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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

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 )

“According to Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, an Indian scholar, the Shailendra dynasty that established itself in the Indonesian archipelago originated from Kalinga in Eastern India. This opinion is also shared by Nilakanta Sastri and J. L. Moens. Moens further describes that the Shailendras originated in India and established themselves in Palembang before the arrival of Srivijaya’s Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa. In 683, the Shailendras moved to Java because of the pressure exerted by Dapunta Hyang and his troops.”

“In 1934, the French scholar Coedes proposed a relation with the Funan kingdom in Cambodia. Coedes believed that the Funanese rulers used similar-sounding ‘mountain lord’ titles, but several Cambodia specialists have discounted this. They hold there is no historical evidence for such titles in the Funan period.”

“Other scholars hold that the expansion of [the] Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya was involved in the rise of the dynasty in Java. Supporters of this connection emphasize the shared Mahayana patronage, the intermarriages, and the Ligor inscription. The fact that some of Shailendra’s inscriptions were written in old Malay, suggests Srivijaya or Sumatran connections. The name ‘Selendra’ was first mentioned in [the] Sojomerto inscription (725) as “Dapunta Selendra.” Dapunta Selendra is suggested as the ancestor of [the] Shailendras. The title Dapunta is similar to those of Srivijayan King Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, and the inscription—although discovered in Central Java (north coast)—was written in old Malay, which suggested the Sumatran origin or Srivijayan connection to this family”

The Cham People

In my most recent book, The Lost World of the Cham , I argue that the black, Hindu Cham people—known to have populated the coast of central Vietnam in the second century AD and later—probably also were a dominant force in the region in the centuries BCE. Ancient Chinese texts mention a land of Funan to the southwest, probably in what is today Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Malaysian peninsula. It is my opinion, based on the research presented in the book, that these lands were loosely ruled by the master seafaring civilization of the Cham. So, the various claims that the mysterious Sailendra dynasty came from India, Cambodia or Sumatra means to me that they are part of the Cham. It may well be that the Cham originated at Kalinga in eastern India.

‘Close-up of the inscription in Cham script on the Po Nagar stele, 965. The stele describes feats by the Champa kings’.

‘Close-up of the inscription in Cham script on the Po Nagar stele, 965. The stele describes feats by the Champa kings’. (Gryffindor/ CC BY 3.0 )

Religious Blending

One of the questions that historians have in trying to figure out who built Borobudur and when, is why a gigantic Buddhist monument would be built by a largely Hindu dynasty? Did the Hindu and Buddhist rulers of Java circa 700 to 800 AD intermingle and allow a crossover of their faiths? Buddhism is merely a reform of Hinduism, largely doing away with the caste system and giving its faithful more freedom with less ritual. The same gods, such as Shiva and Brahma, plus historical characters such as Krishna and Rama from the Mahabharata and Ramayana are important to Hindus as well as Buddhists.

Buddha statue at Borobudur

Buddha statue at Borobudur ( Public Domain )

‘This Cham head of Shiva was made of electrum around 800. It’s a decorated kosa, or metal sleeve fitted to a liṅgam. One can recognize Shiva by the tall chignon hairstyle and by the third eye in the middle of his forehead.’

‘This Cham head of Shiva was made of electrum around 800. It’s a decorated kosa, or metal sleeve fitted to a liṅgam. One can recognize Shiva by the tall chignon hairstyle and by the third eye in the middle of his forehead.’ ( Public Domain )

With the Cham, Buddhism and Hinduism were melded together and Hindu temples were built at the same time as Buddhist ones. This was apparently going on in Java as well, and in fact, the Hindu Prambanan Temple is very near to Borobudur and is said to have been built in the ninth century. Prambanan has been called the most beautiful Hindu temple outside of India. The Sailendras may have built both Borobudur and Prambanan. Historians are confused as to whether the Sailendras were Hindus or Buddhists.

A monk prays at Borobudur.

A monk prays at Borobudur. ( Public Domain )

“There is confusion between Hindu and Buddhist rulers in Java around that time. The Sailendras were known as ardent followers of Buddhism, though stone inscriptions found at Sojomerto suggest they may have been Hindus. It was during this time that many Hindu and Buddhist monuments were built on the plains and mountains around the Kedu Plain.”

The Records are Silent

Without any formal record of any kind of the building of Borobudur—an astounding feat for any architect and builder—historians theorize that construction began sometime around 760 AD (but it may be earlier) and that the site was abandoned around 928 AD when volcanic eruptions covered much of the site with volcanic ash. It is thought that the Buddhist kings of the Sailendra dynasty of central Java were the builders, however, they left no inscriptions. This dynasty may have been affiliated with the Buddhist Cham of central Vietnam as well as the Cham of Angkor Wat in today’s Cambodia. I must personally conclude that Borobudur was built by the Cham before the Sailendra dynasty, and was probably already in existence by 400 AD, if not earlier.

Stairs of Borobudur through arches of Kala

Stairs of Borobudur through arches of Kala (Gunawan Kartapranata/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Sailendra dynasty, like Srivijaya in nearby Sumatra, was the result of the Cham Empire breaking up into smaller states. Later, in the various naval wars that went on starting around 700 AD, these warring Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms would even attack the Champa heartland in southern Vietnam. These wars, which included Angkor Wat and the Cambodians, were ultimately civil wars carried on by the large fleets that were based on Sumatra and Java as well as up the Mekong River in Cambodia. Essentially, the larger Cham Empire came to an end with these breakaway Hindu states starting in 650 AD, but it would seem that Borobudur was already inexistence before this breakup. No one really seems to know the who and when of Borobudur—but they do know its purpose: it is a megalithic site for Buddhist pilgrimage.

It is not known when the active use of the monument and Buddhist pilgrimage to it ceased. During a period sometime between 928 and 1006 AD, King Mpu Sindok moved the capital of the Medang Kingdom (part of the Sailendra dynasty) to the region of East Java after a series of volcanic eruptions. Historians tend to think that this influenced the abandonment, as portions of Borobudur were covered by lava flow.

Borobudur is likely to have been built during a time of regional peace, which was when the Cham ruled the entire area, prior to 650 AD.

The enormous temple lay hidden for centuries under volcanic ash and thick vegetation, and the site became the subject of folklore associated with bad luck. The facts behind its abandonment remain a mystery, but perhaps further archeological work in these under-studied places will provide some answers.

Close up of a relief at Borobudur.

Close up of a relief at Borobudur. (Anandajoti/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

[This is an extract from ‘Gunung Padang, Borobudur and the Buddhist Masterminds’, by David Hatcher Childress]

David Hatcher Childress, known as the real-life Indiana Jones, is a captivating speaker and the author or co-author of over 20 books, including The Lost World of Cham . He has traveled the world several times over, seeking adventure and the answers to the mysteries of mankind’s past. He is founder of Adventures Unlimited Press and the World Explorers Club .

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Top Image: Borobudur Temple is surrounded by mountains nearby (PaPa PaPaRoony/ CC BY-SA 4.0 );Deriv.

By David Hatcher Childress

References

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Luis O. Gómez & Hiram W. Woodward, Jr. (1981). Barabudur: History and Significance of a Buddhist Monument. Berkeley: Univ. of California. 

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R. Soekmono, J.G. de Casparis, J. Dumarçay, P. Amranand and P. Schoppert (1990). Borobudur: A Prayer in Stone. Singapore: Archipelago Press.

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