Photograph of the week: Borobudur Temple, Indonesia


Standing in the middle of the grandeur that is Borobudur, it’s hard to believe that this massive temple was ever ‘hidden’. Covering an area of ​​15,129 square metres, reaching 10 levels and 42 metres into the sky, if the walls of this, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, were arranged in a straight line they would reach a length of six kilometres. Add in 504 Buddha statues, 72 massive stupas, and 2,672 intricate relief panels, and the length, breadth and artistic scope of Borobudur really is quite breathtaking in its majesty.

Photo of the week: Borobudur Temple, Indonesia

But hidden it was. For over 500 years, buried beneath layers of volcanic ash, deep within a jungle of towering trees and dense vegetation.

Located on the island of Java, Indonesia, the magnificent Borobudur temple is believed to have been built in the 8th or 9th century during the reign of the Shailendra dynasty. It was only in 1814, however, that Borobudur would emerge from the wilds of nature, courtesy of the curious nature of English governor Thomas Stamford Raffles.

With Java under British rule at that time, Governor Raffles became enamoured by folklore and stories told by local villagers about a mysterious and abandoned structure. Not content to leave such tales as mere fireside storytelling, he sent a team of 200 men to investigate. After two months of hacking into the jungle, burning vegetation, and digging away at compact earth, the magnificence of Borobudur was revealed.

As if Borobudur isn’t quite miraculous enough in and of itself, even more incredible is the engineering feat that is its structure. Constructed from approximately 55,000 cubic metres of stone blocks, not only were these stones taken from neighbouring rivers and transported to the site on foot, they were cut to size by hand, and laid without any mortar, adhesive or cement. Making use of an intricate interlocking puzzle pattern instead, all work was completed with simple tools such as hammers and levers, with the only ‘machinery’ at workers disposal being a ‘pedati’ – a cart pulled by a cow.

Despite the discovery of this amazing place, and its unbelievable construction, it would take another 160 years before any real effort was made to protect and restore what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1975, a complete restoration of Borobudur Temple began, led by UNESCO and the Indonesian Government, with funding from five other countries. The whole project took seven years to complete, with more than one million stones dismantled, cleaned, catalogued, and meticulously put back into their rightful place.

The only way to truly understand the wonder of Borobudur, widely considered as one of the seven wonders of the world, is to visit and walk around this giant of zen and mystical belief yourself. An hour’s drive from Yogyakarta, the easiest way to get there is by joining a tour or renting a car. Local guides are also available on site and highly recommended.

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Comments (7)

  1. Vernon says:

    Although it’s difficult to imagine that a temple of this size can be overgrown you have to remember how fertile tropical vegetation can be. Some species of bamboo can grow two centimetres a day. If you do the maths you can see how even a temple of this size can become loat as the centuries pass.

  2. Elizabeth Knowling says:

    I knew nothing of Borobudur. After reading this it’s a place that I want to visit. I would definitely opt for a guide and have one just for the two of us. One thing that I’ve learnt on my travels is to invest time and money in properly seeing a place. You are probably only going to be there once so you ought to make the most of it.

  3. Cindy says:

    So pleased that Photograph of the Week didn’t take a break for Christmas. I always look forward to these features, not just the photo but the back story too.

  4. Jez Brown says:

    Rare to hear a nice story about Thomas Stafford Raffles, yes he of Raffles hotel fame in Singapore. Colonialism and the British Empire seem to have dropped out of fashion, probably for many good reasons but Raffles’s decision to rescue Borobudur shows that there were occasional benefits to colonialism. Singapore, supposedly commemorating 200 years since Raffles set foot on a swampy island in 2019, changed the focus of the anniversary to downplay his arrival and commemorate instead 7 centuries of Singapore.

  5. Kelly Portman says:

    It’s always amazing when you see structures like this and wonder, rather like the pyramids, how people did it back then. All by hand, carrying the materials on foot bit by bit, without all the mod cons we have today. Backbreaking work and yet the architecture looks so well designed and built to last too, even after being subject to the elements and hidden under ash for so many years.

  6. Jen Scott says:

    Oh wow, so they had no idea this structure was really even there, it was just a bit of a myth and urban legend until Raffles sent people out digging to check? Good job he did! Just imagine if that was still there, totally unnoticed and unappreciated. I wonder what else may be hiding in jungles of vegetation or under years of ash? I hadn’t even heard of Borobudur before but I love it already. I wonder how many people used it way back then, what kind of life it had in the community? So much mystery!

  7. Mamie Dawson says:

    Who would have thought that this temple was hidden from the rest of the world for a very long time? Many people are stunned by its structure and history, and it is a really good thing that a lot of people put an effort to preserve it. It does not only protect the heritage of the structure itself but also the religion that it represents.

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