Indonesia Expat
History/Culture Travel

Borobudur Reliefs Tell Wise Tales

tickets Borobudur Temple
Two Different Tickets Applying at Borobudur Temple

Borobudur Temple was built in the eighth century and has more than 2,670 reliefs. Each set of reliefs tells a wise tale that portrayed the beauty yet obliviousness of everyday life.

What’s new about Borobudur? Almost everyone has visited Borobudur Temple, a Mahayana Buddhist pagoda in Magelang, Central Java, 40 kilometres northwest of Yogyakarta. It is well known, so much so that one may overlook what’s really important there: the reliefs’ consolation and guidance in navigating a stressful life.

The beauty and wisdom of Borobudur cannot be enjoyed in haste. To really savour the splendour and contemplate the message hidden in these mysterious figures, its best to go in early morning, when the site is less crowded.

Borobudur Temple, built in the eighth century by King Samarattungga of the Syailendra dynasty, sits on the fertile Kedu Plain, between Mount Sindoro – Sumbing in the west and Mount Merapi – and Merbabu in the east. The Menoreh highlands are in the south and flanked by the Progo and Elo rivers.

The temple, which consists of nine platforms, keeps 504 Buddha statues and is adorned with 2,670 narrative and decorative relief panels. The reliefs at the base tell stories of Karmawibhangga. Jataka reliefs on the upper levels illustrate Buddha’s previous lives as gods, humans in various professions and animals. This was before he was born as Prince Siddharta, Avadana (which means Noble Deed) and Gandavyuha (Suddhana’s quest for enlightenment). Arya Sura in the fourth century wrote the fun and entertaining Jataka stories, containing morality and Buddhist virtues. Lalitavistara, a set of 120 reliefs on the first platform, depict Prince Siddharta’s life from birth to enlightenment.

Suwardi, a Borobudur tour guide, explained the meaning of four visible panels out of 160 panels of Karmawibhangga:

“These reliefs portray the law of cause and effect. You reap whatever actions you perform, good or bad, perhaps in this life, probably in the next.”

Suwardi pointed to a small writing above the panel: “These are old Javanese letters, saying virupa, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘ugly face.’ If you like gossiping, you might be reborn with an ugly demeanor. This letter might have been used as a guideline for the sculptor at that time on what scenes to carve, and inadvertently, archaeologists were able to use it to predict the period of the temple’s construction, based on the letters used.”


will be reborn with ugly faces
“If you like gossiping, you might be reborn with an ugly demeanor.” – Suwardi


The panels depict the common life of people more than one thousand years ago. They include the origins of Javanese massage and the making of herbal medicine, better known today as jamu. The rest of the reliefs were covered by stone after they were put up, probably due to construction issues. Luckily, in 1890, Javanese photographer Kassian Cephas took pictures of these reliefs during a renovation. Now, they can be seen at Museum Karmawibhangga in Borobudur Park.

On the first level we will see touching fabels. Animals perform self-sacrifices for other beings. Suwardi points to a relief depicting a sad monkey hugging a buffalo’s neck and explained:

“This is the story of real friendship. One day a monkey had a problem. An ogre wanted to eat him. Devastated, the monkey told his buffalo friend about his fate. The buffalo comforted the monkey, saying that he would offer himself instead. What’s more, the buffalo’s body was bigger. The buffalo just asked the monkey to send his best wishes to his relatives. Then they both met the ogre. Touched by the kindness of the buffalo, the ogre dismissed his plan to eat either of them.”


Buffalo - 1
“The buffalo comforted the monkey, saying that he would offer himself instead. What’s more, the buffalo’s body was bigger.” – Suwardi


Suwardi led us to another set of reliefs. “This is a tale of forgiveness and compassion. Once upon a time there was an eight-legged deer. Because of these spare legs, the deer could keep running for long distances. If he felt tired, he could just flip over and run on the other legs. One day a king was hunting with his entourage in the forest. Seeing the deer, the king hit his horse and chased him. It seemed that the deer never got exhausted, but the king was soon out of breath and fell into a gorge. Knowing this, instead of escaping, the deer descended into the ravine and took the king back to his palace.”

The first level, called the balustrade, is packed with such fabels about altruism. Opposite the balustrade is the main wall where the Lalitavistara is located.

Suwardi showed us a few reliefs and narrated the Buddha’s life:

“Prince Siddharta was born to King Sudhodana and Queen Maya of the Sakya clan who reigned in Kosala, India, around the fifth century BC. One day Queen Maya had a dream of a white elephant entering her womb. This dream was interpreted by priests as a sign that the couple would bear a son, who would become either a world ruler or a Buddha. The king preferred him to be the world ruler, so he confined the prince in the palace and indulged him in sensual pleasures. As fate had it, one day the prince went out of his palace and he saw a sick person, an old person, a corpse and a monk. Siddharta realized that he, too, would become old, sick and die. Later, he renounced his mundane life and embarked on his search for true happiness. After learning from several spiritual teachers, and practicing severe ascetism for six years, he finally meditated under a boddhi tree where he attained enlightenment. Because of his compassion for fellow humans, he revealed the path to achieve unconditional happiness.”

Extreme self-mortification is not needed to follow Buddha’s path. One step is to simplify our lives, avoid hedonism and ill-will, be kind and respect morality, concluded Suwardi wisely.

How to get there and where to stay

Borobudur is reachable by train or plane from most airports in Indonesia. There are Damri buses from Adi Sucipto airport every hour to Jendral Soedirman Street in Magelang. Visitors may continue via ojek (motorcycle taxi) or public transport. The easiest and most convenient way is by car rental (

Manohara Hotel is located in the backyard of Borobudur Temple. Another cheaper but nice hotel, Graharu Boutique is in the countryside, two kilometres from the temple. With only 12 rooms, it is a quiet place.

Apart from Borobudur, Magelang Regency has 11 other smaller temples such as Mendut, Pawon and Selogriyo. The position of Borobudur, Pawon and Mendut Temples form a straight line so it is believed that Pawon and Mendut were used to cleanse the mind of Buddhist pilgrims prior to climbing Borobudur.

Selogriyo Temple, 740 metres above sea level, has cool air and is surrounded by greenery. This ninth century small Hindu temple is dedicated to God Shiva. It sits in Candisari Village in the Windusari district. The peaceful coexistence of Hindu and Buddhist temples is an indication of a harmonious society at that time.

Punthuk Setumbu in Karangrejo Village, five kilometres from Borobudur Temple, is 400 metres above sea level, located in the Menoreh highlands. Once a photographer discovered this place as a suitable location for sunrise watching, it soon became popular. The best time to watch the sun rise is between June and September, when there is less fog. The Elo and Progo rivers offer rafting. Umbul Temple is recommended for its nearby natural hotspring and Sekar Langit Waterfall for its trekking.


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