A view of the Borobudur Temple at Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Located about 30 miles northwest of Yogyakarta, Borobudur is the largest and one of the most beautiful Buddhist monuments in the world. This amazing structure was built between 778 and 850 CE by the rulers of the Shylendra (Cailendra) dynasty, who were the followers of Mahayana Buddhism. According to an inscription, it was founded by King Samaratungga of the Shylendra dynasty.

The Borobudur monument was buried under volcanic ash around 1000 CE and lay hidden for many centuries until it was discovered by the British in 1815. The Dutch, who were the colonial masters at that time, excavated and restored it in 1907 and 1911. Later, Indonesia continued the restoration and completed it in 1983.

Borobudur is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although Hinduism and Buddhism did not originate in Indonesia, Indonesians are proud of their heritage and the monuments. They have done an excellent job of restoring and maintaining these archaeological sites.

Borobudur Structure

Unlike the other Buddhist structures in the world, Borobudur is unique in that its structure looks like a step pyramid and the size comparable to Giza Pyramids in Egypt. The image below is a drawing showing the half cross-section of the monument.

Layers the Borobudur Temple
Details of Borobudur Temple layers

The Borobudur monument is about Buddhist philosophy and Gauthama Buddha’s birth, life, death, and enlightenment.  According to Buddhist philosophy,  human beings need to go through three realms to attain enlightenment. These are:

  • Kamadhatu: The word kama in Sanskrit roughly translates to desire or lust. This is the actual physical realm of humans and animals with desire and lust. This realm is equivalent to the Bhuloka in Hinduism.
  • Rupadhatu : The word rupa in Sanskrit refers to form or shape. This is the realm of ascetics and lesser gods who have controlled their worldly desires but still remain human. This realm is equivalent to Bhuvaloka in Hinduism.
  • Arupadhatu: The word arupa in Sanskrit refers to formlessness. This realm is totally an abstract level of consciousness. The holiest of the holy resides in this realm and have no physical form. People who attain enlightenment live in this realm. This realm is equivalent to Svarloka/Svargaloka in Hinduism.

The Borobudur monument has three layers of structures that reflect the concept of the above three realms. The top layer with three round terraces represents Arupadhatu. The middle layer with five square terraces represents Rupadhatu. The lower layer, which is the courtyard, represents Kamadhatu.

Outer views of the Borobudur Temple

Arupadhatu Layer

Representing Arupadathu is the top layer of the temple consisting of three circular terraces, each of which has numerous bell-shaped stupas and statues of Buddha.

A large bell-shaped stupa with a pinnacle on top is situated at the middle of the topmost terrace. The pinnacle originally had an umbrella mounted on it but was destroyed by lightning. This stupa, which is called mother stupa, believed to have contained a golden Buddha statue inside but was stolen in the 1800s when Borobudur was discovered.

The topmost terrace also has 16 stupas, the second terrace from the top has 24 stupas and the third from the top has 32 stupas. Inside each stupa, there is a Buddha statue called Dhyani Buddha Vajrasatva with the Dharmachakra mudra (hand gesture), which symbolizes the wheel of Dharma.

Top three terraces of Borobudur


At dawn, the top terraces provide a spectacular view of the temple and lush green mountainous terrain surrounding Borobudur. A lot of tourists visit this monument just to view the sunrise from the top terraces.

Sunrise at Borobudur

Rupadhatu Layer

Representing the Rupadhatu realm is the middle layer consisting of five square terraces. This is the body of the temple.


The Rupadhatu terrace is square in shape and has four corridors, each of which with amazing bas-reliefs carved on the inner and balustrade walls and beautiful Dyani Buddha statues placed inside the niches built on top of the walls.

Corridors of Rupadhatu terraces

Dhyani Buddha Statues

The Rupadhatu layer has 432 Dhyani Buddha (Meditating Buddha) statues. Even though the statues may look-alike, they have different hand gestures called mudras.  In Buddhism, there are five different mudras. 

A Dhyani Buddha statue with a particular mudra has a name and meaning. All the Buddha statues in a cardinal direction (i.e., one of north, east, south, west) have the same mudras. Here is a list of the five mudras and the name of the corresponding Buddha.

Bhumisparsha Mudra

Bhumisparsha in Sanskrit means touching the earth. In this gesture,  all the five fingers of the right hand pointing to the ground. This mudra refers to Buddha calling the earth as the witness. The Buddha with this pose is called Asokabhya. The statues in the east direction have this mudra.

A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Bhumisparshamudra gesture
A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Bhumisparshamudra gesture

Dhyana Mudra

In this gesture, with both the palms facing upwards. the right-hand palm is placed on top of the left-hand palm. This mudra represents silence or meditation. The Buddha with this pose is called Amitabha. The statues in the west direction have this mudra.

A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Dhyanamudra gesture
A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Dhyanamudra gesture

Abhaya Mudra

In this gesture, the right hand is held upright with the palm facing outwards. This mudra represents fearlessness and reassurance. The Buddha in this pose is called Amoghasidha, and the statues in the north direction have this mudra.

A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Abhayamudra gesture
A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Abhayamudra gesture

Vara Mudra

In this gesture,  the right-hand palm is open upwards with the fingers slightly pointing downwards. This mudra represents charity and compassion. The Buddha with this pose is called Ratnasambhava. The statues in the south direction have this mudra.

A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Varamudra gesture
A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Varamudra gesture

Vitaraka Mudra

In this gesture, with the right-hand palm facing outwards, the tips of the thumb and index finger touch to make a circle and the other three fingers point upwards. This mudra represents teaching and debate. This Buddha with this pose is called Vairochana. The statues in the center have this mudra.

Buddha with the Vitaraka Mudra Gesture - Bas-relief on the Rupadatu layer in Borobudur, Indinesia
Buddha with the Vitaraka Mudra Gesture

Story Panels

In the Rupadhatu layer, there are several types of bas-reliefs. Here is the list:

  1. Lalitavistara: Life of Buddha in Tushita heaven
  2. Jataka: Stories of Bodhisattva in his previous lives
  3. Avadhana: Similar stories as Jataka but people are not Bodhisattvas
  4. Gandavyuha: Stories of Sudhana, a boy from India, moving from teacher to teacher in search of wisdom and enlightenment

Lalitavistara Bas-reliefs

The Lalistavistara sutra is a Mahayana Buddhist scripture that tells the story of Gautama Buddha from his descent from the Tusita heaven until his first sermon at the deer park in Varanasi, India. The Lalitavistara bas-reliefs depict stories from this scripture.

Lalitavistara bas-reliefs

Jataka and Avadhana Bas-reliefs

Jataka tales, which date back to 4th century BCE, are an important part of Buddhist literature in which Buddha appears in different forms, including a king, elephant, and tortoise, in his current and previous lives.

The bas-reliefs of lower terraces of the Rupadhatu layer depict stories from Jataka Mala, a book written in Sanskrit by Arya Sura sometime in 8th or 9th century describing 34 Jataka stories. Similar stories are also painted on the Ajantha caves in India.

Bas-reliefs depicting Jataka and Avadhana tales

Kamadhatu Layer

The courtyard of the Borobudur represents the Kamadhatu realm.

Borobudur: Courtyard level structure
Borobudur: Kamadhatu level structure

This layer has only one type of bas-relief, which is called Mahakarmawibhangga. The bas-reliefs in this layer depict general stories of human actions and their consequences. Even though there are 160 reliefs, only a few are open to the public.

Related Pages
Borobudur, Prambanan, Bali, Indonesia
Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs, Banteay Srei, Cambodia

Copyright © 2017 -2019 by Lawrence Rodrigues. All rights reserved.


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