a place where Buddhist could physically and spiritually pass through the ten stages of development that would transform them into enlightened bodhisattvas. The transition to an open space also suggests that the temple has temporarily be transformed into a paradise where the Buddhas have gathered. The realm of ‘paradise’ is thus accessible and made possible to anyone through the circumambulation. In this way, the temple acts as a device that brings ‘heaven’ to ‘earth’.

The reason the temple is built with the mandala layout may also be to create a space that excludes the external evil forces, where gods could be invited to descend and dwell on the earth. The outside of the lowest balustrade illustrates an array of guardians found in the Dharmadhatu or ‘Matrix World’ mandala to ‘protect’ the devotees while they pursue spiritual advancement. The main purpose of construction of the temple is perhaps more for the people to advance in their religious pursuit as devotees than to build a house to honour and worship gods. The open space surrounding the temple allowing large crowds to enter reiterate the point that anyone can earn religious merit simply by walking around the monument.

Another reason that gives rise to the special layout may be due to the unique religious context at the time. When Borobudur was being built, Buddhism was in a transition phase and Buddhists believed their faith was developing new and more effective methods to achieve spiritual liberation. People were experimenting with special ritual practices, diagrams and other physical aids to help them attain enlightenment and Borobudur is perhaps one of these experiments. [2]


One of the most impressive elements of the temple is the 2,672 relief panels with its surface covering 2500 m2 presented along the four galleries. (Fig 5) The relief panel forms several stories in sequence with many scenes as if they are watching a film as they move through the lower galleries. The different gallery tells a different account related to Buddha or Buddhist teaching. The base, which is only uncovered much later after Borobudur’s rediscovery, depicts Karmawibhangga which deals with ‘The Law of Cause and Effect’. Jataka reliefs on the upper levels illustrate Buddha’s previous lives as gods, humans in various professions and animals. Lalitavistara reliefs on the first platform, depict Prince Siddharta’s life from birth to enlightenment. Fig 5 As one move up the terraces, the stories become more complicated and abstract. It depicts the upward physical progress from ‘illusion’ in the world to wisdom and enlightenment. [3] To complete all the stories on the relief from beginning to end, the devotees make ten rounds around the monuments – four times around the first gallery and twice around each of the next three galleries. [4]. [5]The number ‘ten’ equals the number of stages of development in the career of a bodhisattva, one who has transformed into an enlightened being.

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While some of the messages on the relief panels are unclear, it is no doubt that they give an accurate and authentic representation of the religious and social context of the civilisation at that time. The reliefs depict many events and scenes from everyday life in a manner which seems intended to communicate with ordinary people rather than religious authorities. They are simple images can be understood by farmers or workers that may be illiterate. Furthermore, among the religious imagery that showcases gods, the panels also include hundreds of examples of architecture, boats, farming practices, clothing, jewellery, dancing, etc. This suggests that the temple not only invites people from all levels, but it may even be handcrafted by common craftsmen depicting their everyday lives.

Interestingly, the second and third galleries have repeatedly record Shiva, a deity from Hinduism. [6] For example, in Figure 6, it is clear that iconographically speaking, the four-armed deity sitting cross-legged with a trident represents Shiva. Another example is the Jewel Tree on many of the relief panels Fig7 which are particularly common at the Hindu site like Prambanan where they are flanked by half-human, half-bird figures called Kinnara.

This shows that the Buddhist narrative of the people at the time are influenced by Hinduism or at least exist some form of overlap.[7] The overlap in the religious narrative arises from the social and political context during the time. Buddhism in Indonesia at around AD780 was closely linked to an influential family known as the Sailendra. The Sailendra only became the dominant political family in Java around when they displaced the Sanjaya, an older elite who were devotees of Hinduism and had been important since at least AD732 – the date of the earliest known inscription to mention a kingdom in central Java. Even though there were tensions between members of the Sailendra and Sanjaya families, the two religious practices were not perverted. Religion has never been a source of contention or conflict among the Javanese. Evidence of Hindu statuary at dozens of nearby archaeological sites suggests that many Hindu communities co-existed with the Buddhist center at Borobudur.[8] The co-existence of the two religions lead to the inter-religious influence and thus result in the presence of Hindu ideas on the Buddhist Borobudur reliefs.


To construct a monument at such a scale, it is no doubt that the labour required was extensive. The labour and the material cost incurred on the Javanese to build Borobudur must be extravagant. Labours such as carrying the stones, building the foundation and terracing the hillside require a huge amount of lower-skilled workers. The huge span of relief panels with intricate narratives and a large number of stupas also demands skilled craftsmen. The entire monuments were originally coated with white plaster and then painted. The plasterwork would also have required highly skilled labour to mould fine details using this medium. As such, the people involved in these projects are not only substantial but also comes from different levels of skill. These workers were likely farmers and art-time artisans who have donated their labour to earn religious merit. It is possible that the surrounding village contributed a group of men who formed a fixed unit to contribute to the construction.

Such amount of labour also implies the social context of the construction. It demonstrates that the Javanese society produced enough surplus food and labour to support such a great project that would mean forgoing production that has direct economic benefits. The fertile soil and plentiful water of the Kedu Plain surrounding Borobudur must have supported a prosperous farming population, and this may have been what attracted the monument’s builders to this site in the first place. Javanese must have had abundant manpower to haul the stones, skilled craftsmen to carve them as well as a well-organised institution to organise such an ambitious project. Above all, it is also significant that they chose to devote a major portion of their resources to the construction of a monument which was principally a visual aid for teaching a gentle philosophy of life. The purpose of the temple is thus primarily for the people. Borobudur is thus extraordinary not merely due to its scale, but also how it gathered labours from all levels to contribute to the construction of the temple.


All in all, Borobudur articulates a complex message in a code that has yet to be cracked. What we can be sure of is that it tells us far more about the ancient Javanese than Javanese history can tell us about Borobudur, as John Miksic exclaimed. The open layout suggests that the temple was built primarily for the devotees’ religious pursuit rather than to house gods. The narratives on the relief authentically reflect the everyday life and belief of the common people. The large scale construction means that the common people are the main contributor to the monument. In many ways, Borobudur can only be made possible through the direct contribution of the common people, but on the other hand, the temple is also built primarily for the usage of the people themselves. As such, Borobudur is a temple that can be so-called ‘down to earth’, as it is built by the people and for the people.

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Borobudur: A Temple By The People, For The People. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from
“Borobudur: A Temple By The People, For The People.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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