FILMING BOROBUDUR: Between Preserving and Seeking Inspiration

Daoed Joesoef, former Indonesian minister of education and culture (1978-1983) prefaced his book, Borobudur (2004) with the following recollection from his first visit to the temple in the 1950s:

We discovered that the Borobudur Temple was in poor condition. Not a single relief throughout its aisles were aligned; everything was slanted and encrusted with moss, and there were even budding shoots sprouting from birds’ and bats’ droppings [throughout the temple]. Upon our arrival, there was a group of soldiers who can be seen rehearsing their march in the field in the temple compound. There were also several children from the village nearby who had gathered to watch the rehearsal, with some of them playing soccer or tag. Generally, they were running around in shorts, sans shirts. Then, there were the sheep and chickens grazing freely, blissfully unaware of the temple.

Daoed’s vivid and minute descriptions of the temple then are reminiscent of a nostalgic memory from the past. For most of us who are unaware of the complex process undertaken to restore the Borobudur Temple, it is easy to dismiss Daoed Joesoef’s personal account as sentimental. In the present time, the Borobudur that we would visit brings to mind the image of a majestic temple with well-kept and manicured gardens, constantly teeming with thousands of tourists from various countries in the world. It is also one of the first impressions we would have while watching films related to the temple.

This brief essay serves as a call to reconsider the various attempts in portraying the Borobudur Temple in film through multiple approaches, accompanied by its respective objectives. Firstly, the beginning to this essay will unpack the diverse ways undertaken to portray the Borobudur Temple in the Indonesian silver screen. Subsequent parts to this essay will address what these portrayals had neglected in their effort to capture the temple.

The Borobudur Temple and Films

In truth, films are in a perpetual state of struggle against time. We learn that filmmaking is an integral part to our attempt to salvage things before they are inevitably lost. At its essence, filmmaking is the act of recording moments, events, landscapes or other objects that will eventually be swallowed by time, leaving behind traces of memories or nothing at all. Thus, it is understandable that films play a crucial role in each attempt to document the diverse cultural legacies under the threat of destruction and extinction by the hands of nature or man.

(Image source: Klook)

The attempt to portray various cultural legacies, including the Borobudur Temple, not only possesses documentation value but it also serves to preserve data regarding the temple in an audio-visual form. In reality, the Borobudur Temple is part of a series of temples extending from the Mendut Temple to Pawon Temple, located on Kedu Residency and divided by two rivers, the Progo river and Elo river. It must be noted, however, that the Borobudur Temple is far more impressive and majestic in comparison to the other two temples, despite all three temples possessing the same spiritual values for Buddhist adherents. Indeed, the architecture and physical attraction the temple offers are truly breath-taking. An example is the intricate mandala-like structure of the temple, consisting of massive stones. Aside from that, the temple elicits various mystery surrounding its existence, ranging from the figure of the architect who is responsible for its construction to the origins of the name ‘Borobudur’ itself—all of which are difficult to unravel.

It must be acknowledged that there are various ways to consider when portraying the Borobudur Temple. First, to document the temple as a physical artefact with its intricacies down to its most minuscule crevice. Second, to document the social-cultural ecosystem within the compound where the Borobudur Temple stands or the impact its presence has left to its immediate surroundings. Third, the filmmaker can visualise accurately the reliefs or narrative etched on the temple’s walls in an animated or feature-length form.  And lastly, to utilise the Borobudur Temple as the source of inspiration for a story or a film narrative.

The portrayal of the Borobudur Temple as a physical artefact or a social-cultural element is most commonly found in documentary films intended for tourism or instructional purposes. In such documentary films, the Borobudur Temple is positioned as a cultural artefact teeming with symbolisms despite being considered being a non-living object. Several films such as Borobudur the World Heritage directed by Garin Nugroho, The Buddha Resides in Borbodur (Sang Budha Bersemayam di Borobudur) directed by Marselli Sumarno, The Journey Behind the Stones directed by Sigit Ariansyah and The Enchantment of a Golden Past, produced by PT. Taman Wisata Candi are few of the numerous films falling into this category. Through these films, we are treated to a visual feast of Borbodur’s beauty as a monument from the past and the philosophical interpretations to the reliefs carved on the temple’s walls.

At the same time, certain knowledge can be gleaned from the reliefs on the Borobudur Temple. As exemplified in the study conducted by Gotot Prakosa (2002), the panels on the temple offers a valuable insight into the aspect ratios that can be used for film and television adaptations. Although the way people tend to view the panels on the temple differ from the way people watch films, the principle underlying cinematographic aspect ratios remain similar for both instances. Additionally, the reliefs etched on Borobudur Temple offers a wealth of information surrounding the technology used by the people at the time, including a detailed documentation of the flora and fauna discovered then.

A handful of documentary films have endeavoured to document the milestones in restoring the temple for almost a decade. Among these are Borobudur, A Thousand Years More (1977); Borobudur, Beyond the Reach of Time (1983); Images from the Inauguration of Borobudur in 1983 by President Suharto (1993)—all of which were produced by the UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). It is through these films that we can witness the intricate process accompanying the act of restoration, involving various experts from diverse academic backgrounds and country of origins.

In the midst of this all, adapting the narrative from the Borobudur Temple’s reliefs into feature films and using the temple as a source of inspiration can result in an extensive range of films; spanning from animation, television drama and even the silver screen. As it is commonly known, there are approximately 1460 narrative panels in the temple with varied dimensions, ranging from 60 by 60 cm to 275 by 100 cm.  From these panels, various stories loaded with symbols, markings or even logos reveal important moral messages.

On the other hand, there is no lack of attempt in filming a musical performance accompanied by a spectacular choreography with the Borobudur Temple as the main setting. An example would be the film Sang Maha Kala Tiba (1999), directed by Jay Subiakto and choreographed by Sardono W. Kusumo. The film produced by BBC London was broadcasted to 48 countries as part of the celebration to usher in the third millennium (2000) with the Karmawibhangga relief serving as the backdrop. Similarly, the film directed by Garin Nugroho titled Teak Leaves and the Temples (2007) comprises of a collaboration between local musicians (Komunitas Lima Gunung, Sono Seni, Kelompok Musik Bambu Plaosan) and international free jazz musicians (Guerino Mazzola, Heinz Geisser, Noris Jones) with the Borobudur Temple as the backdrop aside from the Prambanan and Ratu Boko Temple. In spite of this, filming in this manner gives the impression that the Borobudur Temple is relegated to the background, rather than as the main focus of the films.

Teak Leaves and the Temples
Teak Leaves and the Temples/

There are not many films that drew inspiration from the existence of the Borobudur Temple, despite the diversity offered in the cinematic portrayals of Borobudur. Few films exemplify the portraying the temple by positioning the existence of Borobudur as central to the narrative and riveting drama, with the exception of Borobudur’s Sculptor (Pemahat Borobudur) (2007), directed by Arswendo Atmowiloto. The film depicts the story of a village boy named Amat who is especially adept in creating statues. During an art competition, Amat successfully achieved first place with the statue of his creation. A problem arises, however, when Amat decided to return the prize as he felt that the statue was not a genuine creation of his. This decision ultimately upsets the balance within Amat’s village, whose social relations are based upon cultural and performance art. While this film certainly provides a portrait into the communities living near the Borobudur Temple, it also imparts moral values such as integrity, diligence and the solidarity within our communities. Rather than merely becoming a lifeless text, the temple is resurrected as a drama replete with contemplations and reflections surrounding our values.

Rejecting a Myopic View of Borobudur

If we were to scrutinise further, there are hardly any films offering to portray the social life that has supported the continued preservation of the Borobudur Temple, such as the inhabitants who had been forcibly removed during the development of Borobudur gardens. Presently, communities of these inhabitants are cornered to seek a meagre living from tourism activities. Moreover, as the largest Buddhist monument in the country, the temple has been continually preserved by its surrounding Muslim-majority communities.  The individual sacrifices and tolerant attitudes displayed by these communities in preserving the temple are often glaringly absent in most films on the temple.

In fact, most films tend to treat these communities as a less-than-relevant backdrop, much less involving their active participation in the film production regarding the Borobudur Temple. If these communities were genuinely involved in the production of these films (rather than simply relegating the films as projects), a film which can capture authentic experiences and honest perspectives from these communities towards the temple is produced. As such, the significance of films on the temple would be extended beyond mere documentation of a monument from the past, consequently, providing the necessary glimpse into the surrounding communities. In other words, the film would provide an outstanding portrait of the temple among the present uniformity.

The tendency towards a myopic view in portraying the Borobudur Temple as a monument inaugurated into one of the wonders of the world is painfully apparent in several films. As is well-known, the Borobudur Temple is a site of spiritual pilgrimage by Buddhist adherents aside from being a popular tourist attraction for domestic and international tourists alike. Thus, the existence of the temple should be placed within a global context or as an international meeting point for various nationalities, be it through tourism or spiritual pilgrimage. In addition, the process to restore the temple involves the UNESCO in providing the necessary support through organising fundraising, provision of tools and gathering the technical advisors. The global aspect to Borobudur’s existence will become increasingly visible when international collaborations take place and multiple interpretations of the temple’s meanings come together.

Another aspect, that is no less important but often neglected, is the political dimension surrounding the Borobudur Temple’s existence. In fact, since the beginning of the large-scale restoration on 10 August 1973, the process itself were met with numerous political challenges. As Daoed Joeseof wrote in his book, Borobudur (2004), he faced many threats, including anonymous letters and other threatening letters addressed to him from several groups who had blasphemed, verbally abused and cursed him as they considered his attempt as “the largest construction of idols in the country.” The peak of this political challenge culminated in an explosion on 21 January 1985, which destroyed 9 stupas enclosed with openings (3 of those were located east of the first table from the Arupadhatu layer, 2 were located in the second table and the remaining 4 in the third table).

Furthermore, the international terms on cultural preservation discounted the possibility to replace the stupas with duplicates of similar conditions. Hence, the weight of the challenges faced during the restoration process had been of near-insurmountable nature. Moreover, the incident then revealed another concerning aspect, where kebhinekaan (unity in diversity) values contained within the amalgamation of Hindu and Buddhist elements in the temple are under perpetual test even until today in our plural society.

Well of Inspiration

It must be acknowledged that the numerous attempts in portraying the Borobudur Temple in the silver screen had been done with various objectives in mind. However, these attempts commonly possess links towards tourism or documentation efforts in preserving cultural heritage. In fact, attempts to position the Borobudur Temple as a source of inspiration can be counted in a single hand. Perhaps, this can be attributed to the fact that film productions on the temple are mostly viewed through the lens of tourism, or as an exotic object. Consequently, this has resulted in an intense and critical lack of nuanced considerations for the temple.

At the end of the day, the intention to continuously seek inspiration from the Borobudur Temple, which can birth diverse works of art and culture is far more important than the documentation attempts to preserve and celebrate the temple. This the core of the spirit of “unfinished Buddha of Borobudur”, where artists and directors are always open to the challenge of unpeeling the layers of Borobudur through cinematic exploration. In other words, the Borobudur Temple is an enormous well with a source that will never dry in providing abundant inspiration. A question arises however, who is capable of distilling the water of inspiration into a cinematic language?

Originally in Bahasa Indonesia    Translated by Alma Delia Sukma

This article was previously presented as a discussion centered around the topic “Infusing Zeal into Documenting the Borobudur” in conjunction with the visual art exhibition The Thousand Mysteries of Borobudur which was organized by the UNESCO Jakarta Regional Office, in collaboration with the Department of Culture and Tourism RI, Jogja Gallery and Jogja Film Commission, Taman Budaya Yogyakarta (TBY) Conference Room, 9 May 2007. The Indonesian version of this article can be found  on

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