Borobudur in Central Java is one of the most spectacular monuments of the Buddhists and of mankind. Built on the island of Java around 800 CE, it was neglected when the political and cultural centre was moved to the eastern region of Java around 920 CE. Its heydays may have been over, but there are reasons to believe that it has not been forgotten by the rulers, the elites and the population. It was probably under the jurisdiction of the Majapahit kings during the 14th - 16th centuries, even when the sectarian orientation of the users of the monument had obviously changed.

The monument was discovered by Europeans during the early 19th century, became intensively admired, studied then restored twice, during 1909-1911 and again during 1971 - 1978. Two centuries of scholarly researches, discussions, speculations, and conjectures have elapsed. And yet, Borobudur has not revealed all its secrets and meanings.

One of its most intriguing features of Borobudur is its encased base. The construction of the monument could have begun around 778 CE - a high period of the Shailendra's supremacy in Maritime Southeast Asia, and continued till c. 820 CE, which would have been about the end of the Shailendra's supremacy in Java. There appear to have been many phases of construction besides the encasement of its lowest base, which according to Dumarçay, would have taken place around 792 CE.

This covered base was discovered by IJzerman, architect and engineer of the Archaeological Service of Dutch Indies, in 1885. It was found to support 160 sculptured panels in bas-reliefs.
During 1890 and 1891, these were uncovered section by section to be photographed, and then covered up again. Nowadays only 2 full and two half panels in the southeastern corner are exposed to view. The reliefs, together with the many inscriptions on them, have been studied through the prints of this precious set of photographs. Many have contributed to the uncovering of their meanings. Thanks to the efforts of many distinguished scholars, such as Krom, Sylvain Lévi, Hikata and Fontein, the 160 scenes have been identified as having been largely based on an Indian text, the original of which was probably written in Sanskrit, and was known as the Karmavibhanga or Mahakarmavibhanga. Many versions in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Tibetan and a few Central Asian languages are now known. These differ in certain details from one another, although the story-lines are essentially the same. The main theme is the exegesis on the Buddhist Law of cause and result.

Why the reliefs were ever covered up remains a mystery. There are various theories circulating, varying from constructional reasons (the covered base created a stronger support for the stupa) to iconographic ones (the sight of the depictions was not supposed to be visible to the on-lookers). Kasian Cephas's photos from the 1890's provide the basis for this publication. The National Museum of Antiquities gifted them to the Museum of Ethnology in 1903.

The main theme of the reliefs focuses on reward and retribution. Besides pictures of heaven and hell, there are scenes from daily life, worldly successes and human dramas, good and bad things wich are interconnected with deeds from the past that determine reward or retribution in the future. At the same time, the reliefs present a picture of day-to-day life on Java at the end of the eighth and ninth century.