Architecture of the Borobudur Temple

The architecture of the Borobudur is based on Buddhist philosophy, religion and cosmology. The temple symbolizes the sacred Mount Meru, which in Indian cosmology is situated in the center of the Universe. The temple also represents the core teachings in Buddhist doctrine, namely the Four Noble Truths[1], the Noble Eightfold Path[2] and the three realms of existence: Kāmadhātu, Rūpadhātu and Arūpadhātu.[3] The architectural design of the Borobudur is made in such a way that when the visitor or pilgrim follows the spiritual teachings depicted on the temple reliefs in the correct order, then, he or she will ultimately be guided from the one dhātu on to the next.

Architecture of the Borobudur Temple

The first realm is that of Kāmadhātu, or ‘Desire Realm’, and is depicted in 160 reliefs based on the text of the Mahakarmavibhangga, which is about the law of cause and effect (karma). This particular realm of existence resembles the life of a human being who has not yet developed a moral sense of responsibility. The reliefs of the Mahakarmavibhangga were discovered as late as 1885 when the first chairman of the ‘Archeologische Vereeniging van Jogjakarta‘ (Archaeological Society of Yogyakarta), Jan Willem IJzerman, accidentally stumbled upon them in the hidden foot of the Borobudur while he was doing some reparation works on that part of the monument.

The second realm is Rūpadhātu, also known as ‘Form Realm’, in which man becomes more conscious of the meaning of life in regard to the fundamental basic principles of Buddhism, i.e. moral code of conduct.[4] This realm of existence is depicted in a four-sided gallery which contains reliefs both on the inside and on the outside, as well as on the lower and upper parts of the wall. In order to view all these reliefs in the correct order, one has to walk four times clockwise (with the temple always on one’s right side) since each wall contains two series of reliefs  (on top of each other).


The third realm, that of Arūpadhātu, or ‘Formless Realm’, is reserved for the upper part of the Borobudur. Therefore, reaching the top of the Borobudur used to symbolize the realization of Enlightenment (Nirvāṇa) after having successfully passed through to the lower realms, which eventually leads one to the attainment of the highest goal. If one wishes to view all the reliefs that are depicted on this part of the temple one has to walk ten times clockwise (again, with the temple always on one’s right side), which is a total distance of nearly five kilometers.


The stories depicted on the reliefs of the lower terraces tell about ordinary daily situations in the Javanese culture at the time, yet when one proceeds on to the higher terraces the storyline gradually deepens and contain higher and complex spiritual lessons – presumably a symbolical process representing detachment from the ‘World of Illusion'[5]. Following this symbolical order of depictions, we find on the first two galleries the Jātaka (or Jātakamālā) stories that tell about the previous incarnations of the Bodhisattva. And the Avadānas that tell the life stories of Buddhist saints. Then there are also the Lalitavistāra reliefs, depicting the story of the likewise named text that tells us about the historical Buddha and the miracles people acclaimed to the Buddha. On the third and fourth galleries there are reliefs of the Gaṇḍavyūha text, which, in five hundred panels describe pilgrim Sudhanā’s quest for the realization of ultimate liberation. His quest eventually leads him to taking the vows of the Bodhisattva Śamantabhadra, as depicted on the Bhadracari reliefs. The choice is significant, because this particular Bodhisattva is rarely seen in the Indian mythology as depicted in the Buddhist iconography. Thus, this demonstrates an unique and characteristic feature of local adaptation of Mahāyāna Buddhism.[6]


Apart from the many visual images of the texts there are also many other forms of decoration used in the architecture of the Borobudur, primarily those made in the form of ornaments, such as birds, flowers and mythical beings like Kāla and Makara. The birds and flowers are additional decorations that fill up the empty spaces on the reliefs; Kālas are depicted above the temple’s entrance gates; and the Makara – mythological animals with an elephant’s trunk rolled upwards and an opened mouth from which a small lion comes forth – are seated at the base of the entrance gates of the Borobudur, but are also a common feature of other Javanese temples, both Hindu and Buddhist.

The Makara

Then, on the three higher terraces there are no reliefs and ornaments, but only stūpas. Later, scientific research showed that the seemingly round circle-shaped terraces once were actually more oval-shaped, without there being any particular practical reason behind this.[7] This reveals a significant difference with the perception of the Borobudur as a maṇḍala. Altogether there are 72 stūpas on these three terraces, each of which have a Buddha statue residing inside. These stūpas cannot be seen from the base level; possibly symbolic for the higher stages of the spiritual path which yet remain imperceptible whilst still standing at the beginning of the path. In order to be able to perceive the more subtle aspects that are characteristic only for the advanced stages of the path one first needs to eradicate the  more coarser mental defilements. However, there seems to be no textual evidence that supports this view; it is, therefore, unlikely that access to the upper terraces was restricted solely to priests and monks, who, accordingly embodied the higher attainments.


In total there are 504 Buddha statues on the Borobudur, all of which display either one of the six mudrās (‘hand gestures’). The six mudrās are: (1) Bhūmisparśa Mudrā (in which the Buddha reaches out with his right hand across his right knee, thereby touching the earth – a symbolic gesture by which he summons the Earth Goddess, who testifies his immeasurable merit acquired in countless previous lifetimes, and twists her long hair so the water washes away the forces of Mara, after which the Buddha attained full Enlightenment); (2) Varadā Mudrā (in which the Buddha has his right hand open with the face of the hand facing upwards – a symbolic gesture of loving kindness by act of giving); (3) Dhyāna Mudrā (in which the Buddha has his both hands folded on his lap – a bodily posture symbolic for meditation); (4) Abhāya Mudrā (in which the Buddha has his right hand raised upwards with the face of the hand facing the audience – a symbolic gesture of dispelling of fear); (5) Vitarka Mudrā (in which the Buddha has his right hand slightly lifted upwards with the tips of his thumb and index finger touching each other – a symbolic gesture of preaching the Dharma); and (6) Dharmacakra Mudrā (in which the Buddha has his both hand raised in front of the center of the upper body, touching with his right ring finger his left index finger – by far the most important symbolic gesture, for it represents the turning of the wheel of the Dharma).


There are 92 Buddha statues in Bhūmisparśa Mudrā on the Eastside of the four lower levels; 92 Buddha statues in Varadā Mudrā on the Southside; 92 in Dhyāna Mudrā on the Westside; 92 in Abhāya Mudrā on the Northside; 64 in Vitarka Mudrā on the square terrace above the Cosmic Buddhas of the four cardinal directions of the Universe; and 72 Buddha statues in Dharmacakra Mudrā on a circular terrace surrounding the main stūpa, which represents Nirvāṇa.[8] It is remarkable, however, that this aspect of the Borobudur’s architecture differs from the traditional Buddhist iconography of the Mahāyāna tradition; the master architect(s) of the Borobudur have favored statues only of the historical Buddha, though displayed in six different mudrās, rather than the five transcendental Buddha often seen in the Mahāyāna Buddhist iconography.

Apsara Surasundari

Thus, most likely the architecture of the Borobudur is based on a Javanese variant of Buddhism, for if we look at the decoration in greater detail we obviously can confirm that its origin is based on Indian mythology and Buddhist iconography, however, we can also clearly see how these fundamental elements have been strongly combined with local (that is, Javanese) influences. The style in which the characters are depicted on the Borobudur differ greatly from the traditional Indian (Buddhist) iconography. The statues are depicted in other bodily postures, and with less refined details as they have in India; the Javanese obviously had a different idea of physical beauty and how this ought to be depicted, and that’s why on the Borobudur the voluptuous curves of the body as familiar in Indian iconography are altered according to local Javanese perception of beauty (by which the female body is dressed in more clothes, and often can only be distinguished from the male body by the curves of their breasts).

Vajradhatu Mandala

If we consider the assumption of the Borobudur representing a maṇḍala, then the main stūpa signifies the final destination of the spiritual path, which is situated in the center of the cosmos. At this point one becomes united with the five transcendental Buddhas of the Formless Realm: Vairocana in the center, Akṣobhya in the East, Ratnasambhāva in the South, Amitābha in the West, and Amoghasiddhi in the North. This particular line-up corresponds with the Vajradhātu Maṇḍala and the Garbhadhātu Maṇḍala in Tibet and Nepal. One could gain access to the center of the cosmos by entering the maṇḍala from the outside, and gradually moving further inwards. In this context, a maṇḍala can be interpreted as a palace with four entrance gates at the four cardinal points of the Universe, stretching the entire cosmos. The palace is a metaphor for human manifestation in this world, which, by means of using the maṇḍala as a meditation object, guides the practitioner to the ultimate (spiritual) goal in life. Visualization techniques such as these are still being practised in Vajrayāna Buddhism today.

Garbhadhatu Mandala

Though the assumption of the Borobudur as a maṇḍala seems possible, this view remains yet impossible to prove. In spite of the previously mentioned similarities with the maṇḍalas, there are, however, also many differences. Beside the five transcendental Buddhas many other deities – both male and female – are often seen depicted in maṇḍalas. However, neither of these deities can be found on the Borobudur. Instead we do find many other depicted Buddhas on the Borobudur, but these do not display any of the features similar to other male or female deities. Thus, the other Buddhas do not function as a mere substitution for the various other deities (like guards, gatekeepers, goddesses of worship or Taras) commonly seen in maṇḍalas.[9] Therefore, we may assume, that, as already had been suggested, the Borobudur displays a variant of Buddhism in the way it manifested in Java at the time of the reign of the  Sailendra dynasty. This particular local variant of Buddhism was based on Indian influences and Mahāyāna Buddhism, which came to Java from China during the heydays of the Tang dynasty (618-906). The unique combination of these aspects would eventually become the Buddhism of Java. Then there also was the Hindu dynasty of Sanjaya that ruled on Java during the same period of the Sailendra dynasty. The fact that the Sanjaya shared their power with the Sailendra dynasty – for example, through donations for the construction of the Kalasan temple – illustrates, that, apart from its religious function, the Borobudur also formed an important expression of power.[10]


[1] 1. Life is unsatisfactory (Dukkha). 2. The origin of unsatisfactoriness (Samudāya). 3. The cessation of unsatisfactoriness (Nirodha). 4. The path to the end of unsatisfactoriness (Magga).

[2] 1. Right view (sammādiṭṭhi); 2. Right intention (sammā sankappa); 3. Right speech (sammāvācā); 4. Right action (sammākammanta); 5. Right livelihood (sammā ājīva); 6. Right effort (sammāvāyāma); 7.  Right mindfulness (sammāsati); 8. Right concentration (sammāsamādhi).

[3] Grabsky, Phil, 2000 : ‘The Lost Temple of Java‘. London: Seven Dials; p. 86-93.

[4] Also, the Noble Eightfold Path.

[5] Miksic, John N., 1999 : ‘The Mysteries of Borobudur‘. Hong Kong; p. 12.

[6] Magessari, Noerhadi, 1997 : ‘Candi Borobudur: Rekonstruksi Agama dan Filsafatnya‘. Depok: Fakultas Sastra, Universitas Indonesia; p. 356-378.

[7] Long, Mark: ‘In Pursuit of Sacred Science‘, 2002.

[8] Klokke, Marijke J. : “Borobudur: a Mandala?: A contextual approach to the function and meaning of Borobudur” in: “IIAS yearbook”. Leiden, 1995; p. 194.

[9] Klokke, Marijke J. : “Borobudur: a Mandala?: A contextual approach to the function and meaning of Borobudur” in: “IIAS yearbook”. Leiden, 1995; p. 195. While Grabsky says the following: “[…]the Buddha images in their niches resembling hermits in caves”. Grabsky, Phil, 2000 : ‘The Lost Temple of Java‘. London: Seven Dials; p. 115.

[10] Grabsky, Phil, 2000 : ‘The Lost Temple of Java‘. London: Seven Dials; p. 104-109.

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