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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Borobudur: The Architecture of Buddhist Cosmology

Image courtesy of UNESCO (see link below).

Borobudur is a temple located in central Java.  It is a shrine to the Buddha, and a pilgrimage place.  It was built between 750 and 842 CE.  Carved into the base of the temple are 160 carved reliefs, the most complete collection of Buddhist reliefs anywhere in the world.  Looking down on it, one can see a mandala - a microcosm of the universe - a pattern with spiritual and ritual significance for Buddhists and Hindus.

An aerial view of the temple from the Borobudur website (see link below).
The three zones of the universe are exemplified at Borobudur.
The foundation is approximately 387 feet on each side.
Image courtesy of the Borobudur website.

According to Buddhist cosmology, the universe has three zones, represented at Borobudur in rising layers.  The first is Kāmadhātu, the world of desire.  This world is inhabited by common people.  This is the base of the temple, which has been covered by a foundation and is hidden from view except for one corner that has been left uncovered for viewers.  These 160 reliefs carved into this base illustrate the law of cause and effect, and the collection is known as the Mahakarmawibhangga.  They illustrate the behavior of desire, including the invidious behavior of acts such as killing, rape, torture, and robbery.  There is a reckoning in the afterlife depicted for those committing these acts.  There are also reliefs showing meritorious behavior such as charity and working together.  When the base was dismantled and the reliefs discovered, they were photographed by Casijan Chepas in 1890.  These photographs are on view in the site museum.

The Buddha's mother, Queen Maya, retreats to Lumbini so that she may give
birth to Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha.  This is one of the reliefs from
the base, which do not depict a continuous story, nor are they all related to the
Buddha.  Beside the blameworthy and praiseworthy activities, they show other
aspects of everyday life.  This image and the one below courtesy of Wikipedia.
Here Siddhartha Gautama shaves his head in his preparations to become an ascetic.

Rupadhatu, or the world of forms, is the second layer.  It is a transitional zone, where humans are released from their desires for the physical world.  They continue living in the world and see forms but are not desirous of them.  This is comprised of four tiers, which have galleries of carved reliefs and niches with 432 statues of the Buddha, as well as depictions of Sanskrit manuscripts.  The top layer is Arupadhatu, the world of formlessness.  This is the abode of those who have become Buddhas.  These terraces have stupas containing Buddha sculptures that face outward.  The central stupa is empty; it is unknown if whatever was inside was removed, or whether it was always empty.

This image and the one below courtesy of Wikipedia.

There are no written documents that reveal who built Borobudur, but it is generally held that it was a ruler in the Sailendra dynasty, as the temple was built in the peak of their reign.  There is a lot of confusion as to the religious preferences of rulers at that time, but because known Buddhist kings allowed Hindu monuments to be built, and vice versa, it suggests a climate of tolerance existed.  There is a Hindu complex nearby known as Prambanan, which likewise has three levels corresponding to the zones of Borobudur.

Prambanan - the Hindu temple compound that also has three levels or zones.
This has suffered much earthquake damage, but is used by local Hindus today.
Image courtesy of the Borobudur website.

There are two smaller temples that appear in a straight line leading to Borobudur, Mendut and Pawon.  Although the exact relationship between the three temples is unknown, today they are part of a procession in the Waisak day festival.  This is held each year on the day of the full moon in April or May, commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha.  It is an important day in the Buddhist calendar, and pilgrims from all over the world come to take part in the procession from temple to temple, ending at Borobudur.

Image courtesy of the Borobudur website.

Although it is unknown why Borobudur was abandoned, and there may have been many reasons, volcanic activity surely had a part.  When discovered, the site was covered in volcanic ash.  The capital of the kingdom was moved to East Java; then in the 15th century, there was a conversion to Islam.  All of these contributed to the desertion of the site, and it continued only in memory through local tales for centuries.

Mount Merapi seen ominously smoking in 2009.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the British took over Java in 1811, Sir Thomas Raffles was appointed governor.  He had an interest in Javanese history, and listened to the rumors about a big monument in the jungle.  He had the site cleaned, and the reliefs documented and interpreted.  In 1885, the hidden reliefs were found, which also had Sanskrit instructions left for the carver, from which the construction was datable.  Over the pursuing years the site was restored, and water damage from inadequate drainage was corrected.  After a 1973 renovation funded by UNESCO, Borobudur was used once again for worship.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As an interesting aside, in 1982 Philip Beale, previously of the British Royal Navy, was in Indonesia to study ships and marine traditions.  He found ten panels at Borobudur showing sea vessels - some powered by oars, others by sails.  He thought since the other panels showed everyday life, these ships may have been part of the Cinnamon Route - a shipping route linking Indonesia to Africa across the Indian Ocean, past the Seychelles, Madagascar, and the Cape of Good Hope to Ghana.  With the help of experienced Indonesian shipbuilders, he had a ship modeled on the stone carvings constructed.  It was then launched on an expedition to retrace the route to Ghana.  The expedition took six months, demonstrating that ancient trading routes were viable.  The ship - the Samudra Raksa, "defender of the seas", is housed in a museum in Borobudur Archaeological Park.

The stone relief of an Indonesian trade ship.
The full-scale reconstruction of the above ship, here stored at the Borobudur site.
Both images courtesy of Wikipedia.
UNESCO made Borobudur a world heritage site in 1991.  Today it is the most visited tourist site in Indonesia, attracting pilgrims and art and architecture lovers alike.  A marvel when it was built, it is still one today.

The Borobudur Archaeological Park website is here.
The UNESCO website for Borobudur is here.

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