The Borobudur Temple

Situated merely 42km north-west of Yogyakarta and five kilometers from Magelang, the village of Borobudur is home to the largest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere, one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in Southeast Asia, and one of the seven man-made wonders of the world - the temple sanctuary of Borobudur.

The rulers of the Central Javanese Sailendra Dynasty erected the temple structure itself sometime between 750 and 850 AD, and today is one of Indonesia's single most popular and lucrative tourists attractions.

Viewed from the ground, Borobudur is shaped in the form of a massive symmetrical stupa that envelops the underlying hill, and stands on a base of 200 square meters.

Three circular terraces top six square ones, with four stairways leading up through finely carved gateways to the top. Borobudur's sheer bulk is impressive, but it is the close-up sculptural detail that regularly astonishes visitors.

The five-kilometer-long pilgrim's walk starts at the main eastern gateway and is decorated with nearly 1,500 relief panels of Buddhist doctrines as well as many aspects of ancient Javanese life.

The sensation of total serenity surrounding Borobudur has not changed for over a thousand years, and the more sensitive souls realize exactly what ancient architects had striven so long to achieve.

The architecture of Borobudur

One can see the various levels of terraces, which show that the monument goes from being heavily ornamented to being plain (as we visually step from the fifth to the sixth terrace, moving from the World of Form to the World of Formlessness).

The most intricately adorned level, of which one sees little since it was encased almost at its origin in stabilizing stones, features 160 carved panels depicting human joys and despair of the World of Desire. The 1300 bas-reliefs along the balustraded corridors of the square galleries forming the next five levels of terraces - the World of Form - represent scenes and teachings from the life of Buddha and the lives of 43 bodhisattvas: at this level, it is assumed that a person has achieved some mastery over worldly desires. Finally, the three circular terraces are left un adorned except for the 72 perforated stupas, each containing a statue of Buddha: this World of Formlessness culminates in the bell-shaped but totally unadorned central stupa that is Nothingness and All.

Information about Borobudur

By the early centuries of the Common Era Indian traders began going in large numbers to Southeast Asia, first to Funan and then to ports on Sumatra and Java that were part of the kingdom of Srivijaya. Priests accompanying the traders brought Indian concepts including the written language Sanskrit, Buddhism and Hinduism, ritual authority based on Ashoka, the third ruler of the Mauryan dynasty (317-189 BCE) and the possibility of kings obtaining divine status. Local chiefs welcomed contact with people and ideas they might use to enhance their status and authority, and incoming merchants were quick to deal with whatever local chief was able to prevent pirate raids and provide the goods they needed.

The idea that a ruler had ritual or even divine authority touched familiar chords in many areas of Southeast Asia where, long before Indian merchants came, people had revered charismatic leaders who were responsible for the prosperity of their subjects, in large part through the exchange of wealth, but also because people believed they possessed supernatural powers that insured prosperous agriculture and good health. A local chief became a “big man” if he could ensure a sufficient supply of water and also if he could claim identification with renowned ancestors of the clan or area. Since these local rulers were not primarily military leaders nor large landholders, did not have a large central bureaucracy, would-be rulers had to be able to demonstrate their ritual authority, and they must have welcomed motifs and rituals from the prestigious land of India and sought ways to “localize” relevant Indian concepts by relating them to beliefs the people already held.

Borobudur is a unique and striking Buddhist monument located east of present-day Jakarta, on the island of Java. The structure provides a vivid visual expression of how Salindra rulers in Java “localized” Indian ideas in order to enhance their own position. It is also an excellent subject for students to study because scholars are not really sure just what it “means. Instead of just guessing at a “right answer”, students can honestly speculate on Borobudur’s purpose, symbolism, and meaning;. They can understand and evaluate the statement: “Kings of Srivijaya viewed Buddhism in utilitarian fashion as a cultural support lending luster, authority, and a sense of legitimacy to their rule. Their patronage helped Buddhism develop in Southeast Asia”. Hindu and Buddhist models of kingship fit and enhanced ideas that already existed in Southeast Asia, so syncretism occurred and made a lasting impression.

Ancient burial mounds were common in India long before the Buddha, and in Pre-Buddhist times in Java the hemispheric half-dome mound was used as a burial mound for royalty. The shape and function of these mounds became part of Buddhist architecture and eventually the supreme symbol of the Buddha in his transcendent state of immortality. Tradition maintained that the Buddha determined the shape of the stupa by folding his begging cloth and placing his begging bowl on it and crowning the top with a stick. This story established the three tiers of the stupa, a square base, a hemisphere and a pentacle.

Borobudur was built under the supervisions of the Sailendra dynasty that controlled central Java in the 8th and 9th centuries and came to dominate Srivijaya as well, and it was probably constructed between 760 and 830. The basic shape of Borobudur is a stepped pyramid on a quadrangular plan with a stupa at the top. It is was built on and over a natural hill so, like a stupa, it has no interior space; there is no roof and all of its galleries and terraces are open to the sky. The lowest level has a square floor plan, each side 370 feet long. The second level is 23 feet from the outer edge, providing a wide processional space around the monument.

The stepped part has five levels, diminishing in size as they go up. The sides of each of the first four levels have seven feet wide sculptures galleries around the sides. These galleries are interrupted in the middle by stairs of all four sides, linking all levels of the monument. The original base was covered with reliefs illustrating the everyday life and how one is caught in the law of karma. Reliefs on the first level illustrate popular Buddhist tales, including Jatakas animals stories. One hundred twenty reliefs show Siddhartha Gautama’s life.

Of four hundred sixty panels on the top three balustrades of Borobudur, almost one-third of all the panels illustrate Sudhana’s pilgrimage to India seeking Ultimate Truth. Sudhana, the hero of the Buddhist story of the Gandavyuha,which means “The Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble”, traveled all over India in his search. None of the teachers he encountered was able to teach him the whole truth, and as he traveled he sought insights from fifty-three teachers, kings, queens, monks, nuns, goddesses, and bodhisattvas in ascending order of holiness.

The three upper levels consist of round terraces made of plain round stones. Seventy-two hollow stupas, each housing an image of a seated Buddha, are arranged in three concentric circles surround the central stupa. Scholars are not sure why some of these stupas have square-shaped and some have diamond-shaped openings. The central stupa that is 52 feet in diameter contained no image.

Scholars do not agree on the exact meaning of Borobudur and there are no extant texts that identify its message. The design of Borobudur incorporates three of the most significant symbols found in Indian design - the holy mountain, the mandala, and the stupa. The monument may be a replica of the sacred mountain, Mt. Meru, or another mountain sacred in Java or represent indigenous royal power identified with sacred mountains that house the spirit of sacred ancestors. Borobudur was built very near the “Nail of the World”, a mountain sacred to the Javanese. In addition, Java has many active volcanoes, and their eruptions may have seemed to be evidence of divine power. Salindra, the family that had Borobudur constructed, means “Lord of the Mountain.”

The three levels of Borobudur may represent the Buddhist three-part division of the universe. The lower lever is the Sphere of Desire where the human spirit is chained to greed. The middle level is the Sphere of Form is where the human spirit is free from greed,but is not yet able to transcend the material world. The upper part is the Sphere of Formlessness, where the liberated human spirit has left earthly considerations behind.

Borobudur may also represent a stupa. At the time of the construction of Borobudur the stupa symbolized a reliquary and memorial. The stupa also symbolized the cosmic mountain, the navel of the universe, the symbiotic relationship between sacred cosmology and kingship, the world pillar or axis mundi and an ascending pathway leading to Buddhist liberation from samsara (rebirth). Borobudur’s use of the stupa shape may illustrate a paradox at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism; there are many Buddhas and, at the same time, only one Buddha, Borobudur contains many stupas but is itself one enormous stupa - a universe containing many universes.

Borobudur also seems to represent a mandala. Mandala means “circle” in Sanskrit, and it is often a pattern of concentric circles, rectangles, and overlapping triangles. The mandala can be a visual representation of the universe. In Buddhist iconography mandalas include circles, squares and triangles with various divinities in specific places. People use mandalas in worship to achieve higher spiritual power.

Because the stupa, sacred mountain, mandala, and seat of royal and ancestral power may all be represented, Borobudur is an excellent example of syncretism. Visitors to Borobudur must have been impressed by the spiritual and temporal power and wealth of the Salindra kings as well as the continued influence of important ancestors. Buddhist pilgrims, must have hoped to acquire Buddhahood: the absolute deliverance from the cycle of perpetual reincarnation. By following the three mile path to the summit of Borobudur, pilgrams might grasp the Buddha’s teaching by studying and experiencing, not just with the eye and mind, but with the entire body and soul, the truths illustrated in the reliefs.

Besides being the highest symbol of Buddhism, the Borobodur stupa is also a replica of the universe. It symbolises the micro-cosmos, which is divided into three levels, in which man’s world of desire is influenced by negative impulses; the middle level, the world in which man has control of his negative impulses and uses his positive impulses; the highest level, in which the world of man is no longer bounded by physical and worldly ancient desire.

It is devotional practice to circumambulate around the galleries and terraces always turning to the left and keeping the edifice to the right while either chanting or meditating. In total, Borobodur represents the ten levels of a Bodhisattva’s life which he or she must develop to become a Buddha or an awakened one.