Located about 30 miles northwest of Yogyakarta, Borobudur is the largest and one of the most beautiful Buddhist monuments in the world. This magnificent structure was built between 778 and 850 CE by the rulers of the Shylendra (Cailendra) dynasty, who were the followers of Mahāyāna Buddhism. According to an inscription, King Samaratungga of this dynasty commissioned this monument.
The Borobudur monument was buried under volcanic ash around 1000 CE and lay hidden for many centuries until it was discovered by the British in 1815. The Dutch, who were the colonial masters at that time, excavated and restored it in 1907 and 1911. Later, Indonesia continued the restoration and completed it in 1983.
Borobudur is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although Hinduism and Buddhism did not originate in Indonesia, Indonesians are proud of their heritage and the monuments. They have done an excellent job of restoring and maintaining these archaeological sites.
Unlike the other Buddhist structures in the world, Borobudur is unique in that its structure looks like a step pyramid and the size comparable to Giza Pyramids in Egypt. The image below is a drawing showing the half cross-section of the monument.
The Borobudur monument is about Buddhist philosophy and Gauthama Buddha’s birth, life, death, and enlightenment. According to Buddhist philosophy, human beings need to go through three realms to attain enlightenment. These are:
- Kāmadhātu: The word kāma in Sanskrit roughly translates to desire or lust. This is the actual physical realm of humans and animals who have desire and lust. This realm is equivalent to the Bhuloka in Hinduism.
- Rūpadhātu: The word rūpa in Sanskrit refers to form or shape. This is the realm of ascetics and lesser gods who have controlled their worldly desires but still remain human. This realm is equivalent to Bhuvaloka in Hinduism.
- Arūpadhātu: The word arūpa in Sanskrit refers to formlessness. This realm is an abstract level of consciousness. The holiest of the holy reside in this realm and have no physical form. People who attain enlightenment live in this realm. This realm is equivalent to Svarloka/Svargaloka in Hinduism.
Built like a pyramid, the structure of Borobudur has three distinct layers to reflect the concept behind the three realms mentioned above. The top layer with three round terraces represents Arūpadhātu. The middle layer, the biggest with five terraces, represents Rūpadhātu. The lowest layer, which is the courtyard, represents Kāmadhātu.
Exterior of the Borobudur Temple
Representing Arūpadhātu is the top layer of the temple consisting of three circular terraces, each of which has numerous bell-shaped stupas and statues of Buddha.
Situated in the middle of the topmost terrace is a large bell-shaped stupa, known as the mother stupa, with a pinnacle on top. In the original structure, this pinnacle supported a giant umbrella, which was destroyed later by lightning. Experts believe that a golden statue of Buddha was inside this stupa but was stolen in the 1800s.
The topmost terrace has 16 stupas, the second terrace from the top has 24 stupas, and the third has 32 stupas. Placed inside each stupa is a statue of Buddha, known as Dhyani Buddha Vajrasattva, with the Dharmachakra Mudra (hand gesture), a symbol for the wheel of Dharma.
Top three terraces of Borobudur
At dawn, the top terraces provide a spectacular view of the temple and lush green mountainous terrain surrounding Borobudur. A large number of visitors climb this monument early morning to view the sunrise from the top terraces.
Sunrise at Borobudur
The Rūpadhātu layer, which represents the Rūpadhātu realm, is the body of the temple and is the middle layer consisting of five square terraces, each with four corridors. Carved into the walls – both inner and balustrade – of these corridors are the narrative bas-reliefs depicting the stories related to Buddhism. Placed inside the niches above the walls are the beautifully carved Dyani Buddha statues.
Corridors of the Rūpadhātu terraces
Dhyani Buddha Statues
There are 432 Dhyani Buddha (Meditating Buddha) statues in the Rūpadhātu layer. Although these statues may look alike, they have different hand gestures called mudras. In Buddhism, there are five standard mudras.
A Dhyani Buddha statue with a particular mudra has a name and meaning. All the Buddha statues pointing to a cardinal direction (i.e., one of north, east, south, west) have the same mudras. Here is a list of the five mudras and the name of the corresponding Buddha.
Bhumisparsha in Sanskrit means touching the earth. In this gesture, all the five fingers of the right-hand point to the ground. This mudra refers to Buddha calling the earth as the witness. The Buddha with this pose is called Asokabhya. All the Buddha statues in the east direction have this mudra.
This gesture is performed by placing the upward-facing right palm on top of the upward-facing left palm. This mudra represents silence or meditation. The Buddha with this pose is called Amitabha. All the Buddha statues in the west direction have this mudra.
In this gesture, the right hand is held upright with the palm facing outwards. This mudra represents fearlessness and reassurance. The Buddha in this pose is called Amoghasidha, and the statues in the north direction have this mudra.
In this gesture, the right-hand palm is open upwards with the fingers slightly pointing downwards. This mudra represents charity and compassion. The Buddha with this pose is called Ratnasambhava. The statues in the south direction have this mudra.
In this gesture, the right hand is upright with its palm facing outwards, and in this hand, the thumb and index finger touch to form a circle while the other three fingers point upwards.
This mudra represents teaching and debate. This Buddha with this pose is called Vairochana. The statues in the center have this mudra.
The story panels cover both the inner and balustrade walls of the corridors of the five Rūpadhātu layer terraces. Carved into these panels are the narrative bas-reliefs depicting the scenes from ancient Buddhist texts.
The type of stories covered in the Rūpadhātu layer are:
– Gandavyūha: Stories of Sudhana, a boy from India, moving from teacher to teacher in search of wisdom and enlightenment.
– Avadāna: Similar stories as Jātaka, but people are not bodhisattvas
– Lalitavistāra: Life of Buddha in Tushita Heaven
– Jātaka: Stories of Buddha in his previous lives
To get the location of the story panels, check the diagram in the earlier section detailing the contents of the three layers of Borobudur.
The Gandavyūha story panels cover the top three of the five terraces of the Rūpadhātu layer. The scenes in the Gandavyūha story panels are based on Gandavyūha Sūtra, an ancient Buddhist text that chronicles the journey of Sudhana – a son of a wealthy merchant – in his quest for wisdom and enlightenment. In his epic journey, he meets a total of 52 teachers from all walks of life, including a king, queen, slave, and even a prostitute.
The last three teachers Sudhana meets before attaining enlightenment are Maitreya, Manjushri, and Samantabhadra, who are Mahāsattvas (great bodhisattvas).
Here are some of the interesting Gandavyūha bas-reliefs carved on the top three terraces of the Rūpadhātu layer:
Sudhana meets A Teacher
This beautifully carved bas-relief depicts Sudhana learning from one of his teachers. As you can see from the image, the teacher is seated on a highly ornate throne, implying that he is a high-ranking person. The hand gesture (Vitāraka Mudra) made by the teacher indicates that he is delivering a sermon or engaged in a debate.
Sudhana is seated in front of him with folded hands (namaste gesture), and behind him are the other disciples or courtiers engaged in debate. The discourse appears to occur in a beautiful setting with Sudhana and other disciples sitting under the two big trees with birds flying above.
Sudhana meets Maitreya
The bas-relief shown in the image depicts Maitreya, the ante-penultimate (third from last) teacher of Sudhana. Maitreya is the Buddha of the future, whose current abode is the Tushita Heaven and is accessible only through meditation. When Sudhana accesses Maitreya through meditation, he takes him to his wondrous tower and reveals the Dharmadhatus (realms of dharma).
As you can see from the image, Maitreya is seated on a highly ornate throne with the Dhyana Mudra gesture, implying that he is meditating. To his left is Sudhana, kneeling and bowing his head with hands on his knees.
This bas-relief is carved on the west-facing inner wall of the third terrace.
Seated gracefully on a lotus throne is Samantabhadra, one of the eight Mahāsattvas (great bodhisattvas) of the Mahāyāna Buddhism. Bodhisattva Samantabhadra is the final teacher Sudhana meets before he attains enlightenment.
This bas-relief is on the balustrade wall of the fourth Rūpadhātu terrace. As you can see, his body is covered with beautiful jewelry, including necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and udiyana (waist chain). Hanging from the left shoulder to the right side of his waist is a looped thread, known as yajnopavita. Adorning his head is an intricately-carved three-stage mukuta (crown).
His facial expression is calm and serene. With his left hand gently resting on his leg, he is making a gesture known as the Karana Mudra with his right hand. In Sanskrit, mudra refers to a hand gesture. The Karana Mudra is performed by pointing the index and little fingers upwards and ring finger downwards, and curving the middle finger in such way that it touches the thumb. This mudra symbolizes positive energy and is performed to eliminate the negative energy around us. It is believed that Karana Mudra wards-off evil.
The image shows another bas-relief depicting Samantabhadra seated majestically on a throne at the center. It appears as though he is engaged in a discourse with his disciples seated to his left and right. This bas-relief is on the balustrade wall of the third Rūpadhātu terrace.
In Sanskrit, avadāna means great act or achievement. Avadānas refer to the ancient texts that narrate short stories about the heroic deeds of the people in their previous lives and the role of Karma in their present lives. The heroic deeds include sacrifices, such as one’s life or wealth, for the good of others. The laws of Karma apply to one’s actions, i.e., the good deeds result in good outcomes, and evil deeds result in grave consequences.
The Buddhist teachers use the avadāna stories to teach morals to their followers. A typical story starts with a context, goes into the details of the deeds in one’s past life, and then their consequences in the present life. The story ends with a moral drawn from it. The Buddha himself narrated some of the stories in his sermons. The avadāna stories are somewhat similar to the parables in the Bible.
In this story, a peacock – actually a bodhisattva – became known for its beauty and voice, and Queen Anupama of Vāranasi coveted it. To get this peacock, she pleaded with her husband, King Brahmadatta, who sent people to capture it, with a warning that they would face the death penalty if they fail.
The peacock came to know about this story when the people tried to capture it. To prevent their deaths, the peacock submitted willingly to go with them to the palace. The bas-relief depicts this part of the story. As you can see, a lovely peacock is standing majestically inside a horse-driven chariot.
The story ends tragically with the death of the queen. When King Brahmadatta was away from the capital fighting a battle, Queen Anupama started an extra-marital affair. When she suspected that the peacock knew her infidelity, she poisoned the peacock, who, instead of dying, became more beautiful. The dejected queen then killed herself.
It is carved on the balustrade walls of the second terrace.
Distributing Food and Jewels
The bas-relief on the left is part of Avadāna story panels carved into the inner walls of the first terrace of the Rūpadhātu layer. It likely depicts the court of a king. As you can see, the king is seated on a throne on the right and is receiving offerings from a well-dressed lady. Behind her is a person carrying a box and walking away from the court. Standing at the center is an elegantly dressed young man – most likely a prince – handing over fruits to the people, some of whom are kneeling with their hands stretched to receive them.
The bas-relief on the right likely depicts the court of a queen, seated on a throne (on the right edge of the image), where she receives offerings from people. Standing at the center is an elegantly dressed young man – likely a prince or the king himself – delivering objects (food or jewels) to the people.
The Lalitavistāra bas-reliefs depict stories from the Lalitavistāra Sūtra, which is a Mahāyāna Buddhist scripture that describes the legends of Gautama Buddha from his descent from the Tusita Heaven until his first sermon at the deer park in Vāranasi, India. Note: In Sanskrit, lalita means lucid or elegant, and vistāra means expanse.
The Lalitavistāra Sūtra is a multi-author text compiled together pieces of writings in Prakrit and Sanskrit written over a long period. Because of this, there are some overlapping of stories.
The bas-reliefs based on this text appear on the first terrace (from the bottom) of the Rūpadhātu layer. As you can see, the story panel has two registers. The top register depicts the story based on Lalitavistāra, and the bottom is an Avadāna story based on Divyavadāna.
The bas-relief on the top register depicts Gautama Buddha leaving Kapilavastu, his native place, in search of the truth. After Gautama Buddha attains enlightenment, he was known as Shakyamuni because of his lineage. Note: In Sanskrit, shakya is the name of his clan, and muni means sage.
The Jātaka tales, which date back to the 4th century BCE, are an important part of Buddhist literature where Buddha appears in different forms, including a king, elephant, and tortoise, in his current and previous lives. The bas-reliefs on the lower terraces of the Rūpadhātu layer depict stories from Jātaka Mala, a book written in Sanskrit by Arya Sura sometime in the 8th or 9th century describing 34 Jataka stories. The rock-caves of Ajantha in India also have Jataka stories painted on their ceilings.
The courtyard of the Borobudur represents the Kāmadhātu realm.
This layer has only one type of bas-relief, which is called Mahakarmawibhangga. The bas-reliefs in this layer depict general stories of human actions and their consequences. Even though there are 160 reliefs, only a few are open to the public.
– Prambanan, Prambanan Bas-Reliefs, Bali, Indonesia
– Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs, Banteay Srei, Cambodia
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