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Borobudur is a ninth-century Mahayana Buddhist monument in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. The monument comprises six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, and is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. A main dome, located at the center of the top platform, is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues seated inside perforated stupa.

Mystery of the Borobudur
Mystery of the Borobudur

When we see the reality of Borobudur's dimensions, whether it is the size of the monument itself of reflect it has on us, it is not surprising that we tend to wonder why this temple was built. How was it possible to pile up thousands of stone blocks to create such a magnificent structure, while at that time people had no knowledge of sophisticated tool and equipment? How did they carve the thousands of reliefs to produce a work of art?

Many attempts have been made to uncover the mystery surrounding the Borobudur temple since its rediscovery in 1814. As a result of the efforts to save it that have been carried on for a century as well as two restorations, the real Borobudur can now be seen. Yet the monument remains a mystery.

When was the construction of Borobudur begun? When was the original foot of the temple covered and replaced by a platform for processions? When was the temple completed? There are some of the questions to which no definite answers have yet been given.

Even the meaning of the word Borobudur is not clear. The word is a combination of the word Bara and Budur. Bara, which is derived from the Sanskrit word Vihara means a complex of temples, monastery, or dormitory, while budur is from the Balinese Beduhur, which means high or up high. Thus Borobudur means a dormitory or monastery or a complex of temples on the top of a hills. It is a place to meditate and reflect.

In general, it can be said that a temple is constructed in order to glorify a king who has passed away and has become united with the deity whom he embodied. With its shape of a hill or a stepped pyramid typifying a structure for the worship of the souls of the ancestors, the carvings and the stupas signifying the Buddhist nature of the structure. Borobudur is an example of an extremely interesting temple.

It is for this reason that the study of Borobudur temple should be continued, in order that the monument not be regarded merely as a pile of dead stones, but its existence acknowledged as a work of art which has contributed to the development of the art and culture of, at least, its age. It would be wise for us to open ourselves to the study and investigating of the many aspect or the art and mystery of this temple according to present day standards of appreciation.

Borobudur is a Work of Art

If art means a piece of work made or created with extraordinary skill, then Borobudur is clearly a work of art and architecture, since the stones have been arranged and sculpted precisely and admirably, both the parts that make up the structure as well as the decorations.

Assuming that the tool known at that time comprised only a few types of chisels, the skill of those creators of the temple was extraordinary beyond imagination. To make a comparison drawing on paper with pen and ink, pencil, or crayon in the twentieth century can be done by anyone, child or adult. However, in the eight century, only very capable artists would have been able to create pictures on stones. Sculpting requires a strong person, in good health.

In addition, it demands high expertise; faulty lines on paper can easily be erased, and the drawing corrected whereas an error in carving would mean a defective stone, and hitting a chisel improperly, in the wrong direction, might cracked or broken, it could not be used again. Not to speak of the difficulty in carrying heavy stone to the desire place.

Stone Architecture

Carving stone and especially constructing a holy temple would require an extraordinary amount of enthusiasm, sincerely, perseverance, stick-to-it-eveness, firmness, and one's entire physical and mental effort, challenging one's creative ability. And this was demonstrated to us by our forefathers twelve centuries ago.

Observe, for instance, the walls of the galleries. These are not only blocks of stones piles up to form straight, high and long walls, uninteresting if we have to circle around them from level to level. They have been worked into beautifully carved walls, with finely cut corners with neat upper frames and rows of niches containing statues.

Observe also the gateway. They have been crafted into impressive posts and doorsteps, decorated with mythological scorpion to ward off disaster. And look at the gutters: even though the are only gutters to carry away rain water, they have been done with care, with an artistic touch.

Study the relief, which are of two kinds, narrative and decorative. The decorative reliefs have added luster to the rows of reliefs in various ways, as the beginning or end of row of pictorial reliefs, as an intermezzo to the scene or as fill-ins of the remaining surfaces. What a splendid design! Scene after scene, with figure appearing on the walls or balustrades in accordance with the nature of the story, carefully carved to make the figures stand out.

Then miraculously, the figures come alive! The walls tell about the life of Buddha Gautama ( as told in the book of Lalitawistara), about the Bodhisattva (the Jataka and Awadana stories), and about the travels of Prince Sudhana - Kumara in his search for the highest knowledge of the absolute truth (the book of Gandawyuha). And theses wonderful stories cover a length of 3000 meters!

Then observe the Stupas! It is amazing how the 72 stupas on the round terraces are arranged on circular rows. The large number of stupa on higher terrace, in the end there being only one left, the supreme stupa on the pinnacle. The walls of the many stupas which at first are perforated, have fewer and fewer openings until in the end they become solid, without openwork, there being only one left, the central stupa at the top. The Buddha statues, which at first can be seen through the openings in the walls sitting inside the stupas, gradually become visible, vanishing into the main stupa.

Note the ground plan! The Borobudur Temple consists of five square and four circular terraces arranged concentrically. The terraces whose shape is basically square have been developed into a remarkable multi-sided design, beautifully arranged and together with the circular terraces, forming a most harmonious concentric composition.

Observer attentively from the top to bottom, the arrangement of the terraces presents a remarkable picture, of a one-sided figure (the round shape of the central stupa) slowly becoming larger as though it is transformed into an extraordinary square. Looking at it from the bottom up, you see the transfiguration of a multisided design developing into a circular one, changing gradually from level to level.

Looking down from the top, it might appear as though the Buddha (formless) is descending from heaven to be present in this fleeting world, incarnating as a Bodhisattva in order to convey his Dharma (teachings) to mankind. Conservely, looking up from the bottom, it appears that the way to self liberation from Samsara is through continuous self-purification, from stage to stage, until Nirwana is attained.

As stated previously, the buried foot of the temple can be regarded as a terrace or level; the foot is the lowest level, which means that Borobudur is actually a ten-story structure. The foot can not be seen by visitors, since it was covered by a foundation of stone that functioned as a platform for a procession. The way the foot is covered is unique, the stone having been laid with calculation and artistry. The board platform provides ample space for people preparing for a procession and also serves to enhance the beauty and harmony of the temple.

Does the above description not cause you to feel that there is contact between the artistic and the mysterious?

Art as an expression

If art can be interpreted as an expression, the Borobudur is a convincing example. From the above description it can be felt that this monument is meant to express the philosophy of Buddhism, and at the same time serve as a symbol of ancestor worship. In the hands of the builders the design was executed with true devotion.

It is quite impossible that such a beautiful creation as Borobudur was carried out by the builders without a feeling of love; scene after scene of the narrative reliefs, whose number exceeds a thousands, a great number, indeed, for that age, carved by hand, were executed with consistently great artistry, not to speak of the statues of the Dhyani Buddhas, which are able to express universal peace and all parts of which were executed with precision and grace. All of these reveal an artistic expression based on the awareness that construction of the temple was a sacred task, a deep consciousness of the greatness of the religion, and extreme respect for the ancestors.

Art Being a Means of Communication

In order for art to be accepted by society and become part of it, it should be communicative, and in this case Borobudur is a prime temple. While present-day tourists come to visit because of a desire to see a temple on a hilltop, a storied structure full of reliefs and statues renown for their beauty and interest, it is very reasonable to assume that the visitors of olden times were motivated by the desire to gain a deeper knowledge of their religion, and live it through the carved scene that tell a story and can be seen and touched.

The series of panels, especially when the iconography is clear and precisely executed, can indeed become a reliable of communication, since they easily create a spiritual bond between the observer and the scenes observed. Through the level of temple that must be climbed and the sculpted scene displayed along the passages, pilgrims learn about the noble deed of the Buddha or Bodhisatwa. The form and content of the entire structure seem to lead the pilgrim to steep into the meaning of self-liberation from Samsara.

Art as a Documentation

If art is regarded as concrete documentation, the Borobudur is its definite embodiment. The skill of documentation is implied in the carving of narrative reliefs found in the sphere of Kamadhatu and Arupadhatu. Depicting the stories from the book of Karmawibhangga, Lalitawistara and Gandawyuha and the Jataka and Awadana stories, the sculptor carved not only human figures but also a variety of creatures and objects in the background, supporting the scene portrayed.

There are figures of horses, deer, elephants, monkeys, fish, turtles, snakes, birds, and other fowl, shown in the poses that indicate that these creatures were an intimate part of the daily life of the sculptors. The same is true of the representations of plants such as coconut trees, Palmyra palms, banana, and bodhi trees. Among the objects depicted are houses of the people, retreats, palaces, gateways, household utensils and agricultural tool such as knives, sickles, brooms, pestles, machetes, bows and arrows, means of transportation such as horse-drawn carriages, prows and gamelan instruments such as gendang (drums), rebab (two-stringed viola), seruling (flute), flags, ceremonial umbrellas.

Not to forget the various costumes and their accessories such as rings, bracelets, anklets, necklaces, earrings, crowns, hats, and headdresses, chignons, long skirts, stoles, belts, and the like. The depiction of al these items in the reliefs gives an idea of the way of life of that era. Such documentation as the reception of the King or men of high social position or eminence, life in a hermitage, art and dace performances, races and contests, activities in the kitchen, all of these will add to the appreciation of our culture.

In conclusion we have reason to be grateful for the wisdom of the builders of temples, especially the architects of Borobudur. If they had constructed the temple of wood or earth, there would be no trace of them, and we would not possess this artistic legacy. Constructing temples from stone was a fully responsible choice, since these creations have withstood the ravages of time.

Last revised on September 10, 2009
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