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The hidden story of Borobudur

Published: Jul 04, 2016

Dedi Supriadi Adhuri and Gutomo Bayu Aji

For most visitors, Borobudur represents the glory, the beauty, and the magnificence of the past. However, for local communities the temple contains a dark story hidden from publicity, a story of 30 years of temple mismanagement. 

A short history of Borobudur

In 1804 Raffles sent Cornelius to investigate the area where Borobudur is located. Cornelius, with the support of 200 local people, cleaned the area and this began a period of recording, reconstructing and ‘saving’ Borobudur that stretched from 1804 until the 1930s. As more became known about the temple and it became more widely familiar, the local community’s mythology of Borobudur as a place that caused danger and illness faded away. It was replaced by acquaintance and dependency. Thus, in the 1950s when the Indonesian government restarted restoration efforts, Borobudur had become integral to many village communities. People had established settlements and farms around the temple that were the basis of their livelihoods. In fact, the temple itself became a favorite local gathering point during Islamic festivals. 

Traditional performances at Borobudur - Credit: Dedi Supriadi Adhuri

Borobudur’s major restoration by the Indonesian government started in the 1960s and continued until the 1980s. Sucoro, a local community member who later become one of the central actors in the local community movement against government management, said that early in this restoration period experts and workers still used traditional methods of taking down and setting the stones in place. Like in the colonial period, the focus of the work was to restore the monument itself. 

The management zones

In the 1970s, theories of heritage conservation widened the focus from artifact to site, then region and, finally, to cultural landscape and the never-ending restoration of Borobudur required more space. Supported by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Indonesian government established five management zones for Borobudur. These include Zone I, covering an area with a radius of 100 to 300 metres from the temple, followed by Zone II with a radius of up to 2.5 kilometres, and Zone III, the area beyond 2.5 kilometres from the temple. 

Further spatial expansion occurred in the 1980s when the Indonesian government switched the focus of Borobudur management from conservation to tourism. This switch was reflected by a change in name from National Archeological Park (Taman Purbakala Nasional) to Borobudur Tourism Park (Taman Wisata Borobudur) and the appointment of a government business entity, PT Taman Wisata Borobudur, to manage and run businesses in Zone II.

The management zones and local communities

These spatial expansions and ideological switches had disastrous effects for local communities. The changes meant local people were excluded from the places where they lived and had developed their livelihoods, in many cases, since the nineteenth century. The clearance of Zone I in 1973 generated forced evictions of 45 households. The establishment of Zone II evicted a further 380 households (more than 1200 people) from their homes and took their paddy fields and agricultural dry lands. People also moved the burial sites of their ancestors and families. Of course, the Indonesian government paid some compensation but those evicted considered it to be too little and inappropriate. At that time, the compensation for land was only Rp.5000–7500 per square metre ($US12–18 at 1973 exchange rates).

Traditional performances at Borobudur - Credit: Dedi Supriadi Adhuri

Most people, particularly at the early stage of the project implementation, fiercely resisted these changes. The governments’ compensation was rejected, people stayed put in their houses, and organised demonstrations and road blocks. However, at that time the New Order regime was at the peak of its power and the reprisals of 1965–1966 were recent. By mobilising bureaucracy and military apparatus and using various tactics, including oppression and intimidation, the New Order regime successfully drove the community out of these two zones. 

The restoration of Borobudur meant that many residents could no longer use the temple during Islamic festivities because a large fence was erected around Zone II. The only space opened for community members were some souvenir stalls in Zone II, and even then it was limited to people who could afford to buy or rent a stall. A small number of vendors were also allowed to sell souvenirs, and massage services in Zone II. For Buddhists, the temple was opened for Waisyak, a celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.     

Local and Buddhist resistance to management decisions

Restoration plans included construction of a mall on the west side of Borobudur. The leader of the Indonesian Buddhist Monk Association (Sangha Theravada Indonesia), who resides in nearby Mendut Temple, saw the commercialisation of Borobudur temple as dividing the local communities. From a Buddhist point of view, the construction of the mall on the west side of Borobudur was not appropriate. In Buddhism, the west is associated with calmness and meditation; it is not for the hurly-burly of market or business activities. 

Farming behind Borobudur - Credit: Dedi Supriadi Adhuri

Some community elders objected to the project based on its name. The name Jagad Jawa (The World of Jawa) that was going to be attached to the newly constructed market building would degrade the true meaning of the temple. Tanto Mendut, a local cultural activist, protested the plan based on the argument that the management of Borobudur should have revitalised the various intangible values of Borobudur instead of being focused on business development. 

Rethinking the management of Borobudur

The local resistance movement, whose lobbying against the mall was eventually successful, used not only conventional demonstrations, such as rallies, but also protests in the form of rituals and art performances. This was to show the government that it was time to stop exploiting Borobudur for commercial purposes and instead nurture the Borobudur that had provided local residents with meaning and livelihoods. Rituals and art performances are an act of giving. Unlike the economically motivated protests in which people demanded their share of the profits gained from treating the temple as a commodity, these cultural protestors voluntarily gave their money, energy and time to maintain the spiritual and social importance of Borobudur. In the controversial arena of cultural heritage management, local groups with strong support are making a robust case: it is time to give the spiritual and ethical basis of Borobudur the respect and attention it deserves.  

Dedi Supriadi Adhuri ( is a senior researcher in the Research Center for Society and Culture, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). Dedi works mostly on socio-cultural aspects of fisheries and coastal management. However, in the last five years he has extended his interest to cultural heritage management in Indonesia and from 2012 to 2014 he conducted intensive research into the management of Borobudur in Central Java. Most of his work is available at

Gutomo Bayu Aji ( is a researcher in the Research Center for Population in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). He works in the areas of Social Anthropology, Human-Ecology and Agrarian Studies.

Inside Indonesia 125: Jul-Sep 2016{jcomments on}

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