Borobudur Buddha head

Borobodur, Java, Indonesia, AD 750 - 850

This carved head, made of volcanic stone, represents the Buddha, ‘the Enlightened One’. It comes from the great Buddhist monument of Borobudur on the island of Java.

The Buddha lived in northeast India around 2,500 years ago. He gave up worldly comforts, and found spiritual enlightenment through a simple lifestyle and meditation.

This head shows him with his special characteristics: the long earlobes remind us of the heavy earrings he wore as a prince, before he gave up his wealth; the gentle smile indicates serenity; the raised spot on the forehead represents a third eye – a sign of spiritual insight; and the raised dome on his head – like a bun – is another symbol of wisdom.

Although Buddhism originated in India, it spread to other parts of Asia, and reached Indonesia in the early centuries AD. Borobudur was built in around 800 AD. Its design is based on a mandala – or Buddhist diagram of the universe.

It is composed of a series of platforms, rising to a large bell-shaped mound, or stupa, in the centre, which represents the core of the universe.

The terraces that make up the stupa are covered with narrative scenes from the Buddha’s life and from the jatakas, the folklore-style literature about the Buddha’s previous lives. As well as biographical information about the Buddha, these scenes provide information on Javanese life at the time the monument was built.

This central mound is surrounded by 72 smaller bell-shaped stupas. A seated statue of the Buddha was placed inside each one. This head comes from one of those statues.

Related products


A History of the World in 100 objects

By Neil MacGregor

Accompanies the BBC Radio 4 series

Object details

Height: 33 cm
Width: 26 cm
Depth: 29 cm



Room 33: Asia


    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    P. Grabsky, The Lost Temple of Java, (London, Orion Books, 1999)

    N. Tarling, The Cambridge History of South East Asia Vol 1 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992)

    C. Lockard, Southeast Asia in World History (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009)

    M. Pearson, The Indian Ocean (London, Routledge, 2003)

    L. Schaffer, Maritime Southeast Asia to 1500 (Armonk, 1996)

    D. O’Reilly, Early Civilizations of Southeast Asia (Lanham, Alta Mira Press, 2007)