Borobudur is widely regarded as Southeast Asia’s second most significant archeological site (after Angkor Wat) and is Indonesia’s most popular tourist site. Once referred to as “a mountain of a thousand statues” it is a massive 8th-century Buddhist temple, the largest and most unusual in the world. It is the scale of the complex that most impresses. Borobudur is built from two million cubic feet of stone blocks, forming an enormous hill-like stupa (bell-shaped structure, symbol of enlightenment and shrine to the Buddha) of concentric layers. The base perimeter exceeds 1500 feet and the structure rises to a height of 115 feet. Six square terraces are topped by 3 circular terraces, all crowned by a single large stupa. Stairways lead pilgrims and visitors past 2672 carved panels, 500+ Buddha statues, hundreds of carved balustrades, and several ceremonially carved gateways. The dramatic setting of the temple mount adds to the experience. It is located in a lush valley surrounded by verdant mountains and two volcanoes. Although the enormity of the temple is impressive, the structure is equally intriguing for its design objectives and the details of its decoration. Seen from above, the hill temple portrays a colossal tantric Mandela, a model of the Buddhist cosmos in stone. Pilgrims visiting the complex are led by staircases and galleries on a metaphorical journey beginning with the Kamadhatu (world of desires), continues up through the Rupadhatu (world of forms), and arrives finally at the Arupadhatu (formless world). Borobudur is a 3D guide to Enlightenment.
The “Pilgrim’s Walk” begins with a series of relief panels on the base of the monument. All told, the monument contains 1460 narrative panels (and 1212 decorative panels; a total of 27,000 sq. ft.) in which sculptors have carved a virtual textbook of Buddhist doctrine as well as aspects of Javanese life 1000 years ago. As noted above, these first scenes depict the Kamadhatu, the physical world, with many images of passion and desire. The good are rewarded by incarnation as higher life forms while the bad are reincarnated as lesser life forms. Pilgrims next enter the Rupadhatu level, represented by the 2nd through 5th terraces. They follow the galleries in a clockwise direction, winding up terrace by terrace past hundreds of panels. The second terrace tells the story of the Buddha’s birth (Lalitavistara) plus some stories of his previous lives (Jataka) and stories of other legendary figures (Avadana). The Jataka and Avadana continue onto the third terrace but give way to the Gandavyuha, the story of the Buddha’s search for Perfect Wisdom which continues throughout the fourth and fifth terraces. The last three round terraces represent the Arupadhatu. Pilgrims ascend from the Rupadhatu level where men still interacted with forms (narrative panels) to the Arupadhatu level where decorations cease, symbolically representing the formless world.
In addition to the relief panels in the galleries, visitors encounter many statues of the Buddha. The statues, sitting cross-legged in the lotus position, can be found in niches throughout the first five levels of the temple. There are 432 statues on the lower levels. The three circular terraces are adorned with 72 small latticed stupas, each containing a Buddha statue. The peaceful Buddhas in their private bell-shaped stupas constitute the most iconic image of Borobudur. The crowning stupa is empty and there is no evidence to suggest what might have been originally held within.
There is no written record of who built Borobudur. It is estimated that its construction commenced around 800 AD and took about 75 years to complete. So too the facts surrounding its abandonment remain a mystery. Around the turn of the millennium the center of Javanese power shifted to the east and a series of volcanic eruptions rocked central Java. Many scholars believe this to be the time of abandonment but it may have happened when the local population converted to Islam in the 15th century. Borobudur was “rediscovered” by an expedition sent by the British Governor-General of Java, Thomas Raffles. The complex was completely covered by ash and vegetation and it would be 20 years before the entire temple mount was unearthed. Unfortunately, after its discovery by westerners, nothing was done to protect the monument and much damage was done by souvenir hunters (43 of original 504 Buddha statues are missing, 300 of those remaining are damaged, mostly headless) and by the hot and wet climate (after the protection of sediment and vegetation was removed). A restoration project from 1907-1911 cleaned the monument but did not resolve a drainage problem that threatened to undermine the structure. In the 1970’s a UNESCO restoration solved the drainage problem and stabilized the foundation and Borobudur was listed as a World Heritage site in 1991. Borobudur is visited as part of the 3-day Jogjakarta excursion on the Beautiful Bali tour.