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Borobudur, UNESCO World Heritage

by Peter van der Lans

In 1991 the Borobudur was added in the UNESCO world Heritage list. Regardless if you are interested in architecture, religion or culture, it's impossible to ignore the achievement of the builders of the Borobudur, which is one of the wonders of Asia.

The Borobudur was build in the 9th century. Imagine a tropical kingdom were people mostly lived from agriculture and trade. Most of the land is still jungle with the twin volcanoes Sundoro-Sumbing and Merbabu-Merapi, and two rivers, the Progo and the Elo nearby.

Borobudur in 2010
The Borobudur in April 2010

BorobudurIt's not an easy life people have here. The volcanoes are active and the jungle is full with dangerous animals. The king is like a god. Tools used are basic. And then the king says he wants to build a monument. It seems an impossible task.

Although few know it, the original name of the construction has been lost in time. It was Sir Thomas Raffles who wrote down in a book about Javanese history the name Borobudur. It means "nearby village of Bore. Some suggest Budur has links to Buda, the Javanese word for ancient. Others suggest Budur comes from Javanese term bhudhara: mountain.

Whatever the origins of the name are, even today the Borobudur is an impressive monument. When I visited in 1991, I was amazed by the colossal building which represents a 3 dimensional mandala, simultaneously representing the Buddhist cosmology and the nature of mind.

The idea is to walk in, and follow the corridors to the top level. It's about 5 km total distance. As with all Buddhist constructions, temples, stupas etc, you have to walk clockwise. The journey for pilgrims begins at the base of the monument and follows a path circumambulating the monument while ascending to the top through the three levels of Buddhist cosmology, namely Kamadhatu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness).

When a pilgrim starts the journey, the goal is to reach a form of enlightenment when reaching the top. This requires a certain mindset but it is certainly true the monument has an effect on you.

When in 1991 I visited very early in the morning, I was mostly alone. It seldom happens you will have the Borobudur for yourself. Most visitors go directly to the top of the monument but in fact it is far more rewarding to walk the corridors and walk through darkness into the light of the open air at the top where the Buddhas under their stone stupas keep an eye on you.


This year, 2010, I was back. It was busier then ever. Especially at the top of the Borobudur it was filled with tourists and school children. Each and everyone wanted to make the picture of them on top. Still, some of the real beauty is to be found in the corridors. And I had plenty of space to explore them as almost no one bothered to check them out.

I did recognize the lower levels where the sculpturing is dedicated to ordinary life. Although much has been destroyed during earthquakes, stolen in time and now in private collections all over the world, there is still a lot left to be amazed about. How did these people in the 9th century do it? How did they build this? How did they care the sculptures out of stone in such magnificence?


Even today it would still requires the hand of a master artist to carve this kind of sculptures. And there are hundreds of them around.

Through the life of the Buddha I walked to the top where 72 stupas are build on 3 round platforms with one central stupa topping the mandala.

Borobudur Stupa's with Buddha's insight
Stupa's with Buddha's insight

It might be hard to belief that this monument has been lost although not completelty forgotten for several centuries. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the movement of the king to other areas in Java were responsible.

Borobudur stupa
One of the two open stupa's to show what is inside every stupa.

It was only until the 19th century, when Java was under the rule of the British, the Borobudur was retraced. Sir Thomas Raffles send a Dutch engineer, H.C. Corneliusout to investigate. The Borobudur was almost completely take back by the jungle, The Dutchman and his 200 men cut down trees, burned down vegetation and dug away the earth to reveal the monument. Due to the danger of collapse, he could not unearth all galleries.

In later years the monument have been extensively restored until in 1973 UNESCO funded the final restoration and placed the Borobudur, now again a place of worship, on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

I've been twice to the Borobudur and I was twice impressed by it. Together with Prambanan, not far from Borobudur, Angkor Wat and the Bagan Temples in Myanmar the Borobudur is the highlight of ancient cultures in Asia. The Borobudur is world famous and it deserves that status fully.

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Peter van der Lans is traveler and cyclist based in Malaysia and travels extensively in Asia on bicycle. He is also the writer of which is based on his own cycling experiences. For this article he provided also all photos, copyright.

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