Borobudur is a monumental structure that was erected in the Kedu plain in south central Java, on the foundation of an older shrine of unknown form. Construction began about 790 c.e., and alterations continued to be made until approximately 850 c.e. From above, Borobudur resembles a maṆḌala, in that it consists of a large stŪpa (burial mound) surrounded by three round terraces, on each of which are more stūpas (108 in all); farther from the central stūpa are four square terraces. In profile, the monument resembles a mountain, since the transition from each terrace is marked by a staircase rising to the next.
Reliefs (1,350 panels) illustrate texts, such as jĀtaka and avadĀna tales, the Mahākarmavibhaṅga, the Lalitavistara, the Gaṇḍavyuha, and the Bhadracari. Niches atop the walls of the galleries contain buddha images. These images exhibit different hand positions according to their location on the monument. These hand positions, or mudrā, symbolize the conquest of illusion, charity, meditation, dispelling of fear, and teaching. The seventy-two stūpas on the round terraces, which are hollow, contain images whose hand positions symbolize the Buddha's first sermon in Deer Park at Benares.
This combination of stūpa, mountain, and maṇḍala was never replicated elsewhere, but its influence is visible in Cambodia and through that intermediary in Thailand and Burma (Myanmar). No inscriptions survive to tell us what the monument signified to the Javanese, but the ten relief series suggest that it may have functioned to enable selected individuals to pass symbolically through the ten stages on the path to becoming a bodhisattva. The form of Buddhism followed by the builders of Borobudur emphasized the role of bodhisattvas, but was less esoteric than later expressions in Java and Sumatra wherein such deities as Vajrasattva and Trailokyavijaya were emphasized. The bodhisattvas Mañjusśrī and Samantabhadra play key roles in the texts narrated on Borobudur. These deities were also popular in East Asia at this time.
The monument's construction coincides with a period during which a dynasty known as the Śailendra (mountain lord) dominated central Java politically. Around 830 c.e. a Buddhist queen married a Hindu king of the Sañjaya line. The great Hindu monument of Loro Jonggrang at Prambanam was constructed between about 830 and 856. Narrative reliefs depicting the Ramāyana and KṛṢṇa texts on Loro Jonggrang may have been motivated by the desire to present a Hindu response to Borobudur.
Gómez, Luis, and Woodward, Hiram W., Jr., eds. Barabudur: History and Significance of a Buddhist Monument. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1981.
Miksic, John N. Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas. Berkeley, CA: Periplus Editions, 1990.
John N. Miksic