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Borobudur, Java

INDONESIA | Tuesday, 29 April 2014 | Views [505]


Borobudur Temple

Boro = temple budur = hill, so the name means the temple on the hill.

 This amazing mandala grey rock temple site was used from the 8th to the 11th centuries as a place of religious teaching, mainly Buddhist, but also on occasion for Hindu teachings.  As with many, if not most, royal temples, it was also a symbol of dynastic power that became a major pilgrimage site.  The Waisak Festival on the full moon of May to commemorate the Birth of the Buddha is a major event here nowadays as it was in ancient times.  Today the site lies in the midst of a verdant valley of rice paddies, palm and Bodhi trees, which strikingly highlights the conscious artistic creativity of rock-tiered structure.

The site was buried after the Merapi Volcano eruption in 1006, which is called the “Great Disaster” as it destroyed much of Central Java.  After this the Buddhists went to Sumatra, while the Hindus went to Bali.  The site was then buried in ash (not lava!) for over 800 years before an Englishman discovered it in 1814.  He didn’t uncover it, though, that was left to a Dutchman in the 1840s.  During this time many of the statues were broken, heads stolen and sculptures defaced.  From 1907- 1911 the Dutch government sponsored renovations to the site, but there was another earthquake that damaged the restorations. From 1973-83 UNESCO worked with the Indonesian government to rebuild the temple and upgrade the foundations, underlying it with cement and led, so that the structure is now more secure than it ever was in the past. 

There are annually over 4 million visitors to the Borobudur Temple, 80% of which are native Indonesians. The site is based on a square base of 123 sq. meters. Only the center cella had a space for meditation, otherwise the building is solid.  There are ten levels, outlining Buddhist cosmology with the bottom levels represented with reliefs depicting desire and karmic defilements, the middle sections showcase earthly desires and struggles, and the top round levels have no images as they are beyond form and the transience of life. The ten levels are comprised of six square terraces, a surrounding courtyard, and three round terraces on top. There were originally 504 Buddha statues surrounding the walls and inside the top stupas, but only 204 remain in some form today; the rest were stolen or destroyed.  All of the Buddha figures are the same size and are in the same general body posture, but the mudras differ according to the direction the image is facing.  The southern facing Buddhas bestow blessings, while the eastern facing ones are ‘Earth Touching’, the western are meditating, and the northern ones have the do not fear gesture and the central Buddhas display the teaching mudras.  There are also three Dharmacakras on the top level. 

Originally there was no mortar or cement used, only blocks laid upon one another. There were 2 ½ million stones, only 5% of the original are now in place. The stone can from the river about 3 km away and it is said that 1000 people worked every day for 90 (the guide book says 50) years in order to construct the temple.  When the Dutch renovated the site, they painted some of the reliefs with white and ocher colors in order to make the reliefs stand out for photographs, which they then sent to India to be interpreted.  Unfortunately, the paint permanently damaged the stones.  The stories in the reliefs were brought to Borobudur by monks who had studied at Nalanda in Bihar.


There is a Bodhi Tree by the side of the stupa that was grown from a clipping from the Bodhi Tree in Sri Lanka, which was in turn grown from a clipping of the original Bodhi Tree in Bodhi Gaya.  A monk in the 9-10th C brought it back with him from his study trip to the Buddhist Center in Sri Lanka.


Some of the lower reliefs depict daily life and politics, including a ruling that only two children were permitted per family as there were already too many people for the land to support.  After two children, women were supposed to drink a special herb that would make them infertile. Other scenes depict how massage was used as a healing technique, and the birth of a child with the accompanying care for the mother and with the celebration for the coming of new life, including showing how the people imbibed in rice wine during the celebrations.  There are occasional Sanskrit words/titles above some of the lower reliefs that explain what the scene is supposed to represent.  One clear one is “Ugly Face” and is situated above a scene with gamblers who are clearly in distress at their losses. Most of the lower level reliefs are now covered, some for technical/structural support reasons and some for morality as this is now a Muslim country and nude cavorting bodies upset the predominant sentiments.


The drainage system is incorporated into the relief sculptures with the mouth of the Hindu Kala (time) acting as the spout.  There are 1460 wall carvings from the bottom to the fifth floors. The lower middle section has the stories of the reincarnation of the Buddha, the Jataka Tales, as well as the Life of Buddha Sakyamuni in 120 reliefs.


A couple of the reliefs depict the following scenes: the prohibition on the killing animals through a series of scenes depicting an archer/the king attempting to kill a deer, but the deer talking to him as the animal was really a reincarnated bodhisattva & the archer then realizing his mistake and bringing the deer back to the palace and ruling that the kingdom should now be vegetarian. 

Another series depicted a lion that ate a rabbit, but got a piece of bone stuck in his throat. None of the other animals would help him, as they were afraid to be eaten by him, until a bird came and dislodged the bone for him. He considered it good karma to have not eaten the helpful bird.


The next level has images of the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha is depicted with his typical long ears, which represent his wisdom, as he listens to the universe, and his long life.  The kings are also depicted with Buddha ears to show that they listen to their citizenry.  Even today, images of the Sultan have him with longer ears.  (Yogyakarta has a Sultan/king who is also governor of the state. This is an exception to the general state of Indonesian politics.) The Buddha is shown with108 curls in his hair. He was clean-shaven as an ascetic, but under the Bodhi tree his hair grew in circular curls.


This is followed by a level dedicated to learning the Buddhist way of life and to assist in deciding whether to follow the path to enlightenment or to remain in samsara.


The next level starts the round terraces with first 32, then 24, and finally 16 stupas surrounding the large central one. There are no more carvings here as these levels represent the transition from an earthly material to formless existence.  In each of the smaller stupas there was a Buddha figure with a teaching mudra, although most of them are now either headless or missing.  The stupas on the first two round levels have diamond shaped windows showing the transition between above and below and that in death it is not certain which way the karmic activity will go.  The top 16 stupas, however, have square shaped window designs that represent eternity and nirvana. The total number of stupas, 72 represents the 7x one is reincarnated and 72x7 = 504 which is the total number of Buddha statues.  The first and second levels with the diamond design, were used for the cremated ashes of the common people of the area, the third level, the one with the squares, for the monks and the forth, main stupa, was reserved for the king’s ashes. 

The stupa shape comes from the robe of the Buddha on a lotus flower, with an upside down rice bowl with the Buddha’s walking stick from his journey from Nepal to India on top.  Above the stick used to be the umbrella representing his royal status, but that was destroyed by lightning. The top used to be 45 m in height, but it is now about 31.5 m. From the air the entire structure looks like a lotus flower floating in water, although the water has since disappeared as the rivers and lake changed course after the volcanic eruptions.


An earlier 8th C site is about 3km away from Borobudur, the Mendut Temple.  There are three main Buddha statues inside the temple; the central figure is Sakyamuni Buddha, who is flanked by Maitreya and Avolokitesvara. Along the outside are figures of Hariti, the goddesses of good fortune and  Jambala/Kuwera, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. King Indra is credited with having built this site and with the design of Borobudur, based on the stories brought back by monks from Nalanda.  He died, however, before he could see construction begin. There are differing stories as to how long the temple took to construct.  The guide told us that King Indra started the design work around 750 and that the temple was officially finished in 842, and that both Buddhist and Hindu kings of the same three-generation Saliendra dynasty were involved in the construction.


This mandala stupa is truly an amazing architectural and artistic feat.  The site is situated in the center of the island of Java, supposedly equal distance across the island length and width-wise.  It is in the middle of a bowl formed by hills and volcanoes and commands a spectacular view.  When we were there, hordes of school children thronged the terraces, wanting to have their pictures taken with the two European looking people in the archeological park.  It was fun to watch their reactions to us and to see how they enjoyed their cultural heritage.  While they created a distraction to my meditation on top, it was a joyous one and I was glad to hear their laughter and banter. I think the Buddha would have been pleased.


Just fyi: The economy of the island of Java is 90% based in agriculture and surprisingly not all that much on tourism.  There are supposedly 250 M. Indonesians, with about 50% living on Java, Bali and Lombok.


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