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Borobudur: Pyramid of the Cosmic Buddha

Written by Caesar Voûte and Mark Long
300+ text pages & over 100 plates
Photography by Fitra Jaya Burnama

For further information on pricing and availability,
contact the publisher DK Printworld Pvt Ltd: dkprintworld@vsnl.net

FOREWORD by Dr. Lokesh Chandra

Borobudur was constructed during the 8th century as a guide to the Noble Path of the Buddha. Born from silence and unfolding into the serenity of the other shore, it expresses the glory of Indonesia’s awareness and creativity, the smile of her plastic forms over the centuries as well as her travels along the edge of thoughts that cross the endless corridors of memory. The authors of this book are inspired beings who have wandered away from their respective scientific disciplines and into the wonder of Borobudur, the “Mountain of a Thousand Images” of Javanese folklore. Within these pages they place Borobudur in its historical context as the culmination of the Classical culture of Java. The commercial vicissitudes of the Island during the time of Pliny, the indigenous technology of ship-building, the Sanskrit inscriptions of Mulavarman and Purnavarman, and the account of the Chinese Pilgrim Fa-hsien all provide us with glimpses of the emerging glory of Java. This trans-tribalization had been completed by the 5th century, and Classical refinements in governance, literature, visual and performing arts were also well on the way. It is also here that we find pictured the rise and fall of the Classic Age of Central Java as well as the Herculean program of the kingdom’s Buddhist rulers to construct temples that are among the finest examples of Hindu-Buddhist architecture to be found anywhere in the world.

Caesar Voûte and Mark Long discuss the location of Borobudur and have intuitively concluded that the magical effect of the sunrise on Mount Merapi could very well have led to the choice of the present site. The authors have also detailed the rich folklore, hydrographic symbolism of rivers, local practices, the cosmic elements, other temples nearby, the poetic vision of Nieuwenkamp, and the location of the palace of the Shailendra rulers. All of these elements create an ambiance of mystery and evoke the aura that subsequently became Borobudur with its riot of bas-reliefs in a stunning architectonic configuration. The authors discuss the hidden reliefs that display the effects of good and bad karma. The total number of narrative panels on the monument is 1460 or 365 reliefs on each of its four sides. Having passed by the pre-incarnations of Lord Buddha in the ‘birth stories’ (jatakas) and ‘heroic tales’ (avadanas) to his final existence in the Lalitavistara, the meditator ascends to the reliefs of the Gandavyuha where Sudhana’s quest leads him to the fifty-four ‘good friends’ (kalyanamitras) who guide the pilgrim along the path of the Bodhisattva that strives for completion and perfection, the transcendence of conditional experience and who is dedicated to the welfare of all beings.

The golden age of the Avatamsaka school of Buddhism, which occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries, was notable for both its philosophy and its meditation practices. The Avatamsaka collection from whence the Gandavyuha comes is the cornerstone of East Asia’s Buddhist thought; it is the golden enunciation of the Buddhist notion of the identity of existence with voidness and the universal relativity of phenomena. The central Buddha of the Avatamsaka is Rocana, who subsequently evolved into Vairochana and finally emerged as the Vairochana of the ‘Diamond Realm’ (Vajradhatu). All these transformations of Sakyamuni’s historic persona confirm the dense data outflow of the mind wherein demarcation lines are arbitrarily set. “Reality is continuous” says Tu Shun and the same can be said for Borobudur. It is the Net of Indra within which each jewel reflects all other jewels, and the reflection of all the jewels in each jewel also contains the reflection of all the other jewels, ad infinitum, as the infinity of infinities.

One of the special contributions of this book lies in its correlating the cyclical movements of the Sun and Moon with the numerical symbolism of Borobudur. Co-author Mark Long recalls the magical effect on him of the Sun suddenly appearing out of the volcano Merapi and empowering the Borobudur-mountain with its radiant energy in poetic imagery. When he speaks of this magic moment of satori or enlightenment, he is echoing the experiences of the unknown Shailendra monarch who had commissioned the monument’s construction and the inspiration that made the architect envision this Buddhist wonder.

The role of the Sun as the overflowing bounty of the Divine (bhargo devasya) is enshrined in the deep silence of the Borobudur as Vairochana of the ‘Diamond Realm’ (Vajradhatu). Vairochana means ‘Sun.’ The Vajradhatu is immense and in us it is as deep as the ocean. It is not only the seductive structure that dazzles the eyes, but also the inspiration that thinks itself in us and wears our consciousness. Meditative energies flow throughout the architectonics of Borobudur.

I have long believed that Borobudur is a Sumeru, the foundation for the mandala of Vajradhatu-Vairochana, which must have been located in a kutagara (identified as a stupa by earlier writers) situated on the topmost level of the monument. The kutagara originally had been open as can be seen in the photographs taken before the reconstruction by Van Erp. The first rays of the rising Sun illuminate the top of the monument today, and in ancient times they would have touched the urna of the main statue of Vairochana that was enshrined at the top of the open kutagara (which unfortunately was closed during the reconstruction by Van Erp). As Professor Rolf A. Stein has pointed out in L’Annuaire du College de France (76.530), the open dhatugarbha not only symbolizes the State of Buddhahood realized but also represents the Vajradhatu-mandala. The Thousand Buddhas on the levels of Borobudur are therefore the directional Buddhas well-known in the Japanese ritual of the Vajradhatu-mandala as the East Buddha, South Buddha, West Buddha and North Buddha. The two remaining Buddhas in vitarka and dharmachakra mudras are not Vairochana as such, but rather are variants that were implemented to arrive at the figure of 504 (84 x 6), which the pilgrim doubles up, once on the way up and again on the way down, to make the auspicious number of 1008 (504 x 2). The deities of the mandala should have been made of gold as the palladium of the State and must have been carried away when the Borobudur was abandoned.

Like the Net of Indra, the authors of this book present an extensive universe in which many mirrors reflect one another: the multiplied and re-multiplied reflections within generate the infinity of infinites. The questions posed or solutions offered are like water and waves: different yet identical in essence. They stir discussion. The book is a catalyst and invites adventurous minds to find new directions by bringing into focus the vast universe of the Borobudur in order to cultivate the Way to weeding out error. As one Sutra says, “Walking along the Way, they should wish that all beings tread the pure realm of reality, their minds without obstruction.” Borobudur sits in its enigmatic depth, engulfed in vaporous illusions, waiting for someone to find the base simplicity of its Truth. This rapture of Being within the transcendence of form is charmingly evoked in the inimitable poem of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

The sun shone on a far-way morning, while the forest murmured its hymn of praise to light; and the hills, veiled in vapor, dimly glimmered like an earth’s dream in purple.

The King sat alone in the coconut grove, his eyes drowned in a vision, his heart exultant with the rapturous hope of spreading the chant of adoration along the unending path of time:

“Let Buddha be my refuge.”

His words found utterance in the deathless speech of delight, in an ecstasy of forms.

The island took it upon her heart; her hill raised it to the sky.

After an age, the morning Sun daily illuminated its great meaning.

While the harvester was sown and reaped in the nearby fields by the stream, and life, with its chequered light, made pictured shadows on its epochs of changing screen, the prayer, once uttered in the quiet green of an ancient morning, ever rose in the midst of the hide-and-seek of tumultuous time: “Let Buddha be my refuge.”

The King at the end of his days, is merged in the shadow of a nameless night among the unremembered, leaving his salutation in an imperishable rhythm of stone which ever cries:

“Let Buddha be my refuge.”

Generations of pilgrims came on the quest of an immortal voice for their worship; and this sculptured hymn, in a grand symphony of gestures, took up their lowly names and uttered for them: “Let Buddha be my refuge.”

The spirit of those words has been muffled in mist in this mocking age of unbelief, and the curious crowds gather here to gloat in the gluttony of an irreverent sight.

Man today has no peace – his heart arid with pride. He clamors for an ever-increasing speed in a fury of chase for objects that ceaselessly run, but never reach a meaning.

And now is the time when he must come groping at last to the sacred silence, which stands still in the midst of surging centuries of noise, till he feels assured that in an immeasurable love dwells the final meaning of Freedom, whose prayer is: “Let Buddha be my refuge.”


PREFACE by Mark Long and Dr. Lokesh Chandra

When writing any book that examines the culture, history and spiritual worldview of an ancient civilization, it is all too easy to overlook the fact that all of these elements are entirely the outcome of the activities of human beings in possession of hopes, fears and aspirations. The authors of this book were indeed fortunate to have Lokesh Chandra render an entirely new translation of the Sanskrit section for one of Central Java’s most hotly debated inscriptions for publication in this book. Dating from the year 824, it is the last we hear about the remarkable Shailendra dynasty in the inscriptional record of Central Java.

The Kayumwungan Inscription (Sanskrit section)

1. May the Hero seated on the lofty hill,

The Lion … [of immeasurable might] who remains steadfast in the vajrasana posture,

Protect those born into existence and who wander the world in extreme affliction,

As well as liberate all good beings from the adverse power of Desire (Smara).


2. The myriad adharmas accumulated by the super strong,

Which to the people the worldly Buddhas have not explained, incomparable…

Are dispelled by the Noble Dharma the prime medicine for all the world’s ailments.

To the Noble Dharma [the Shailendra Monarch] pays homage with a devoted mind.


3. He [bestows the] utmost compassion onto a world

Besought by the never-ending sorrows [brought about by] hundreds of rebirths.

By means of his devotion ... [and] through his dedication,

The Monarch who is venerated by the venerable [Buddhist monks],

On this Earth promotes the [accumulation of] merit (punya) and knowledge (jnana).


4. Just as all the revered Buddhas (Sugatas) who have vanquished their enemies,

Together with the Bodhisattvas, have expounded....

[The Shailendra Monarch extends] mighty compassion to beings immersed in suffering,  

and [exhibits] a steadfast faith in those who follow the [Noble] Path of the Buddha.


5. He has acquired the respect [of his subjects]...

And the cooperation of a multitude of beings endowed with good qualities.

He has attained supremacy over the many kings who fled into hiding [out of fear].


6. Upon recalling the [loss] of their kingdoms,

The lotus eyes of arrogant enemies were suddenly flooded with tears

Out of their intense [emotional] attachment [to dominions now lost].


7. Although inclined to alleviate distress,

By means of his mighty prowess he [the Shailendra monarch] vanquished many kings.

Though endowed with valiant qualities, he is a benefactor without blemish,

Whose mind is pure, content and full of wisdom from his experience of ... {Bodhi?}


8. He, the illustrious King Samaratunga, is a great builder...

His most beloved daughter has constructed a Jinalaya [Buddhist sanctuary]

Right here in the village.


9. Although adorned with the qualities and virtues of royalty,

She is not bereft of feminine grace,

And she possesses a heart that is endowed with compassion.

Saddened by [the passing away of] her husband (arya-putra), 

She has devoted herself to [pious] activities.


10. She, famed as Pramodavarddhani,

Steals loveliness from the Moon,

Gait from the swan,

Melody from the kalavinka {a fabled bird},

And eyes from the doe.


11. In the Shaka year 746 {824 CE}

On the eighth day in the 2nd half of the month Mrgasirsa,

The best day of the dark fortnight, Tungle, umanis day, on a [Thursday?]

She consecrated the image of [her deceased husband] Shri Ghananatha,

together with the image of her father-in-law (arya).


12. Shining as if the Crescent Moon had just fallen to Earth in fear of Rahu,

This splendid temple-mountain,

which rises on a vedi as the outcome of meritorious deeds,

Is now inhabited by both senior and dynamic, young monks.


13. Whatever merits that may be acquired

Through the building of the Jinalaya known as the glorious Venuvana,

May [they enable] the [entire] universe to attain Buddhahood.


14. By means of my devotion,

May I [Princess Pramodavarddhani] swiftly attain the Bodhisattva-stage

[that is] utterly transcendent, unsurpassable and [extremely] difficult to obtain.


15. As long as the volcanic fire breaths hot,

As long as the Earth remains bounded by the Bodhi,

As long as the Devas reside on Mount Meru,

[And] as long as the Sun (Vritra) releases a myriad rays into the sky,

May this monastery (vihara) endure as the embodiment of the Virtues of the Buddha (Sugata).

According to J. G. de Casparis, the Kayumwungan and Teru i Tepussan inscriptions had stood in the yard of the local government offices in the city of Magdelang some 20 km to the North of Borobudur. When he attempted to discover their place of origin, he was unable to find anyone who could remember exactly where they had been found. To determine their origin, he compared the village names listed in the inscriptions with the place names that appeared on an otherwise unrelated inscription dating from the early 10th century that had been unearthed in the same general area where Borobudur is located. The comparison led the Dutch epigraphy expert to conclude that the Kayumwungan and Teru i Tepussan inscriptions had likewise come from the South Kedu area.1

The opening stanza refers to a lofty hill on which the “lion of immeasurable might” is seated with both legs crossed in the ‘adamantine posture.’ This description compelled J.G. de Casparis and other translators to immediately think of Borobudur and the vajrasana posture of its many Jina images. But as stanza 11 and 12 later suggest, the “hero” of he Kayumwungan inscription may actually be a reference to the consecrated image of Pramodavarddhani’s husband, in which case the “lofty hill” upon which the he is seated may refer to nothing other than the temple-mountain where the Shri Gananatha image resided. In fact, the composer of the inscription specifically states that the Jinalaya known as the Venuvana was located “right here in the village,” which makes the proposition of a hilltop location less likely. And although the use of the word vedi is certainly suggestive of a structure such as Borobudur, there are other examples of Buddhist temples in Central Java that feature a raised platform on which the temple rises. 

This is merely the first in a series of parallels that the inscription’s composer has drawn between the opening lines dedicated to the hero on the lofty hill and later verses that describe people and events in the terrestrial world below. For example, the first stanza identifies Desire as the cause of all human suffering while the second presents the Noble Dharma of the Buddha as the “prime medicine for all the world’s ailments.” These two essential Buddhist beliefs directly relate to later stanzas that describe the suffering of the king’s lovely daughter. Saddened over the deaths of her husband and father-in-law, Princess Pramodavarddhani turned to the Noble Dharma as the prime medicine for her own affliction by devoting herself to the founding of the Venuvana temple and its associated monastery. As a counterpoise to the loss of her father-in-law and husband, the inscription’s composer refers to the senior and dynamic young monks who now inhabit the temple that she has caused to soar toward the sky as the result of meritorious actions (punya). And when the inscription states that the Shailendra monarch pays homage to the Noble Dharma and extends compassion to beings immersed in suffering, Samaratungga is clearly present to do everything within his power to mitigate his daughter’s suffering as well.2

That Samaratungga is to be regarded as far more than a secular leader is clearly indicated when the inscription identifies him as “worthy of veneration by the venerable ones,” that is, the most senior of Buddhist monks. This is particularly interesting with respect to the contrasts drawn between the king as an incarnation of great compassion and the monarch who is a valiant warrior. As Dr. Chandra points out, Samaratungga means ‘exalted in war.’ Early on, the inscription refers to the “myriad adharmas accumulated by the super strong,” which is perhaps a reference to the king’s secular opponents in Central Java. However, the Shailendra monarch was able to defeat his adversaries because of his absolute faith in the Noble Doctrine.

Because of the king’s steadfast faith and noble qualities he was also able to gain the respect of his subjects and the good will of virtuous people. The inscription’s composer, who undoubtedly regarded Samaratungga to be a man of great moral stature, also tells us that the king’s wisdom and serenity is the result of his experience of something that can no longer be read from the inscription itself. The end of the inscription refers to a vision of the Earth being bounded by the Bodhi. We suspect that this reference to be an echo of what Samaratungga to have likewise experienced.

The inscription also characterizes the Shailendra monarch as “a great builder.”  Another inscription composed in 792 CE tells us that Samaratungga had earlier sponsored the construction of a Buddhist monastery on the Ratu Boko Hill with the aid of Sinhalese monks. The respective dates of the Ratu Boko and Kayumwungan inscriptions demonstrate that the Shailendra monarch had ruled in Central Java for at least 32 years during the very period when many of the area’s Buddhist temples were constructed and renovated.

Other stanzas tell us that Pramodavarddhani had consecrated the images of her deceased husband and father-in-law on the temple-mountain, which shines as if it were a crescent Moon that had fallen to Earth in fear of Rahu. This is a clear reference to the Hindu creation story known as the Churning of the Sea of Milk. As soon as the Devas and the Asuras succeed in causing the amrita to emerge from the great Milk Ocean, the Asura Rahu seized the elixir of immortality and began to drink it. But the Sun and Moon, which had likewise just risen from out of the Milk Sea, quickly informed the Devas what Rahu was about to do. Lord Vishnu used his chakra to cut off the Asura’s head just above the jaw line to keep the amrita from entering his  body. Out for revenge, the immortal Rahu periodically attempts to ‘swallow’ the lunar and solar orbs. The temple-mountain described in the Kayumwungan inscription is likely to have displayed the jawless head of Rahu in prominent locations.

The composer’s reference to the crescent Moon is perhaps an echo from the inscription’s dateline, which the composer had just provided in the previous verse. On the day that the inscription was carved, a crescent Moon and the planet Jupiter were in conjunction with the asterism of Uttara Bhadrapada, which astrologers have considered to be a sign of good luck, honor and riches since the time of the ancient Egyptians. The following quote from Indian Astrology suggests some intriguing possibilities for why this particular date had been chosen for consecrating images of Pramodavarddhani’s husband and father-in-law.

 Uttara Bhadra indicates a journey to a beautiful place. This nakshatra deals with both the end and the beginning. An individual reaches a particular point in life where they merge their consciousness with the darkness of the sky; everything becomes one. Out of this mysterious darkness all forms of creation emerge; day breaks at the end of the night.3

Although the inscription’s dateline refers to the month Mrgashirsha (mid-November to mid-December), the inscription’s reference to the eighth day of the second half of the lunar month, together with the day names for the 5-, 6- and 7-day weeks of the ancient Javanese Wuku calendar, allowed earlier researchers to determine that the inscription had been composed on 26 May 824. The table presented below delineates the positions of the Sun, Moon and visible planets at the time that the inscription was carved.


Asterism (Nakshatra)

Western Constellation







U. Bhadrapada

Square of Pegasus

Adi Budhnya     


U. Bhadrapada

Square of Pegasus

Adi Budhnya







Orion (Bellatrix)




Orion (Orionis)




Orion (Betelgeuse)






Court astrologers are mentioned in several Javanese inscriptions. They undoubtedly advised the reigning monarch concerning the hidden meaning of celestial events as well as the most auspicious times for conducting important ritual activities. Perhaps the pairing of the Moon and Jupiter with the asterism Uttara Bhadrapada had played a role in the selection of a date that the inscription’s composer clearly thought was particularly auspicious. Elsewhere in this book, the authors have shown that the Javanese had once believed in an afterlife among the stars. According to Dr. Chandra, the name Shri Gananatha not only means ‘Lord of the Clouds’ but may also indicate that the essence of Pramodavarddhani’s husband had “gone to the clouds,” that is, gone to heaven.

Like the Moon that escapes the maw of the eclipse demon Rahu, the temple-mountain rises on a raised platform as the result of meritorious deeds. 4 The inscription’s use of the word Jinalaya (‘home of the Jinas’) is most interesting with respect to Borobudur. The term may be regarded “...as the ontological basis of the five Tathagatas (pamcatathagatashraya), as holding the qualities of enlightenment (sambodhi-shrigunadharah), as adorned with all the marks (of Buddhahood?) (sarvalakshana-manditah), as bearing all beautiful objects (sarvashubharthabhrit), as bearing the jewels of the right doctrine (saddharmaratnabhrit). These qualifications are in accordance with the general conception of caityas in Vajrayana Buddhism.”5 Once again, however, we must be cautious in attempting to link the Kayumwungan inscription with Borobudur; there are too many other known instances in which the Javanese had erected temple-mountains as residences for the ‘conquerors’ of the four cardinal directions and the zenith.

In the Jataka stories of the Buddha’s numerous past incarnations, he is invariably identified as the Bodhisattva. His spiritual career subsequently became the model for all those who followed the Buddhism of the ‘Greater Vehicle’ (Mahayana), which delineates ‘Ten Bodhisattva Stages’ (dasabhumibodhisattva) of development. The tenth and final stage, called the “Great Cloud of Dharma” (Dharmamegha), is the one that the Bodhisattva displayed during his final incarnation as Prince Siddhartha. The king’s daughter has followed the standard Mahayana Buddhist practice of dedicating whatever merit that may be generated through the commission of pious deeds to accrue to the benefit of all beings everywhere. When the Shailendra princess expresses the hope that she would be able to “swiftly attain the Bodhisattva stage that is utterly transcendent, unsurpassable and difficult to obtain,” the attainment of the unsurpassable Dharmamegha-status is implicit in her wish.

(1) It was Verbeek who thought that the inscription came from Karang Tengah.  This seems more than just a guess on his part, and the toponyms given in the inscriptions seem to fit with this location (Jeffrey Sundberg, personal communications).

(2) Others have attempted to argue that King Samaratungga had died before the inscription had been issued in 824 CE. However, Chandra points out that the composer’s use of the present in pranama[ti], ‘he pays homage,’ is a clear indication that the Shailendra monarch was still living at the time that the inscription was composed.

Jeffrey Sundberg also raises the question whether or not it would have been considered chaste and appropriate in a 9th century royal Buddhist context to praise the alleged widow Pramodavardani for her physical charms.

(3) Indian Astrology by Komilla Sutton, p. 120. Viking Studio, NY, 2000.

The Moon was also in alignment with Uttara Bhadrapada on the date of the Candi Canggal inscription issued by Old Mataram’s founding monarch King Sanjaya.

(4) In an earlier translation, Chandra had attempted to identify the individual temple references that appear in the Kayumwungan inscription with three different religious foundations (See Cultural Horizons of India, Volume IV). Having revisited this topic more recently he has come to the conclusion that they all refer to a single religious foundation called the Venuvana that must have had a monastery attached to it.

(5) See "Conflicting Conceptions of the Shrishrishri-Svayambhucaitya as a Holy Shrine" by Alexander von Rospatt (Ph.D.), University of Leipzig, Germany. This paper was presented during the 'Conference on the Buddhist Heritage of Nepal Mandal' in 1998.

(6) Borobudur’ is the modern spelling of the monument’s name as opposed to the earlier renderings that one frequently encounters when reading older texts, such as Boro Budoor, Baraboedoer and Barabudur.]



Located in close proximity of the geographic center of the Island of Java in Southeast Asia, the man-made pyramid-mountain of Borobudur has puzzled archaeologists and scholars alike since the very day that the western world rediscovered it during the early 19th century. Comparable in size to the Egyptian pyramid at Saqqara, this enigmatic structure contains more than 1.6 million stone blocks and measures more than 400 feet along either axis.

 In 1814, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles — acting in his capacity as the British Empire’s Lieutenant Governor on Java — sent a survey team to investigate incredible rumors about a great ruined sanctuary located deep within the island’s interior. It took six weeks for a crew of two hundred men to clear away the soil, volcanic ash and vegetation that had embraced the monument for centuries. Upon clearing the site, the discoverers were able to discern the foundations of a stepped pyramid, which provides the framework for a series of galleries that collectively contained 1,300 beautiful bas-relief carvings that if placed end-to-end would span a distance of more than 1.5 kilometers. The walls of the monument’s galleries in turn were designed to support no less than 432 cave-like niches, each of which contained a stone image of the Buddha. Near the top of the pyramid, the exploration team uncovered three round terrace platforms each of which supported a series of bell-shaped chambers called stupas. Residing within each of the half-dome shells was a statue of a Buddha displaying the symbolic hand gesture known as the ‘Turning of the Wheel.’ Overwhelmed by the discovery of Borobudur, Raffles wrote the following:

The beauty and delicate execution of the separate portions, the symmetry and regularity of the whole, the great number and interesting character of the statues and reliefs with which they are ornamented, excite our wonder that they were not earlier examined, sketched and described....

Between the release of Raffles’ masterful monograph on the History of Java in 1817 and the inauguration date of the latest round of restoration efforts at Borobudur in 1972, scholars and researchers from around the world have published in excess of five hundred learned studies on the monument. The Dutch archaeologist J. W. IJzerman wrote of his surprise discovery of a relief series that had previously lain hidden beneath the monument’s wide base and the Dutch engineer Theodoor van Erp produced the first comprehensive architectural description. Eminent European scholars such as Alfred Foucher, Nicholas J. Krom and F. D. K. Bosch succeeded in identifying many of the Buddhist texts that the builders had used as the inspirational sources for carving the monument’s many narrative relief panels. Furthermore, Paul Mus was able to shed additional light on the monument’s meaning by viewing Borobudur within the context of a comprehensive analysis of India’s ancient religious scriptures. Yet despite these and other early discoveries and insights, the general feeling among scholars remained that Borobudur’s essential meaning had nonetheless eluded their grasp.

 “Borobudur expresses a complex message in a code that has yet to be cracked, partly because the range of individual elements making up the code is so vast,” wrote John Miksic, associate professor of SE Asian Studies at Singapore National University and author of Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddha. “This sanctuary does not reveal its secret to just anyone that comes along,” added Vratislav Jan Zizka, the author of Borobudur: The Buddhist Legend In Stone. “One might even argue that the endless steps and stairways, and the kilometers of stone bas-reliefs are arranged in such a manner as to confuse us in our calculations and to beguile us away from simple measuring and reasoning.”

Although the early identification of the Buddhist texts associated with Borobudur’s narrative bas-reliefs helped to reveal the monument’s outer or ‘exoteric’ meaning, the consensus remained that the pyramid-mountain encapsulated an inner or ‘esoteric’ message that continued to defy all attempts to unveil it. Despite decades of intensive effort, no one had been unable to discover any ancient text or inscription that could help to explain the monument’s purpose or even whether Borobudur is its true name. Exposed to the region’s unforgiving tropical environment, all documents recorded on palm leaves and other perishable materials had disintegrated long ago. The few stone and copperplate inscriptions that have somehow managed to survive the passage of time are totally silent with regards to this magnificent structure. Even the name ‘Borobudur’ continues to present an enigma.6

As the authors have conceived it, the purpose of this new publication is to provide readers with the latest information pertaining to the unique position that Java’s pyramid-mountain Buddha occupies within the general context of Southeast Asia’s ancient art, architecture, art, history, religion and sciences. To accomplish this goal, Borobudur serves as the symbolic departure point for conducting a much wider discussion that examines the entry of India’s Hindu-Buddhist civilization into the island kingdoms of maritime Southeast Asia in general as well as the monument’s relationship with indigenous Javanese customs and religious practices in particular.

From the beginning, it has been our intention to produce a general reference for reaching the widest possible audience. At the same time, however, we do not refrain from citing the latest scholarly and scientific research. In a way, our application of a multidisciplinary approach to the study of Borobudur is a good match for the cosmological views of the architects of ancient Southeast Asia. During the era in which Borobudur was constructed, the region’s great temple-builders embraced a ‘sacred science’ that did not perceive any separation between the spiritual practice of Buddhism and Hinduism and the scientific disciplines of astronomy, chronology, cosmology, geometry and the higher mathematics. For this reason, the authors describe Borobudur’s setting in the midst of Central Java’s Kedu plain in great detail. We also examine the geo-physical relationships that exist between Borobudur’s location and elements to be found in the surrounding landscape, which allows us to understand just how the movements of various celestial bodies may have impacted the monument’s design.

The technical and scientific experts who participated in the restoration efforts that took place at Borobudur between 1972 and 1983 made a number of discoveries and key observations that are potentially significant with respect to unraveling the many mysteries that remain. Unfortunately, the experts who contributed to the restoration of Borobudur have described their findings almost exclusively in technical journals. Likewise, a number of excellent monographs and photographic studies already exist today that describe or otherwise portray Borobudur in considerable detail. In contrast to other writers, we believe that mainstream readers are more than capable of understanding the complex issues involved in the scientific study of Borobudur as long as we take the time to reduce highly complex issues down their most basic components. Our goal is to give our readers the requisite tools for exploring Borobudur and its honored place in the history of Southeast Asia to their heart’s content.


Chapter I covers the pre-historic and early historic trends that culminated in the so-called Hinduization of Southeast Asia, which had involved the local borrowing of political, cultural and religious concepts from abroad. The region’s rulers subsequently adapted these cultural imports to best match local needs and requirements. The first phase of this process, which terminated in the middle of the 6th century, is demarcated by the abrupt cessation of highly important trading activities involving the transportation of natural products and goods between East Asia and India. Prior to this unexpected hiatus, China had dispatched missions to the great trading communities along Southeast Asia’s Malay Peninsula on almost a yearly basis.

Due to the effects of a natural calamity that has yet to be identified with certainty, lucrative pan-Asian trade missions ground to a halt in the years 535-536 of the Common Era (CE). The cataclysm itself must have been of horrific proportions because historians the world over subsequently alluded to the disaster’s after-effects. Hypotheses for explaining the catastrophe range from a major volcanic eruption to the impact of a large asteroid.

With a view to the recent research of Dr. Joel D. Gunn (The Years without Summer: Tracing A.D. 536 and its Aftermath) and David Keyes (Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World), Chapter I outlines the available geological and historical evidence in support of the proposition that a submarine volcano may have erupted in the Sunda Strait that divides Java from Sumatra. We also examine the historical records of the period for signs of how the catastrophe may have impacted the development of Hindu-Buddhist civilizations on both sides of the Strait. (For more on this particular topic see the authors' online article: The Storm that Darkened the Entire World: Did a Tsunami Strike Java and Sumatra During Ancient Times?).

Chapter II presents what is historically known about the rise and fall of the ‘Classic Age’ of Javanese civilization, from its emergence during early 8th century until its close some two hundred years later, when the rulers of Central Java decided to relocate their royal courts to locations on the eastern half of the island. Founded by a Hinduized monarch, the Javanese state popularly known as the kingdom of Old Mataram subsequently came under the influence of a dynasty of Buddhist kings called the Shailendra — the ‘Lord of the Mountain.’ All but certain to have been Borobudur’s patrons, the Shailendra had vanished from Central Java’s political stage by the middle of the 9th century only to re-emerge as the Buddhist overlords of a Buddhist kingdom elsewhere within the region. Curiously, books about Borobudur seldom discuss the ultimate fate of the Shailendra. To correct for this deficiency, we explore the rest of what history can tell us about the maritime empire of this influential Buddhist dynasty — from its first notable appearance on the Malay Peninsula in the second half of the 8th century until the fall of the dynasty’s prime maritime centers several hundred years later.

For reasons that have yet to be completely explained, the Classic Age of Java’s Hindu-Buddhist civilization came to its own abrupt end in the 10th century CE. We examine the role that the island’s famous flame-throwing volcano Merapi may have played in motivating Old Mataram’s last reigning monarch to remove himself to the eastern half of the island. In particular, Chapter II explores a new theory proposed by Russian researchers that plausibly explains how the venting of underground pockets of poisonous volcanic gas can cause mass hallucinations in human populations. In Chapter III we present a concise review of the general history and development of Buddhism that outlines how Buddhism’s philosophical underpinnings had evolved over time. We also discuss the rise and early development of esoteric Buddhism, which was marked by the appearance and concerted use of mantras, symbolic hand gestures and cosmological diagrams called mandalas.


It is undoubtedly significant that Borobudur is located on the top of an artificial hill that is located in the middle of a fertile plain surrounded by a ring of ancient volcanic cones. What is surprising is that archaeologists have made little effort to fully explore the many geophysical relationships that link Borobudur with certain prominent natural and manmade landmarks that lie in the monument’s general vicinity. Curiously, while others draw our attention to the fact that Borobudur and its two ‘satellite’ temples of Pawon and Mendut collectively form a straight line that points toward the eastern horizon, no one has systematically investigated the alignment’s potential astronomical implications until now.

In Chapter IV we demonstrate how the ‘power alignment’ of three temples intersects with a point on the local horizon that is significant with respect to the calendrical and the astronomical practices of the era in which Borobudur was constructed. We also examine the known geophysical underpinnings behind the proposal of the famous Dutch artist W. O. J. Nieuwenkamp that Borobudur had formerly stood in the middle of a lake as if it were meant to represent a lotus blossom floating on the waters.

Chapter V provides readers with a virtual walking tour of the monument that begins with our approach from the East and ends in front of the large stupa that crowns the entire structure. Along the way, we examine the many Buddha images, bas-reliefs, ornamental motifs, gargoyles, archways, and open-worked stupas in order to provide readers with a fuller appreciation for the symbolic roles that these architectural elements play within the overall design of the monument.

The Javanese themselves had never completely forgotten the existence of Borobudur, nor had they neglected to remember several of the other temples nearby that date from the same general period. If truth be told, one of the sources that led Raffles to have the site investigated in the first place was an indigenous folk tale about the “Mountain of a Thousand Images.” Notwithstanding the monument’s development under the indisputable influence of India’s Hindu-Buddhist civilization, Borobudur’s design may also incorporate concepts indigenous to Java. To enable the reader to explore the possibilities, Chapter V presents the local legends that the authors believe may be of particular significance with respect to the study of Borobudur and its rightful place in the history of ancient Southeast Asia.

In Chapter VI, co-author Caesar Voûte provides readers with a first-hand account of the international efforts made on Borobudur’s behalf during UNESCO’s fifteen-year campaign for creating and conserving the Borobudur World Heritage Site. Along the way, he discusses the ethics of restoration work in general and points to a number of interesting architectural details that illustrate the construction techniques that the monument’s original builders had employed. Noting that humanity has the potential to wreck havoc on the very natural environment on which we all so much depend — often with irreversible and irreparable devastating consequences — Dr. Voûte also presents his recommendations concerning the next steps required to safeguard Borobudur on behalf of future generations.


Several Javanese inscriptions suggest to us that the kingdom’s inhabitants had once believed that the realm’s deceased kings and glorious ancestors ascended to an afterlife among the stars as “demigods rushing along the ways of the firmament.” Chapter VII examines various aspects of Borobudur in light of the fire-altar sacrifice of Vedic ritual. We also examine the theory proposed by J. L. Moens that Borobudur may have served as the stage upon which the Shailendra could have conducted sacred rites pertaining to kingship. According to his theory, the structure of Borobudur had served a double commemorative aim: to commemorate the descent of the Bodhisattva at the time of his final birth as well as the ascent of the Shailendra king upon his death to the Buddhist heaven known as the Akanishtha. In addition, Chapter VII provides a detailed description of the Great Stupa at Kesariya, which originally featured hundreds of niches containing life-sized images of the Buddha. Located about 120 km to the South of the India-Nepal border, the huge terraced structure at Kesariya is crowned by the remains of a large stupa.

Chapter VIII presents the first comprehensive study of the numerical and geometrical symbolism that has been embedded into Borobudur’s architectural plan. In particular, we explain how Borobudur’s numerical symbolism relates to the cyclical movements of the Sun and the Moon and demonstrate how Borobudur’s builders have organized various bas-relief series so that the events portrayed in individual panels would coincide with the position of the Sun with respect to significant stages of the annual solar cycle. Moreover, we describe how the Buddhist monks in residence at Borobudur were likely to have measured time on a daily basis through the use of a vertical stake called a gnomon.

Chapter IX examines Borobudur’s nearby ‘porch’ temple of Candi Mendut with an eye toward providing a comprehensive survey of this impressive, but often overlooked, monument. From its classic sculptures and ornate bas-relief to the ordering of its partitions by means of both horizontal and vertical lines, Chandi Mendut remains one of the most impressive structures ever to be erected on Java. We have included Mendut temple within the scope of our architectural reappraisal because it provides us with yet another potential avenue for unraveling the Buddhism of Borobudur.


In Chapter X, the authors critically examine and evaluate the major objections that eminent scholars such as Jan Fontein, Marijke Klokke, J. G. de Casparis and David Snellgrove have raised to the proposal that the builders of Borobudur based their design on one of the well-known mandalas of the esoteric school of Buddhism, which is known today as the Vajrayana (‘Diamond Vehicle’). Chapter XI examines the structure of Borobudur for the purpose of presenting architectural models that may be of further assistance in identifying the specific Buddhist concepts and texts that had served as important sources for the monument’s builders.

For those readers who wish to gain access to a wider range of materials about Borobudur, the authors have established a dedicated Internet site (http://www.borobudur.tv) on the World Wide Web that presents many of the Buddhist texts that served as the inspiration for Borobudur’s many bas-reliefs. The authors’ Web site also provides readers with online access to a large number of Buddhist texts, scholarly articles and other references of interest.


Table of Contents

Foreword by Dr. Lokesh Chandra                                                    page 09

Preface by Mark Long and Dr. Lokesh Chandra                            page 11

Introduction                                                                                          page 15

About the Authors                                                                               page 19

Acknowledgements                                                                            page 23

List of Illustrations                                                                               page 25

PART I: HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENTS                                             

Chapter I: Distant Beginnings                                                                page 33

1.1 The El Dorado of the Asian World

1.2 An Eclectic Approach to Cultural Borrowing

1.3 Early Inscriptional Evidence

1.4 The West Javanese Kingdom of Taruma

1.5 A Cataclysmic Event

1.6 The Book of Ancient Kings

1.7 The Aftermath of a Devastating Impact

1.8 The Emergence of the Sumatran Kingdom of Srivijaya

Chapter II: The Rise & Fall of Central Java’s ‘Classic Age’             page 47

2.1 The Illustrious King Sanjaya

2.2 The ‘Lord of the Mountain’

2.3 The Maharaja of Zabag

2.4 An Ambitious Temple Building Program

2.5 The Shailendra Decline on Java

2.6 The Maharaja from the Land of Gold

2.7 The Shailendra Beyond Java’s Shores

2.8  An Unknown Calamity of Horrific Proportions

2.9 The Explosive Power of Merapi

2.10 The Vartanyan Theory: A Geological Basis For Mass Hysteria

2.11 The Migration to East Java: Other Hypotheses

Chapter III: A Buddhist Foundation                                                       page 77

3.1 The One Thus Come

3.2 Challenging the Hindu Worldview

3.3 Enduring Symbols of the Buddha’s Presence

3.4 The Elder School (Theravada)

3.5 The Greater Vehicle (Mahayana)

3.6 The Development of Mahayana Buddhism

3.7 Tantric Buddhism

3.8 Initiation into the Mandala

PART II: BOROBUDUR AND ITS ENVIRONS                                     page 91

Chapter IV: The Magic of Location                                                         page 93

4.1 In Harmony with their Local Surroundings

4.2 The Descent of the Cosmic River

4.3 Local Javanese Legends and Indigenous Practices

4.4 The Axis of the Universe

4.5 The Mount Merapi Sunrise

4.6 King, Kraton, Kingdom and Cosmos

4.7 Candi Pawon and Candi Mendut

4.8 W. O. J. Niewenkamp and the Lotus Throne on the Lake

4.9 Exploring Borobudur’s Vicinity

4.10 Locating the Shailendra Kraton

Chapter V: An Approach from the East                                                page 123

5.1 The Bas-reliefs on the Monument’s ‘Hidden Foot’

5.2 Ascending the Eastern Staircase

5.3 Entering the Bas-relief Galleries

5.4 The Significance of the Jina Images

5.5 The 72 Stupa-Buddhas at the Summit

5.6 The Stupa at the Apex of the Pyramid

5.7 The Meaning of the Name Borobudur

Chapter VI: Planning, Building and Restoration                                 page 139

6.1 The Ground Plan

6.2 Phases of Construction

6.3 The Mandala at the Summit

6.4 Ritual Deposits: Bringing the Temple to Life

6.5 Ancient Building Construction Techniques

6.6 Conservation Efforts at Borobudur

6.7 The Never-Ending Battle


Chapter VII: The Residence of Divinity                                                 page 157

7.1 The ‘Foot,’ ‘Body’ and ‘Head’ of the Temple

7.2 Like Demigods Rushing Along the Ways of the Firmament

7.3 Borobudur and the Structure of the Vedic Fire Altar

7.4 The Shailendra Chakravartin

7.5 Rites of Kingship

7.6 The Vastupurusha-mandala on Borobudur’s Summit

7.7 On the Road to Kusinagara

Chapter VIII:

Numerical, Astronomical and Dimensional Symbolism                   page 175

8.1 The Numerical Symbolism of the Jina Images

8.2 A ‘Day’ of the Gods on Mount Meru

8.3 The Temporal Symbolism of the Lower Terrace Levels

8.4 Solar Symbolism in the Lalitavistara Bas-reliefs

8.5 The Numerical Symbolism of Borobudur’s Summit

8.6 A Time without Shadows

8.7 The Legend of King ‘Mountain Stone’

8.8 Mirroring the Celestial Realm

8.9 Dimensional Symbolism

Chapter IX: Candi Mendut                                                                        page 199

9.1 The Images inside the Main Cella

9.2 The Vestibule

9.3 The Cella Partition Walls

9.4 Along the Second Ambulatory Path

9.5 The Staircase Wings

9.6 The Ground Level Ambulatory Path

9.7 A Rooftop Mandala?

9.8 A Lighthouse of Buddhism


Chapter X: The Ghost in the Machine                                                   page 213

10.1 The Matrix and Diamond World Mandalas

10.2 Eight Great Objections to Borobudur as a Tantric Mandala

10.3 A Sri Lankan Connection?

10.4 A Javanese Master of the Garbhadhatu Mandala

10.5 The Influence of Nalanda

Chapter XI: The Unfolding of Divinity                                                    page 231

11.1 Pacing the Void

11.2 The Five Revelation-Enlightenment Stages

11.3 The Akanishtha Heaven on Borobudur’s Summit

11.4 The Awakening of the Complete Manifest Buddha

11.5 The Production of a Four-faced Vairochana

11.6 The Three Mystery Bodies of the Buddha

11.7 Suggestions for Further Research

APPENDICES                                                                                              page 243

A. Chapter End Notes                                                                                   page 245

B. Chapter References                                                                                 page 269

C. Glossary                                                                                                      page 283

Index                                                                                                                 page 291

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