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Understanding the Thousands of Relief Panels of Borobudur

Relief Panels of Borobudur Temple
Relief Panels of Borobudur Temple

Understanding the Thousands of Relief Panels of Borobudur Temple is a majestic masterpiece. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Borobodur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world and the single most visited spot in Indonesia. 75 years in the making, Borobudur is constructed from 2 million intricately carved volcanic rocks, and assembled using a complex interlocking technique without the use of cement or mortar. Aside from its enchanting beauty and high artistic value, Borobodur is a structure rich in history, culture and religion.

The ten levels of Borobudur are believed to be representations of the Mahayana school of philosophy which describe the ten levels of Bodhisattva that must be passed to attain the Buddhist perfection. The monument is decorated with 2,672 relief panels that if aligned in a row, would stretch a length of over 6 kilometers. Of these panels, 1,460 are narrative, while the other 1,212 are decorative. The narrative panels tell the story of Sudhana and Manohara – every scene of the story, a sculpted work of art of extraordinary value. UNESCO has recognized these panels as the largest and most comprehensive ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world.

Reading the panels on the Borobudur temple walls requires a specific technique

Reading the panels on the temple walls requires a specific technique. The panels on the wall read from left to right, while those on the

the relief of borobudur temple
The relief of Borobudur Temple

balustrade read from right to left, conforming with the pradaksina, a ritual performed by pilgrims who move in a clockwise direction, whilst always keeping the sanctuary to their right. The story begins and ends at the eastern side of the gate at every level. Stairs connect each level to the next from each direction of the compass, but the idea is to always ascend from the stairs at the eastern corner. The panels depict stories of Karma, of passion, robbery, murder, torture and humiliation. But not all are negative. Some panels also tell of the cause and effect of good deeds, and describe the behavior of the Javanese Society of that day, from religion to livelihood to social structure, fashion, and even the various types of plants and animals. Ultimately, it describes the human life cycle: Birth – Life – Death.

Kamadhatu is a picture of highly populated world still dominated by Kama, or lust. This zone is at the bottom level of Borobodur, and is therefore not visible due to some added construction. Some say these structures were added to strengthen the building’s foundations, while others speculate that they have been added to conceal the obscene content of the reliefs. For visitors that wish to see these reliefs, the Karmawibhangga Museum displays pictures of the Kamadhatu.

Reading the panels on the Borobudur temple
Reading the panels on the Borobudur temple

Reliefs that depict the history of Buddha

Lalitawistara are a series of beautifully sculpted reliefs that depict the history of Buddha, starting from his descent from Heaven, to his enlightenment under the bodhi tree, and finally to his first teachings in the city of Banaras. Lalitawistara consists of 120 panels, but yet does not tell the complete story of Buddha. These reliefs are found on the temple walls in hallway 1 on level 2.

Jataka and Awadana are reliefs telling of Buddha, before he was reborn as Prince Siddharta. These are also engraved in hallway 1 on the second level, and tell of Buddha’s kindness and self-sacrifice as he was reincarnated in various forms of human or animal. It explains of how good works are what set humans apart from animals, and tells of the stages of preparation to the next and higher level of Buddha.

Awadana also tells the story not of the Buddha figure, but of the Prince Sudhanakumara. The stories on the awadana reliefs are compiled in the books Kitab Diwyawadana, (A Diety’s noble deeds,) and Kitab Awadanasataka, (A hundred awadana stories.)

These panels are based on the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures

Bhadracari is a row of 460 neatly carved reliefs along the walls and balustrades. These reliefs are scattered throughout various levels of

Reliefs that depict the history of Buddha
Reliefs that depict the history of Buddha

the temple and tell of Sudhana, the son of a wealthy merchant, who wanders in quest of the ultimate knowledge or truth. These panels are based on the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, entitled Gandawyuha. The story tells of 10 great vows made by Bodhisattva Samantabadhra concerning his Buddhist practice, which later became the leading guidelines of all Bodhisattvas, and particularly of Sudhana.

From the 5th to 7th levels of the temple, there are no reliefs on the walls. This is because these levels represent the nature of the “Arupadhatu,” which means “without tangible form.” At this level, people are free from all desires of any shape or form, but yet have not attained Nirvana. On this level, there are several Buddha statues placed inside stupas.

At the 10th and highest level of the temple, is the largest and tallest stupa in Borobudur. Within this stupa was found the Imperfect Buddha or Unfinished Buddha, which can now be found in the Karmawibhangga Museum.

Unlike most temples, Borobudur did not have actual spaces for worship. Instead it has an extensive system of corridors and stairways, which are thought to have been a place for Buddhist ceremonies. Borobodur also has six square courtyards, three circular ones, and a main courtyard within a stupa at the temple’s peak. The entire structure is formed in the shape of a giant twirling staircase, a style of architecture from prehistoric Indonesia.

Because of the uniqueness, beauty, historic value and priceless works of art manifested in Borobodur, this temple is certainly worth of the title as one of the greatest masterpieces of Indonesia’s vast archipelago.

  •   Percutian yg menyeronokkan. Tempat² yang menarik. Pemandu yg baik, peramah, penyabar. Tq mas Adi dan pak Agus. Semoga ketemu lg di lain waktu.

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    11/09/2018

      Very friendly Pak Agus. Guide and provide us transport thro out our visits. We stayed for two nights at his homestay. Value for money. Thank you so much Pak Agus Rohmad. Insya Allah see you next time. Adios...

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    2/13/2019

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    9/17/2018

      Best driver to take you around for your sightseeing in Jogja!Also gives the best advice if you’re unsure of what to do first.Thank you for accompanying me on my adventure!

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    2/03/2019
  •   I got Pak Agus' number after reading his team's good review online. We were a party of 6; 5 adults and my 5-year old son travelling to Jogja for 6 days & 5 nights leisure trip. We were greeted by Mas Adi; albeit slighy misscomm...More

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    12/20/2018

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    1/01/1970

      Our supir Mas Adi from Pak Agus team was superb! He is friendly,and gives us ample time because we bring small children. He also took picture for us and bring us to delicous local food restaurant. Overall the tour is excellent!

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    1/31/2019

      Nama driver: Pak Tugi Kami di Jogja selama 4 hari dan Pak Tugi layan kami dengan sungguh baik! Kemana-mana kami hendak pergi, walaupun jauh, dia hantar kami dgn senyuman. Dia membawa kami ke warung makan local yg sedap dan tidak ada ramai tourist. Layanan Pak...Selengkapnya

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    7/28/2018
  •   It was easy to get hold of Agus, the owner and tour operator, he was recommended to us by a friend of ours, this is our second trip with his tour guides. Giarto, our tour guide arrived on time on all three days. He went...More

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    12/12/2018

      Percutian selama 4 hari di Jogja sangat bermakna untuk kami. Dengan bantuan tourguide, Supri dari Java Heritage kami dibawa ke lokasi2 yang menarik serta rumah-rumah makan yang enak-enak. Dengan harga perkhidmatan yang berpatutan yang ditawarkan oleh Java Heritage, kami berjaya menamatkan misi percutian kami. Sepanjang...Selengkapnya

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    11/27/2018

      - one word to describe our whole jogja trip is "SUPERB" - excellent service by Pak Agus and our driver@tourist guide, adi saputra - comfortable homestay - a great package with affordable price - prayer time given (good for muslim traveller, the mosque/musolla is everywhere)...More

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    11/30/2018

      Overall im very satisfied with java heritage tour service for a memorable tour experience at jogja. Special thanks to our tour guide Pak Budi and also to pak agus for a prompt response when needed. Keep up the good work and ill definately recommend this...More

    thumb nazrikom
    12/05/2018
  •   Terima kasih banyak2 Pak Tugi bawa kami jalan-jalan pusing Yogjakarta. Servis terbaik termasuklah bawa ke tempat makan yang sedap2, peramah, menepati masa, dan bawa ke tempat2 menarik yg tiada dalam itenari kami. #paktugiterbaik

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      For four days, I traveled around with Mas Agus from Java Heritage Tours. He took me to see the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan, explore vulcanic craters, see the Dieng plateau, and visit various sights in the city of Yogyakarta. I even got a cooking class at his place (which was delicious).

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    thumb Diede M
    12/01/2015

      Okay, where do I begin? On a recent trip to Jogja with friends who were visiting from Japan, we were met at the airport by our driver, Supri. Supri was with us for the next four days, and we could not have survived, let alone...More

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    1/07/2019

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