Borobudur Temple is surrounded by mountains nearby

One of the Greatest Monuments in the World but Who Built it? The Strange Origins of Borobudur and the Lost World of Cham

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Borobudur is one of the great monuments of Southeast Asia. It is a colossal Buddhist stupa that rises out of the rice paddies and palm trees with the nearby volcano Gunung Merapi in the distance. This mysterious and beautifully constructed monument has survived volcanic eruptions, a 2006 earthquake, and even terrorist bombs.

Even though Borobudur is the most important tourist site on Java, there is no written record of who built it or of its intended purpose. There are no inscriptions or dates on the monument—which was partially covered by a lava flow when it was rediscovered—and so historians must guess as to when it was probably built. Since it is a monument built on a grand scale, it would seem unusual that no ruler or dynasty takes credit for the structure. Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and acknowledged as one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world. Yet, no one knows who built it!

Borobudur temple

Borobudur temple (22Kartika/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Walking the Twisting Path

The temple is actually a stupa that one is supposed to walk in a certain pattern, in a mandala fashion, to the summit. It consists of nine stacked platforms—six square and three circular—and is topped by a central dome which is not to be climbed. The stupa has many staircases and walkways. The temple is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa that is a stone screen. They look very much like life-size Buddhas inside a small flying saucer! A few of the Buddha statues inside the perforated stupas have had the outer stone stupa removed so that the Buddha statue can be clearly seen and photographed. The stonework is exceptional. Hourglass-style keystone cuts can be seen on some of the walls where stones have been removed.

Intricate and impressive carvings at Borobudur. ( Public Domain )

It has been estimated that Borobudur was a building project on such a scale that it took many generations to complete the artificial stone mountain. Borobudur is built in the shape of a gigantic mandala-yantra that is meant to be walked by a pilgrim seeking enlightenment.

A mandala-yantra design.

A mandala-yantra design. ( Public Domain )

One early suggestion by archaeologists when they began to study Borobudur was that the huge stupa-hill was surrounded by an artificial lake. In this vision, Borobudur was to have been the symbol of a lotus flower coming out of the lake. This would have meant that pilgrimages to Borobudur would have begun by boat. However, modern Indonesian historians largely reject the idea of a lake being created.

Currently, historians prefer to ascribe Borobudur to the Sailendra (also spelled Shailendra) dynasty that is said to have begun circa 760 AD, some decades after the origin of the Srivijayan Empire in Sumatra. However, the Sailendra dynasty itself is shrouded in mystery, and like those of Srivijaya, its origins seem unclear to modern historians, who are unsure where these master seafarers came from.

Mysterious Sailendra Dynasty

Current understanding has it that “the Shailendras are [a] thalassocracy and ruled maritime Southeast Asia, however they also relied on agriculture pursuits through intensive rice cultivation on the Kedu Plain of Central Java. The dynasty appeared to be the ruling family of both the Medang Kingdom of Central Java for some period and Srivijaya in Sumatra.”

A relief of the Sailendra King and Queen at Borobudur. (Gunawan Kartapranata/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Suddenly, in 700 AD, Java has an organized thalassocracy that now spans eastward to New Guinea? Where did this network of Hindu seaports, rivers and rice paddies come from? I think they are offshoots of the seafaring Cham or Champa.

‘Naval battle on a bas-relief at the Bayon, Angkor, showing Cham soldiers in the boat and dead Khmer fighters in the water.’

‘Naval battle on a bas-relief at the Bayon, Angkor, showing Cham soldiers in the boat and dead Khmer fighters in the water.’ (Markalexander100/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Researching Origins

According to sources: “Although the rise of the Shailendras occurred in Kedu Plain in the Javanese heartland, their origin has been the subject of discussion. Apart from Java itself, an earlier homeland in Sumatra, India or Cambodia has been suggested. The latest studies apparently favor a native origin of the dynasty. Despite their connections with Srivijaya in Sumatra and [the] Thai-Malay Peninsula, the Shailendras were more likely of Javanese origin.”

Beautiful Borobudur Temple: Buddha statues in their own latticed domes

Beautiful Borobudur Temple: Buddha statues in their own latticed domes. ( Public Domain )

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