Introduction to the Gaṇḍavyūha Reliefs at Borobudur

Candi Borobudur

Candi Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world, and one of the greatest cultural achievements of mankind, being a veritable library carved in stone illustrating some of the most important stories in the Buddhist tradition, and having no direct parallel found anywhere else.

It is situated on the plains of central Java at the heart of present-day Indonesia, and is in the vicinity of the large and volcanoes of Merapi and Merbabu, the former being still active. Although there are no records pertaining to its building or purpose, we can be fairly sure that it was built in the late 8th and early 9th centuries during the height of the Śailendra dynasty, which was a great empire ruling over much of Java and Sumatra.

It is built from nearly a million blocks of volcanic rock, which have been mined locally and built over a small hill, where they were assembled on nine levels. The first five levels were carved with around 1,460 bas-reliefs, and it is also home to around 750 Buddha statues and over 70 small and uniquely fashioned chetiyas which are in a style found nowhere else in the Buddhist world.

As there are no records surviving from those who commissioned the building that might have explained what the builders themselves had in mind, it has been subject to many different theories as to its purpose, and even its affiliation with regard to Buddhist sect.

Its exact purpose is not clear, as it is not a temple, and it is not simply a stūpa, and it is not clear if it was meant as an introduction to Buddhist teaching for the layman either. It is fairly safe to say that it broadly belongs to the Mahāyāna, but it shows signs of Tantric influence.

Many of the texts that were illustrated on the walls have by now been identified, although the exact version of the texts remains unknown, and the stories on the reliefs do seem to differ somewhat from the received texts that we now know.

At the base of the shrine, and now covered up, are found illustrations of the Mahākarmavibhaṅga text, which tells of the workings of karma and the rewards for good and bad deeds in heaven and hell, some of the reliefs have been identified as belonging to certain stories, but the majority have not.

Although this part of the shrine is no longer accessible, except for a small corner which has been opened up, it was photographed in the late 19th century by the Javanese photographer Kassian Cephas, and it is in fact one of the most important parts of the monument, because it was covered over before it was completed, and the builders left traces of inscriptions on some of the half-finished reliefs, which would have been removed upon completion as they were elsewhere.

It is from these inscriptions, which are written in Sanskrit and in an old Javanese script, that we can date the monument on epigraphic grounds quite accurately and that we also have an idea of the texts that were available to the builders, and how they went about construction.


Above that in ascending order we have Jātaka tales from the previous lives of the Buddha, the exact source book for which is unknown; the Life of the Buddha told on 120 panels according to the story as found in the Lalitavistara, a Sanskritised Prakrit text that appears to be an expansion of an earlier work belonging to the Sarvāstivāda school, which is the work we are centrally concerned with in this book.

Many of the reliefs in the next set have been identified as belonging to the Avadāna series of stories, which again tells of the karmic results of actions good and bad. A number of them – but not all apparently – occur in the collection known as the Divyāvadāna (the Divine Traditons), but many of the reliefs remain unidentified from those stories.

On the next level there are more Jātaka and Avadāna type stories, and also the beginnings of the illustrations of the major work that is featured at Borobudur, the Gaṇḍavyūha and its culminating hymn, the Bhadracarī, which tells of the young man Sudhana’s pilgrimage along the Bodhisattva Path, in which he meets a series of spiritual friends who reveal parts of the truth which he seeks.

This is topped by three more levels where no reliefs occur. On the penultimate level we find chetiyas, or shrines, housing Buddha statues displaying particular gestures indicative of teaching and blessing, and at the top of the monument is a large stūpa, which dominates the whole construction.

Borobudur Section

That is an overview of the Candi, but it is far from the whole story, because it is clear that the monument was part of a larger construction which was built along a twelve kilometre lay line, that takes in the ancient candis of Pavon, Mendut and Ngawen as well. As with Borobudur itself the exact function of these temples in the greater scheme of things is still unclear, though they do in themselves house shrines and also have relief carvings, and may have been part of a pilgrimage route to the greater monument.


The Gaṇḍavyūhasūtra

The Gaṇḍavyūhasūtra is one of the main scriptures of the Mahāyāna tradition, and is available to us in the original Sanskrit, and also in one Tibetan and several Chinese translations. It is counted as the 5th of the 9 great texts of that tradition in Nepal.

It also forms the final and culminating part of the Avataṁsakasūtra, a collection of 39 texts that describe the stages of the Bodhisattva path. When incorporated into that text its title became Dharmadhātu-praveśana-parivarta, ‘The Chapter on Entering the Dharmadhātu’.

The Avataṁsaka was the basis for the Huayan school of thought in Chinese Buddhism, which incorporated the thought of earlier Mahāyāna schools such as Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. The school prevailed for several centuries during the Tang dynasty, and although it eventually declined, its ideologies of totality and interpenetration pervade most of the schools of East Asian Buddhism till today.

It is clear the scripture is one of the earliest of the Avataṁsaka collection and it circulated as a seperate text for many centuries. Almost certainly the version of the text known to the builders of Borobudur was still separate from the later collection.


The Śailendra dynasty in Java at the time of the construction of Borobudur seems to have had relations with the heart of Buddhist philosophical development in the great universities of north-east India, such as Nālandā and Vickrāmaśīla, and it is probably through these contacts that the sūtra had made its way to Java, where it was obviously held in the highest esteem.

When designing the Borobudur the architects had chosen to illustrate numerous Mahāyāna texts on the walls: the Karmavibhaṅga on the base (which is now mainly hidden from view). The Jātaka on three walls and the Divyāvādana texts on one wall on Levels 1 & 2. The Lalitavistara, which relates the early life of the Buddha, on the top section of the inner wall at Level 2. However, the Gaṇḍavyūha occupies a much larger amount, covering five walls from Levels 2-4, in over 470 panels, and is the culmination of the relief work at the monument.

Owing to the philosophical nature of the text and the great deal of space alloted to it, it must have been the most difficult of the texts for the sculptors to illustrate, as a lot of what is written about cannot easily be put into concrete form. To overcome this problem the sculptors have often taken long, involved sentences and illustrated items from them on succeeding panels.

The Story in Brief

The Gaṇḍavyūha is a long and complex text, filled with elaborations and repetitions, that sometimes serve to obscure the movement of the narrative, and it may help to have an outline of the story in mind so we can see how the characters that are featured on the walls at Borobudur fit in to the overall storyline.

The sūtra opens at the Jetavana in Śrāvastī with the Buddha in his Dharma body as Vairocana sitting surrounded by disciples: lay, monastics and Bodhisattvas. The Buddha then enters a special meditation state and reveals the true interpenetrative nature of the cosmos (Dharmadhātu), but only to those who are developed enough to see and understand it.

It is notable that the Buddha never speaks in this sūtra, his teaching is only conveyed through visionary experience. This also applies to the methodology of the spiritual friends who guide the hero of the story, Sudhana, along the way: direct teaching is kept to a minimum, and seems to be incidental, rather than central. It is what Sudhana sees and experiences for himself that is important.

After the revelation of the Dharmadhātu, the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī breaks away from the assembly and surrounded by a group of monks, including Ven. Śāriputra, travels south where his own devotees gather round. There he points out Sudhana, the hero of the story, who establishes his Bodhicitta (a mind set of Awakening).

Mañjuśrī instructs him to go and meet with his first spiritual friend (kalyāṇa-mitra), the monk Meghaśrī, and ask him for instruction in the Bodhisattva path. Sudhana follows this instruction and Meghaśrī praises him for his request and explains what he himself has realised up till that time. He then points out that is all he knows, and he should go and meet with another friend who may be able to help him further.

As Sudhana goes to the next friend he renews his thoughts of why meeting with spiritual friends is necessary, and renews his commitments. He then seeks out the next friend on his pilgrimage, who is usually surrounded by a great glory of one kind or another, and often a retinue of followers, and is sometimes teaching.

He tells his aspiration, and is confirmed in it by the friend, who then shows him a vision of what he himself knows, or practices: it often includes visions of incalculable Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, acting out their callings in all the multiverses; and may also include demonstrations of good practices, such as generosity, and other perfections (pāramita).

In the text Sudhana sometimes asks his friends how they got the wonderful visions and abilities they display, and the answer is usually an occasion for relating their past lives in which they did various good deeds which are seeing fruition in the present.

Although no overall timespan is given for the pilgrimage, we sometimes get an indication of the great dedication Sudhana had on the journey, as when it takes twelve years of searching to find his 5th spiritual friend, the rich merchant Muktaka; or when he meets his 6th friend, Sāradhvaja, and spends six months continuously in meditation with him.

Worthy of note is that the friends Sudhana meets include both Buddhist and non-Buddhist (e.g. Mahādeva, identified as the god Śiva), monastic and lay, male and female, rich and poor. For those with eyes to see, the truth is revealed regardless of status or affiliation.

A surprisingly high number of the friends he meets are female, both human and divine, and many of these are counted amongst the longer encounters in the book, so that there seems to be a definite emphasis on the feminine, which, as we will see, is brought out even more so on the walls at Borobudur.

Exactly why the encounters with females has been emphasised is unknown, unless it has to do with royal patronage at Borobudur itself. It is quite possible that the Śailendra queens were the main donors of the monument, and therefore emphasis was placed on good deeds done by Queens and other women.

Eventually Sudhana meets with Maitreya, who will be the next Buddha in this aeon. It is he who allows Sudhana to enter the Great Tower containing the Chamber of the Adornments of Vairocana (Vairocana-vyūhālaṁkāra-garbha-mahā-kūṭāgāra), where he comes to understand the nature of reality in the universe, and which occupies by far the longest part of the story, both in the texts and on the walls.

He then meets again with Mañjuśrī, who had first sent him off, thereby coming full circle in his pilgrimage. However, the encounter is very short as Mañjuśrī simply passes him on to the ultimate Bodhisattva, Samantabhadra, who explains to Sudhana that the knowledge he has attained is to be used for the benefit of others. The text culminates in the famous Bhadra-cari-praṇidhāna verses.

The Story on the Walls

Although the story on the walls follows the text in outline it sometimes varies from the written word in detail. We might find, for instance, that a meeting is described in the text as taking place in a forest, but is then transposed to inside a building on the walls. Also details that are central to the textual story are occasionally omitted. It seems from this that only very general instructions were given to the sculptors and not a detailed description or plan to follow.

A technical limitation is imposed on the sculptors of the reliefs by the number of blocks on the walls they had to carve. On the inner walls they are three blocks on top of each other to make up the height of the panel; the balustrades, on the other hand, have only two blocks. We therefore find that there can be three levels of action on the inner walls, but everything had to be accommodated within two levels on the balustrades.

A second matter that needs noting is that characters are represented by type, and there seems to be no attempt to retain consistency of representation, even in the main character of Sudhana, so although we can recognise him for the most part, his appearance changes form panel to panel. This applies to other features also, and there seems to have been no felt need for consistency of presentation.

Another point of interest is that on the walls Sudhana is normally portrayed along with his companions. These companions, however, are never mentioned in the text. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that he would have been traveling with others – devotees or guards – as they are sometimes shown, but they don’t find mention in the text.

It appears that originally the illustrations were only meant to occupy the three inner walls on levels 2-4, and we can see how the story leads from one to the other as we ascend. Later it seems the reliefs on the balustrades were added – as they were on other levels – and were filled in, in this case, with more stories of the good works of the Bodhisattva Maitreya. This then leads to an imbalance in the stories that are alloted to the panels.

The first series of reliefs, on the inner wall at level two, which has 128 panels, illustrate Sudhana’s meetings with the first fifty or so of his spiritual friends. There is a peculiarity though, in that most of the meetings are represented twice. There is a first and almost complete series (16-71), and then a partial second series (73-128).

On the inner wall on the third level (88 panels), with Maitreya’s blessing, Sudhana enters the Great Tower containing the Chamber of the Adornments of Vairocana where he comes to understand the nature of the Dharmadhātu. Maitreya in person stays outside, but inside he is often seen as pervading the universe and his deeds in the three times are revealed to Sudhana.

The balustrades on Levels 3 (88 panels) and 4 (60 panels) depict Maitreya’s previous good deeds, and the last 24 panels on Level 4 show Sudhana’s early encounters with Samantabhadra, his final teacher.

The inner wall on Level 4 also concerns Samantabhadra and there are shown 72 panels which illustrate the first 48 of the 64 verses of the text of the Bhadra-cari-praṇidhāna which concludes the Gaṇḍavyūha, sections of which are recited throughout temples and homes in East Asia to this day. A complete translation of these verses is presented here.

Some Characters

I have mentioned above that characters are not represented consistently, but they are indicated as a type. Here we will describe some of the main figures shown on the walls, so that they are easier to identify when we come to the illustrations themselves. Although I give general remarks for identification purposes, it needs to be borne on mind that the sculptors were quite free in their representations, and they did not always conform to type.

One of the problems with representing by type arises when they are not clearly distinguished, and this problem also occurs at Borobudur. Bodhisattvas, kings and members of the nobility are all shown as being richly decorated, with crowns and jewellery, and even sitting in similar postures, and it is therefore sometimes difficult to tell them apart when we are unsure of the story being represented.

The main character of the story, and indeed the hero, is Sudhana. He is a Bodhisattva and is usually shown as crowned and in rich adornment like many others. However, he is highlighted by having a parasol held over him, and he is usually shown as amongst the first group of characters that we see as we walk along the walls.

Bear in mind that the walls were designed to be viewed from the point of view of the pradakṣiṇa, or ritual circumambulation, which is made by keeping the right side of the body to the object of reverence. This means that when looking at the inner walls Sudhana appears mainly on the right of the panel; while on the balustrade he appears usually on the left. There are variations that are pointed out, but this is the general pattern.

On the first wall the spiritual friend (kalyāṇa-mitra) that Sudhana meets with is the main character in the relief, and is usually shown inside a pavilion that serves to highlight his position as the central character. Occasionally this friend will be situated not in a building, but under an elaborate tree. Sometimes they share their shelter with one or more people, and sometimes they alone are inside and others are outside.

Sudhana’s most important spiritual friend is Maitreya, who is shown on level three, both sides, and most of level four, balustrade. He can be identified by the stūpa which is set in his crown, though as with all the types, this can sometimes be missing, and is occasionally lost to decay.

On the balustrades, which concentrate on Maitreya’s good deeds he is very often portrayed twice: once in the present where he is seen with Sudhana, and once in an incarnation of one of his past lives, where he is doing the exemplary deeds which brought him to his present position.

I point out the relevant characters in the reliefs as we come across them, but I will just give a brief summary here of some of the others we come across. Bodhisattvas, as stated, are usually dressed in finery, and have crowns and jewellery decorating their bodies. Monastics, on the other hand, are simply dressed, and are shown with very short, or shorn, hair.

Other characters that appear are the various classes of supernatural beings. Devas are normally portrayed above the clouds, often paying homage or making offerings to the main figure in the scene below.

Amongst them may be some other special classes of earth-bound devas including nāgas, who have snakes in their headress; garuḍas, human-type creatures, but with strong beaks; yakṣas, thick-set with heavy mustaches; gandharvas, who play musical instruments; asūras, who are heavy-set and bearded; and kinnaras, who are females but with bird bodies from the waist down.

Brahmins are also portrayed as having beards, and are sometimes hard to distinguish from asūras, when we don’t know the context.

In presenting the panels here I have tried to give an idea of the story and the teachings from the text, and I include many translations of relevant passages from the Sanskrit text. I then describe some of the features on the panels, and point out where they differ from the text when it is relevant.


I am deeply indebted to two previous scholars of these reliefs at Borobudur to two great Dutch art historian: Nicolaas Johannes Krom (1883-1945) and Jan Fontein (1927-2017). Their various works on this subject, listed below are my main source for my understanding and descriptions.

Although I have not always been able to agree with their findings, they always made reasonable suggestions for what are sometimes very difficult reliefs to interpret. In most cases where I have disagreed I have noted it in the text that follows.

The relevant research for this part of the reliefs is contained in the following books:

N. J. Krom: Barabuḍur, Archaelogical Description in Two Volumes (The Hague, 1927)

Jan Fontein, The Pilgrimage of Sudhana (The Hague, 1967)

Jan Fontein, Entering the Dharmadhātu (Leiden, 2012)

I greatly benefited in my understanding of the Gaṇḍavyūha from the translation of a Chinese version of the text contained in

Thomas Clearly, The Flower Ornament Scripture (Boston, 1993)

though I made the translations from the Sanskrit text edited by P. L. Vaidya, and published online as part of the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon:

The following studies have proved very useful for a deeper understanding of the meaning of the text:

Douglas Osto, Power, Wealth and Women in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism (Oxford, 2009)

Douglas Osto, The Supreme Array Scripture: A New Interpretation
of the Title ‘‘Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra’’
, in The Journal of Indian Philosophy, 2009

David L. McMahan, Empty Vision (London, 2002)

Julie A. Gifford, Buddhist Practice and Visual Culture (Oxford, 2011)