3 Things You Should Know About Borobudur, Indonesia’s Ancient “Step Pyramid”

Curiously, like many other ancient structures around the globe, pyramids, for example, there are no known records of construction or the intended purpose of Borobudur.

Borobudur is considered the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Erected in the ninth century, the massive structure is made up of nine stacked platforms, of which three are circular, and six are square. The platforms are topped by a massive central dome. Borobudur is decorated with as many as 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues.

The total area occupied by the reliefs is 2,500 square meters (27,000 sq ft), and they are distributed in the hidden base (Kamadhatu) and Borobudur ‘s square platforms (Rupadhatu).

The temple—essentially a variation of a step pyramid—is a sanctuary and place of Buddhist pilgrimage. The pilgrims’ journey starts at the base of the monument and proceeds along a path that surrounds it while climbing to the top through the three levels of Buddhist cosmology; Kamadhatu (the world of desires), Rupadhatu (the world of forms), and finally Arupadhatu (the formless world).

During the trip, the monument guides pilgrims through a system of stairs and corridors.

This ancient pyramid temple is unique, and unlike other ancient temples which were built on a flat surface, Borobudur was constructed on a hill, 265 meters above sea level, and 15 meters above the dry lake that surrounds it.

The existence of the lake was cause for intense discussions between archaeologists during the twentieth century since it was thought that Borobudur was built on the banks of the lake or even floated on it.

In 1931, the Dutch artist and student of Hindu and Buddhist architecture, W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp, formulated a theory that the Kedu plain was a lake, and Borobudur represented a lotus flower floating in it.

Lotus flowers are present in nearly all Buddhist works of art, essentially always serving as a throne for Buddha or stupas base. The architecture of the temple itself suggests a lotus design, where the Buddha positions in Borobudur symbolize the Lotus Sutra, present in several Mahāyāna texts. Three circular platforms at the top of the monument represent a lotus leaf.

The peak of the Vesak in Borobudur Temple Monks lead the procession by bringing candles around the Borobudur Temple clockwise three times. Shutterstock.
The peak of the Vesak in Borobudur Temple Monks lead the procession by bringing candles around the Borobudur Temple clockwise three times. Shutterstock. 

(Vesak, also known as Buddha Jayanti, Buddha Purnima and Buddha Day, is a holiday traditionally observed by Buddhists and some Hindus on different days in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Indonesia, etc.)

Borobudur; Forgotten and rediscovered

It is commonly acknowledged that Borobudur was constructed between 750 and 850 by the rulers of the Shailendra dynasty. The name is traced back to the Sanskrit Vihara Buddha Ur, which translates as “the Buddhist temple on the mountain,” although its exact meaning is disputed.

The temple was eventually ‘forgotten’ as evidence points to the fact that Borobudur was abandoned after the fourteenth century with the decline of the Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms in Java, and the conversion of the islanders to Islam. After its abandonment, the massive pyramid temple remained hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth, like many other pyramids across the planet. Scholars have still not agreed upon the exact cause of its abandonment.

One theory suggests religion had something to do with its abandonment. There are theories arguing that the temple was abandoned because much of the population was converted to Islam during the 15th century. Another hypothesis suggests the abandonment was due to a famine caused by a volcanic eruption (in the year 1006), which forced the inhabitants to abandon their lands and the monument.

Borobudur was rediscovered in 1814 by Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British governor of Java. When Raffles had heard about the possible existence of the ancient monument, he sent Dutch engineer H.C. Cornellius to investigate the area.

The ancient pyramid temple was spotted by Cornellius and his men. For the next two months, Cornellius and his 200 men cut trees, burned vegetation, and dug to clear the monument. Due to the dangers of collapse, they could not explore the galleries. Cornellius would eventually report his findings to Raffles, including several drawings. Raffles is credited with focusing the world’s attention on the monument.

It wasn’t until 1835 that the temple was completely excavated.


Borobudur ground plan taking the form of a Mandala. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.
Borobudur ground plan taking the form of a Mandala. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Curiously, like many other ancient structures around the globe, pyramids, for example, there are no known records of construction or the intended purpose of Borobudur.

Despite this, the duration of the construction of the temple was estimated by experts who compared carved reliefs on the temple’s hidden foot, as well as texts used in royal charters throughout the 8th and 9th centuries, concluding that the structure was founded in 800 AD.

Beautiful Design

Borobudur is unique for a number of reasons. First of all, the entire step pyramid was envisioned, planned, and eventually built as a massive stupa. When observed from above, it takes the form of a Buddhist mandala, simultaneously representing the Buddhist cosmology and nature of the mind.

The base of Borobudur is square, measuring around 118 meters per side. The Pyramid has nine platforms, of which the lower six have a square shape, and the rest are circular. The upper platforms have seventy-two small stupas that surround a larger one. Each stupa is bell-shaped and decorated by different motifs. There is a statue of Buddha inside each stupa.

Ultimately, it’s a pyramid

Although many of us tend to associate the Pyramids to Egypt, there are many other monuments and pyramids around the globe worthy of mention.

Despite the fact that Borobudur was built differently than the Great Pyramid of Giza and had an entirely different purpose, this ancient Indonesian temple is also a pyramid.

Aerial view of the temple. Shutterstock.

The design of Borobudur is actually a step pyramid. Long before the temple was built, ancient cultures built megaliths making use of earth mounds and stone step pyramid structures. These buildings are called punden berunda and were discovered near Cisolok and Cisolok.

But the natives of the region did not build pyramids randomly. The pyramid construction was based on the belief that mountains and high places are the abode of ancestral spirits or hyangs.

The punden berundak step pyramid contains the basic design in Borobudur is believed to be the continuation of older megalithic tradition incorporated with Mahayana Buddhist ideas and symbolism. In other words, evolution.

The size of the structure is bewildering. Researchers estimate that more than 55,000 cubic meters of stone were used in the construction process of the ancient pyramid temple. Archaeologists agree that Borobudur’s stones were cut to size, transported to the site and laid without the use of mortar.

Instead, the ancient builders of the temple made use of knobs, indentations, and dovetails to form joints between stones.

In addition to its bewildering design and shape, the builders of the ancient temple made sure to include a complex drainage system to counter the areas high stormwater run-off. In order to prevent the temple from flooding, the builders installed as many as 100 spouts at each corner.

The temple itself is very different from the general design of other temples that were constructed serving the same purpose. Borobudur wasn’t built on a flat surface but on a natural hill. Despite this, the building techniques are simar to other temples in Java. Borobudur features no inner space, and in terms of design, the temple is viewed as a pyramid.

Although different in design from the pyramids of Egypt, Borobudur is a specific kind of Pyramid, serving a very specific purpose, unlike the Egyptian pyramids, which archeologists argue were used as ancient tombs to house the remains of the Pharaoh. Borobudur has been described by numerous scholars and authors in a number of ways, including a pyramid, a sacred mountain, a stupa, and a shrine. Curiously, the temple features details, including all four of the previously mentioned architectural configurations.

But most impressively, when viewed from the air, the entire structure reveals its glorious design, that of a three-dimensional mandala.

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