Borobudur: Buddhism in the Land of Religious Syncretism by Leons Taivans

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Indonesia is the greatest Islamic country in the world. Nevertheless, the world greatest Buddhist monument Borobudur is situated there.

Today Buddhists make a tiny minority of Indonesian people belonging to Chinese minority. All known Buddhist temples there, including Borobudur, were built within a century of one another, between AD 750 and 850.


Buddhism in Indonesia was closely linked to one of Javanese ruling families known as the Sailendra or “Lords of the Mountain”.

This title clearly indicates that Sailendras claimed an intimate relationship with the supernatural power which the Javanese believed hovered around mountain peaks.

The Sailendras became the dominant political family in Java around AD 780, when they displaced the Sanjaya, an older elite who were devotees of Hinduism and had been important since at least AD 732.

Religion seldom was a source of contention in the history of Java.1

Borobudur temple is built as a mountain with ascending terraces with no inner space.

Due to architecture of the temple scholars have developed three theories of the symbolism expressed by the shape of the building.2


The first one is “Borobudur as a Mountain”. At a first sight, Borobudur appears to be a squat gray mass of stone topped with many spires.

This silhouette resembles a mountain.

The sides of the hill upon which Borobudur stands were originally terraced, so the monument is a continuation of the natural form of the hill.

Mountains were important religious symbols in pre-Buddhist Java as well as in the rest of Southeast Asia.

G.Cœdès states that

“The king, following the Indian pattern of kingship, was a god on earth, the representative of Indra, king of gods.
Hence the capital of the kingdom where the king resided, with its ramparts and its moat, was a representation in miniature of the universe with its encircling mountain chain and ocean. Its centre was marked by a replica of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain.
This was a temple-mountain in the form of a terraced pyramid, with an idol symbolizing the king’s power and the permanent principle of kingship placed on the top, like Indra on top of Meru”.3

Consequently the first theory reveals the syncretic content of Indonesian Buddhist monument.


The second is “Borobudur as Stupa”. Borobudur’s summit is crowned with a large stupa surrounded by 72 smaller stupas.

The stupa form originated in pre-Buddhist India as a burial tumulus of earth surmounted by wooden pillar symbolizing the link between heaven, earth, and the underworld. S

tupas can either be burial markers or containers of precious relics. When Borobudur was first described in detail, the central stupa had a large hole in it revealing two empty chambers inside, one above other, but no relics were found.4


Empty space in Indonesian Buddhist and Hindu temple structures are very small cells great enough for a sculpture of a deity but too small for general public.

No public rites could be performed there.

The shape of these temples resembles the megalithic structures in Northern Sumatra built by Batak people.

Instead of erecting plain stones modern Bataks are creating concrete megalithic structures shaped to the bodily forms of deceased ancestors or, in modern times, taking forms of church buildings, or rich mansions.

Batak megaliths have no inner space save the cell for a coffin.

Modern megalithic structures by Batak people reveal the primordial megalithic tradition of Indonesian people which takes different forms due to contemporary or local variety of religious tradition.


Indonesia is recipient of foreign religions and cultural models.

It means that this type of culture seldom disseminates the religion or cultural pattern.5 The other side of the coin is steadiness of local religious elements, especially the rituals.

Russian historian of religion S.A. Tokarev argues, that ritualistic dimension of religion is extremely steady, while dogmatic explanation is changing according to new ideas merging with ancient and outdated beliefs.6 Indonesian megalithic tradition reveals the same rule.

Therefore Borobudur’s structure most probably demonstrates the fusion of ancient local religious tradition with Buddhism.


“Borobudur as Mandala”7 is the third theory, saying that Borobudur’s design is similar to a mandala.

The statuary in the niches on the balustrades which face the four compass directions corresponds to the four Buddhas who surround the Supreme Buddha.

The outside of the lowest balustrade illustrates a panoply of guardian figures. It looks like Borobudur’s construction is consistent with mandala concepts.

“Mandala theory” is the closest theory to Buddhist mainstream.


Buddhist visitors during the 7th and 8th centuries described Java and Sumatra as major centers of Buddhist scholarship.

I-Ching, a Chinese monk lived in Indonesia for five years between 686 and 691. He was impressed by the high standard of Buddhist scholarship.

Nevertheless he mentioned that Sumatran Buddhism possessed some unique characteristics which included praying to serpent deities.

I-Chin reported that many other Chinese pilgrims went to study in Indonesia.

Indonesia also attracted famous Indian teachers and monks as far away as Sichuan in China and from North Vietnam went to Java to study Buddhist doctrine.

Around 600 AD Mahayana Buddhism developed teachings based on belief that certain people can shorten the path to enlightenment by using appropriate techniques. Vajrayana which promised quick liberation with practices from Tantric manuals became popular by the end of the 9th century.8


8th and 9th centuries were a period of religious ferment. Buddhists felt deep respect for philosophers who advanced new religious theories and methods.

Indonesians must have contributed concepts to Buddhism, but very little information has survived to show us what they were, since the main writing materials were perishable palm leaves (lontar), nothing is left of them.

Borobudur reliefs containing stories which are not found in the main Buddhist scriptures are hints of the possible religious deviations of the Indonesian origin.


The main idea of them could be ancient patterns of kingship. G.Cœdès wrote about it in Southeast Asia:

  • In theory, each king was supposed to build his own temple-mountain which would become his mausoleum when he died.
  • He was then given his posthumous title – the name of this abode after death.
  • The official cult of divine kingship was to some extent independent of the various Indian cults – Shivaism, Vaishnavism, and Buddhism – each of which displayed marked syncretic tendencies in their doctrines.
  • In addition there is ample evidence to show that there was worship of images bearing the attributes of one or other of the great figures of the Brahman and Buddhist pantheons, but with names which combined the name of the god represented and the name of a deceased person, or even sometimes of a person still alive /…/
  • They were royal, princely, or high official foundations which served to some extent as mausoleums in which the worship of parents and ancestors could be maintained.9


Indian religious innovations in Indonesia became integral part of its religious landscape because they were due to more ancient local beliefs and practices, viz. cult connected with megaliths. Some words should be added concerning megaliths as a part of ancient indigenous beliefs in Indonesia.


In several parts of Indonesia there are important remains of megalithic cultures dating from Bronze Age and earlier.

The oldest megaliths are menhirs or standing stones in island Nias and along the Sumatran coast.

Some consist of large sculptural objects representing humans, animals or strange mythical creatures. Other megaliths consist of raised stones that come in variety of shapes and sizes.

The Nias case reveals us the most ancient link between religion, leadership and megaliths.


Nias society is divided into aristocrats, who are essentially the descendants of the village founders, and commoners.

Although aristocrats are entitled to their status by heredity, their title still has to be validated by the giving of feasts. Until one has held the prescribed feasts, one cannot receive the new honorific name that these confer.

At these feasts named owasa, individuals attempt to outdo each other.

Prestige is gained by the provision of large amounts of pork, the meat being shared out at the feast according to rank and class.

A man’s prestige is measured by his capacity to acquire goods for redistribution.

At these great feasts of merit, nobles seek the right to join eventually their deified ancestors.

This they do by erecting stone monuments and memorials.

These monuments include stone seats (osa-osa) decorated with animal heads, and vertical stone monuments. Stone platforms were carved as memorials for important chiefs.10


It is widely believed that if the ancestors are to protect the living, in turn the living must obey the rules laid down by the ancestors concerning marriage, aspects of social structure first of all.

In return, the ancestors will ensure the continued fertility of the community. One more society in Indonesia, erecting megalithic monuments is West Sumba (Nusa Tenggara islands).

In West Sumba stones for the tombs of illustrious individuals may be dragged by thousands of men to their eventual destination. The “male stone” must be mounted on a four-sided burial chamber.

The megalith on the burial site proclaims the honor and renown of its builder.

As it was mentioned, tradition of creating megaliths has not disappeared even today.

In places as Batak provinces in North Sumatra where Christianity has overtaken the religious milieu megaliths has changed the outer appearance to gigantic tombstones of different shapes.

Among Bataks the idea of tondi, the inner self of a person, is widespread.

The social prestige of an individual depends on the greatness of his tondi. Respectively the greater the tondi, the greater should be the tombstone; sometimes the contemporary megalithic structure made of concrete is as high as multistoried building.


In spite of the modern notion shared by several scholars that Indonesian megaliths do not represent common feature of Indonesian religion, this author has the opposite point: megaliths is an indigenous structure of Indonesian religion represented in numerous historical sites of the country.

Borobudur is the specimen of syncretistic religious tradition peculiar to Indonesia.

Therefore due to architecture of the temple forth theory of the symbolism, expressed by the shape of the building should be added: it is the megalithic theory of Borobudur.