Built from nearly two million stone blocks of andesite, a bluish-gray volcanic stone, Borobudur is shaped like a stepped pyramid, the base of which is 402 feet long from north to south and 383 feet long from east to west; the height is now 95 feet above ground level. The colossal monument consists of six rectangular terraces topped by three concentric circular terraces.
Four of the terraces are galleries, each enclosed by a balustrade and an inner wall, open to the sky and carved with sculptures.
At first sight, the square galleries are an overwhelming mass of images depicting the activities of gods and mortals carved in the dark volcanic stone along the wide processional paths. There are more than 1,300 narrative panels illustrating the life of Buddha and Buddhist texts, the largest and most complete collection of Buddhist reliefs in the world. Originally, there were over 500 statues of the Buddha,* 432 seated in lotus position on the square terraces and 72 meditating inside the bell-shaped stupas on the top terraces. There are no elaborate carvings on these three upper levels.
Sir Thomas Raffles, the British governor of Indonesia responsible for the excavation of Borobudur in 1814, speculated that Borobudur may have originally been a holy place of pilgrimage for believers of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.
Monks from the nearby monastery would have led pilgrims along the galleries, using the carved panels to illustrate the stories of their faith and the way of the Buddha as they circled their way to the top of the monument.
Lacking further historical information, Raffles was unable to determine the exact date of Borobudur's construction. But he knew that in the 13th and 14th centuries, Islam had replaced Buddhism as the island's religion, and he thought it unlikely that Borobudur would have been built since then. Also, ancient records showed that in the 10th century, the region around Borobudur had been mysteriously deserted, and all construction in central Java had stopped then. From the detailed carvings, Raffles concluded that Borobudur had been built sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries, during a period of relative peace in East Asia, after the nomadic and religious invasions had run out of steam.
No one knows what happened to the culture that built the monument. Perhaps Merapi had erupted, choking the rice lands with layers of volcanic ash. Whatever the cause, the population moved to East Java in a mass exodus, and Borobudur was left behind, its meaning lost in time.
* In 1896, the Dutch gave the King Chulalongkorn of Siam eight wagon loads of statues and bas-reliefs, including five of the best Buddhas and two complete lions.