The Borobudur Temple Ship: Bringing a Memory Back to Life

Under the cover of darkness, we ascended a small hill in the remote region of Magelang, Central Java, side-by-side with visitors and locals alike. Standing behind railings or atop makeshift bamboo structures, we all patiently awaited the coming of the sun and the magic of Borobudur Temple that the light would reveal.

The temple, built by ancestors in the 8th century, is considered the greatest Buddhist monument in the world. But for those of us on Hōkūleʻa’s Worldwide Voyage, we were most interested in a very specific detail: carvings of an ancient ship that has since been rebuilt and sailed, much like our own beloved traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe.

Constructed in the 8th century, Borobudur has become an source of national pride in Indonesia and continues to inspire today.

Slowly, the sky lightened, heavy with mist and volcanic fog. The temple remained shrouded in mist, barely visible but powerful and peaceful in its presence.

Built from more than two million stone blocks, Borobudur sits aligned with four stairways at each main compass point (East, South, West, and North), and consists of three major vertical levels—Kamadhatu (the foot of the temple, representing the lowest sphere and the realm of ordinary humans), Rapadhatu (the body of the temple, representing the realm between earthly desire and the gods), and Arupadhatu (the top of the temple, representing the realm of the gods).

The stupa of Borobudur Temple are barely visible through the morning fog. The structure is so massive that it easily mistaken for one of the surrounding hillsides.
The stupa of Borobudur Temple is barely visible through the morning fog. The structure is so massive that it is easily mistaken for one of the surrounding hillsides.

The entire temple tells the story of the teachings and life of the Buddha, and of the environment and culture of Java at the time the temple was constructed, conveyed through carvings in the stones. There are almost 3,000 relief panels distributed over the two million stone blocks.

The temple has been under restoration since becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1970s, with broken or shattered stones replaced by new ones in a continuous rebuilding process to maintain structural integrity for the 58,000 visitors the site sees daily during peak season.

As part of the archaeological protocol, the new stones are not carved to match the old ones. Over time, as stones are replaced to maintain the structure and safety of the temple, the stories etched by the 8th century craftsmen are slowly erased, and with them the voices of the ancestors fade into silence.

This is one of many ships that are etched into the walls of Borobudur Temple. According to conservationists, the carvings depict scenes from the Holy Book of Buddha. Part of this storytelling is the inclusion of elements from 8th century daily.
This is one of many ships that are etched into the walls of Borobudur Temple. According to conservationists, the carvings depict scenes from the Holy Book of Buddha. Part of this storytelling is the inclusion of elements from 8th-century daily life.

One of the ways that the Indonesian community has prevented this erasing of the record is through the building of the Borobudur ship.

Touring the temple and its relief carvings, you can find several panels that depict ships that crossed to Indonesia through the Indian Ocean, bringing followers of the Buddha in search of enlightenment. One of the relief carvings was the inspiration and model for the modern Borobudur ship, which was built based on the details preserved in the pictures on the stones.

Similar to Hōkūleʻa, our traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe, this ship was brought into existence based on a record without words, one that lay sleeping in the stones until the moment when it could be awakened by those who could answer the call. The ship sailed successfully from Indonesia to Madagascar and Africa, retracing the Cinnamon Route, with crewmembers from local communities practicing traditional wayfinding standing beside scientists searching for evidence of migration patterns and seafaring traditions, before coming home to rest in the Samudra Raksa Museum on the temple grounds.

Samudra Raksa
Inspired by the relief carvings at Borobudur Temple, the Samudra Raksa was created to sail in the wake of our seafaring ancestors. The ship traced the ancient Cinnamon Route to visit Madagascar, South Africa, and Ghana.

With our Indonesian friends we observed that across the globe, we are all searching for connections between our past, present, and future, as well as between people in different places from different cultures—and finding that we are at once both the same and vastly different in beautiful ways.

We have sailed Hōkūleʻa across the Pacific in the wake of our ancestors, and launched into the Indian Ocean looking towards a new horizon. What we have found is that the sun rises and sets as it has since the beginning of time, and that our ancestral past binds our global family together across the deepest of oceans.

Nāʻālehu Anthony is a Native Hawaiian from Kaʻaʻawa, Hawaiʻi and is the founder of Palikū Documentary Films - a production company that focuses on documentaries and oral histories with a special emphasis on Hawaiʻi and its people. Nāʻālehu is also the CEO for ʻŌiwi Television Network. Nāʻālehu’s other great passion is being a part of the voyaging community. As a crew member since 1995 and an active member of the current Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage crew, sailing from Sāmoa to New Zealand and on then on Hōkūleʻa’s inaugural leg into the Indian Ocean from Bali to Mauritius. His voyaging experiences have shaped and defined him as a person and been the focal point for his films. Being a part of the Worldwide Voyage has brought a context that weds his two great passions – film and voyaging. ʻŌiwiTV is the official media partner of the WWV bringing daily coverage of the voyage to a worldwide community of ʻohana, supporters and followers.
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