Borobudur (approx. 780 and 840 AD). Central Java, Indonesia
You and hundreds of other people are about about to take a walk around a symbolic representation of the world, as it was imagined and built here sometime around 800 AD. You are at one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world, and the huge, square, terraced pyramid in front of you, is nothing less than the Buddhist view of the cosmos, in stone. And as you climb it, you shall be treading a physical path that mirrors the spiritual journey symbolically transporting the walker from this world to a higher plane of being. It's quite a journey.
When you are at Borobudur, you are standing on this great monument. You can see the entire world around you, beneath you - it's an enormous experience of spaciousness, of freedom, and a far vaster perspective.
At Borobudur you not only visit a historic site but you also witness a spectacular example of a network of international trade that allowed Buddhism to spread beyond the boundaries of its birth and become a world religion.
Dominating a volcanic plane in the middle of Java, Borobudur is a stepped pyramid, made from over one and a half million blocks of stone. Built around the year 800, it's conceived as seven mounting terraces getting smaller as they rise: four square terraces below, then three circular ones above - and at the top of the whole structure is a large domed shrine.
As you climb through the different levels, you take the material road to a spiritual enlightenment. On the lowest level, the sculptured reliefs present us with the illusions and disappointments of ordinary life, with all its troubles and shortcomings. They show us the punishments meted out to adulterers, murderers and thieves - a Dante-like vision of sin and its inevitable punishment.
Higher up, the reliefs show the life of the historical Buddha himself, as he negotiated this imperfect world, moving from his princely birth and family wealth to renunciation and, eventually, enlightenment. After that, come single statues of the Buddha, meditating and teaching, showing pilgrims how to continue their journey towards the realms of the spirit. The monument, or stupa, is decorated with well over a thousand stone relief carvings, and peopled with hundreds of statues of the Buddha. Borobudur is without question one of the great cultural achievements of humanity.
Some believe that when Islam became the dominant religion in Java in the sixteenth century, Buddhist Borobudur was abandoned, and for centuries it lay overgrown and almost invisible. Three hundred years later, in 1814, it was rediscovered by the first modern visitor to describe it, the British administrator, scholar and soldier Sir Stamford Raffles. Raffles had been appointed lieutenant governor of Java after the British captured the island during the Napoleonic wars, and he became passionate about the people and their past. He heard about a "hill of statues" and he ordered a team to go to investigate. The news they brought back was so exciting that Raffles went to see for himself the monument which he at that stage knew as Boro Boro:
"Boro Boro is admirable as a majestic work of art. The great extent of the masses of building, covered in some parts with the luxuriant vegetation of the climate, the beauty and delicate execution of the separate portions, the symmetry and regularity of the whole. The great number and interesting character of the statues and reliefs, with which they are ornamented, excite our wonder that they were not earlier examined, sketched and described."
But the monument had been badly damaged by earthquakes, and had been largely buried under volcanic ash. Even today many stone fragments stand in rows around the site, surrounded by grass and flowers. Nevertheless, Raffles was enraptured. He knew at once that this was a supreme architectural and cultural achievement, and he collected two of the fallen stone heads of the Buddha.
Raffles' rediscovery of Borobudur, and his later uncovering of important Hindu monuments on the island - for Java had embraced both Hinduism and Buddhism - led to a fundamental reassessment of Javanese history. Raffles wanted to persuade Europeans that Java was indeed a great civilisation. Raffles hoped that these rediscoveries would plead the cause of this Indonesian civilisation, and would make it clear that the culture of Java was part of a greater South Asian cultural tradition.
If you take a closer look at the Buddha statues at Borobudur you will notice they are slightly larger than life-size, with his eyes lowered, in a state of peaceful inner contemplation. His mouth has the classic serene half-smile, his hair is tightly curled, and we're reminded of his life as a prince - before he became enlightened - by the elongated earlobes, intended to suggest long years of wearing heavy gold earrings.
To construct monuments like these, of course, required manpower and money. Manpower has never been a problem in Java. It is so fertile, it has always supported a huge population, and in the years around 800 the island was immensely rich. Besides its agriculture, it was a key staging post for international trade, especially the inevitable spices - cloves above all - coming from further east. From Java these luxury goods would be shipped on to China, and all over the Indian Ocean.
"It clearly was a very grandiose equivalent to one of those great Gothic European cathedrals, and it would have taken probably 75 to 100 years to construct it, similar to the cathedrals here in Europe. And so it's a great symbol of the Buddhist world, the Buddhist vision, and it's an intellectual exercise at some level. But because it is so brutally physical, it is so concrete, it is more than that. It somehow embodies something, in a way, that goes beyond just metaphysics or religious doctrine, and stands for something very vital about what the human spirit can achieve." (Stephen Bachelor)
The experience of climbing the terraces of Borobudur is a powerful one. As you emerge from the enclosed corridors of the lower terraces, into the clear open spaces above, surrounded only by a circle of volcanoes, you are very conscious of having entered a different world. Even the most hardened tourist has the sense that this is not a site visit, but a pilgrim's progress. The builders of Borobudur understood perfectly how stone can shape thought.
As you reach the three circular terraces on the top, and at this point the teaching stops, there are no longer any reliefs telling stories, there is simply a series of bell-shaped stupas, and inside each one, a seated Buddha. We are in the world of formlessness, having left behind us and below us the illusory world of representation and reality. And at the very summit of Borobudur, a huge bell-shaped stupa. Inside it, nothing - the void. The ultimate goal of this spiritual journey.
Most travelers relish the sunrise view of Borobudur hanging in the early morning mist. It seems to give one a certain sense, a timeless perception of what was, and yet, still is. To behold the huge, main Borobudur stupa patiently waiting through the centuries, in all its magnificence, is truly awe inspiring.
To fully appreciate your visit to Borobudur, a little knowledge of Buddhism and the life of Siddhartha is needed because there are beautifully carved bas-reliefs throughout the temple that narrate the story of Siddhartha’s life, his enlightenment, as well as Buddhist principles such as cause and effect, and Nirvana.
Exploring the different levels of Borobudur is a spiritual journey, or can be, if one is open to it. Borobudur is a multi-dimensional, walk-through textbook that takes its visitors on a five kilometer journey up through nine levels that illustrate how one progresses from being imprisoned by primal desire, then freeing one’s self from physical desire, to finally reaching Nirvana, or enlightenment.
The base of the monument is mostly hidden. It tells the story of karma, or cause and effect. It has a series of erotic scenes that depict the pleasures, trials, and tribulations of being human.
As you climb the steep stairs, you’ll walk around six levels of square terraces that illustrate Buddha’s teachings through the bas-reliefs. The story begins with Buddha descending from heaven and being born as Prince Siddhartha, who was sheltered from the misery of the world. Then he accidentally witnessed pain, suffering, and death. He then decided to leave the shelter of the palace to seek answers, and the solution to suffering. After years of wondering and meditation seeking these answers, he was enlightened, and achieved Nirvana. He then continued to wonder, teaching those whom he encountered the wisdom he had gleaned.
The top three terraces are circular – 72 stupas encircle the mammoth main stupa at the top of Borobudur. The circular design is meant to represent life with no beginning and no end – eternity.
Many people experience a profound sense of peace upon arriving at the top level. The stupas’s layout, the cool breeze, the tranquil surroundings, and the mountains in the background all converge together to create a feeling that is reverent to some, and inspiring to others. Some say the experience is akin to having completed a pilgrimage.
No one really knows for certain who built Borobudur, or when it was built. The general consensus among experts is that it was built around 750 AD. Whoever built it later abandoned it – the reason why is yet another mystery of Borobudur.
After its builders abandoned it, Borobudur would be lost and forgotten until 1814 when British explorer Sir Thomas Raffles, the same who founded Singapore, got intrigued by the legend of a mammoth temple buried in volcanic ash somewhere in the central part of Java.
Over the years, much work has been done to restore Borobudur; in 1991 it gained World Heritage Site status. It also has the distinction of being the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and Indonesia’s most visited attraction.