A Beyond Here Feature travel story
“…the beauty and delicate execution of the separate portions, the symmetry and regularity of the whole, the great number and interesting character of the statues and reliefs, with which they are ornamented, excite our wonder that they were not earlier examined, sketched, and described.”
— History of Java, Volume 2 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1817
In 1814, British collector, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, commissioned the clearing of jungles and the volcanic ash under which the Borobudur Temple (or Candi Borobudur) was hidden in central Java, Indonesia. Since its discovery, clearing and subsequent restorations, Borobudur, surrounded by magnificent mountains, stands among other historical Buddhist masterpieces and monuments such as, Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The design of Borobudur was conceived from a lotus flower floating on a lake. Boro means “great” or “honorable”, and Budur means “the Buddha” in the 9th century Javanese language. The construction of this masterpiece took 75 years to complete.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India visited the temple in 1950 together with his daughter, the third Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Nehru is one of the world leaders who founded the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of 120 nations in 1955 based on the Panchsheel principle at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia.
Indonesia’s Buddhist Legacy
Indonesia’s Buddhist legacy dates back to the 2nd century CE, and its glory continued until the 15th century. Perhaps the first Buddhist inroad into Indonesia was through the island of Sumatra, made by Indian and Sri Lankan Theravada monks. There was a time when some gold mines of Sumatra (historically called Swarnadwipa meaning the “Island of Gold”) were used to curve out solid gold Buddha statues. The statues adorned the temple altars of Indonesia as well as other neighboring Buddhist countries. The ancient rulers of some Buddhist countries such as Myanmar and Thailand were ardent customers of the solid gold statues.
Overtime Mahayana tradition replaced Theravada. The monuments that one sees now in Indonesia are from the period of Mahayana tradition. The Borobudur Temple was built using the Tibetan Mandala concept. Borobudur and other temples are also referred to as stupas because they are generally known to house and preserve Buddhist relics, and feature narrow doors.
One of the most famous Buddhist scholars from the world’s second earliest university of Nalanda, Dharmakirti, was a prince of Java’s Sailendra Dynasty which reigned from the 7th to 11th Century CE. Buddhism is one of the traditional religions in Indonesia, and the Buddha Day (called Waisak in the Indonesian language) is celebrated as a national holiday in the country. Due to COVID-19, this year’s Buddha Day celebration will likely be cancelled, otherwise, Borobudur comes alive with monks, devotees and tourists from all over the world to celebrate Waisak.
Buddhist Temple Ruins
Indonesia is dotted with many ruins of Buddhist temples and stupas. In Bali most Hindu temples were either converted from Buddhist temples or were built on the ruins of Buddhist temples. At Prambanan in Yogyakarta we saw Buddhist temple ruins that were in the process of excavation and restoration. The Candi Sewu, located 1 km from Prambanan, is an example of the beautiful Buddhist-Javanese architecture found near Hindu temples.
In ancient temples, both in Bali and Java, architects used dark basaltic rocks. These rocks were abundantly available in volcanic Indonesia. In most cases, such as in Borobudur, huge rocks that were cut and polished to size were used in unmortered layers. The rocks were also carved to create figurines describing the story of the Buddha and the Jataka tales.
Pawon, Mendut and Borobudur Temples
The Pawon, Mendut and Borobudur temples are aligned east to west in a straight line. During Waisak celebration, the streets connecting the three are colourfully decorated. Religious processions start at Mendut, pass through Pawon and finish at Borobudur. The congregation at Borobudur includes prayers, meditation and Dharma Talks.
Pawon and Mendut Temples
On our first day we walked to Pawon and Mendut—the two small temples located on a straight line axis with Borobudur. Both of them are square in shape with a high dome at the centre indicating the presence of a Buddha statue inside.
Pawon is the smallest of the three. The archaeological department could restore only the temple area since the surrounding areas are occupied by private residences. The temple visit was a welcoming experience, both from the gate keeper as well as from souvenir shop-keepers. Unfortunately, the meditating Buddha statue is no longer available inside the temple.
From Pawon we walked down to Mendut by passing over the bridges of two streams. Mendut is a large complex with many souvenir shops. The temple is near a large Bodhi tree, an open storage area housing some ruins of the temple and a modern Buddhist temple or monastery named the Pembangunan Vihara.
The Vihara is a large complex replicating some historic architectures. The resident Indonesian monk told us that the temple acts as an organizer, coordinator and host of the Waisak events each year.
The central dome of Mendut is no longer there—this dome had a similar shape to the central dome of Borobudur. The Buddha statue, in a Dharma Chakra hand posture, is intact with disciples listening to him. It has an elevated walkway for walking around the temple to see many fascinating stone carvings, as well as for devotees and monks to circumambulate.
The Grand Borobudur
The next morning we walked to Borobudur where the line-up to enter the temple was long. The entry fee for foreigners is about 45 USD, but it includes entry into the Hindu Prambanan Temple, an hour away from Borobudur. As we passed the entrance the majestic view of Borobudur appeared. It reminded me of many awe-inspiring literature I read from dignitaries who visited the temple in the past.
Large organized groups of tourists/devotees led by tour guides attracted our attention, including many school children with their teachers who were visiting the temple on a school trip. Among them were a large organized group of African tourists/devotees—all dressed in the same colorful short sleeve shirts, which was a surprise due to Buddhism’s recent influence in Africa.
The 9th century marvel of Borobudur was a great achievement in Buddhist-Javanese architecture. The present appearance of the temple is the result of an eight-year long restoration conducted between 1975 and 1983. The restored complex was opened for visitors and devotees in 1983 by former Indonesian President, Suharto. His inauguration is captured in an engraved stone stating, “Borobudur is the evidence that international efforts conducted in a peaceful way have achieved a peaceful aim for mankind.”
The international efforts, under the umbrella of UNESCO, were led by USA together with 28 other countries, including some private organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation and IBM.
Formation of Borobudur
The perfect symmetry of Borobudur to the likeness of Tibetan Sand Mandala is legendary. Computer analyses of Borobudur’s layout and dimensions by Hokky Situngkir at the Surya University show that this symmetry is achieved in perfect proportions both in horizontal and vertical directions. The head includes the top main dome and three top circular platforms. The body is the four square platforms, and the “hidden foot” is the foundation of the temple. The temple has four entrances lying on four cardinal directions.
The square base of the temple measures 123 x 123 m2. There are 504 Buddha statues on the top circular platforms seated in a meditating lotus position, some within the perforated bell-shaped stupa. In the bottom four square platforms, about 1300 stone-carved panels depict the life of the Buddha and stories from the Jataka Tales. Many of the original statues and stone panels are no longer there.
Each of the platforms have walkways for two devotees to walk side by side and view the carvings, or to circumambulate. I paid homage to the Buddha by performing six clockwise-circumambulations on the top platform.
After the temple we went to the museum where the rich history of Indonesia’s spice trade, and its diverse flora and fauna was colourfully decorated. The complex also includes an elephant care center. These elephants take part in the annual Buddha Day parade from Mendut to Pawon and finally to Borobudur.
We saw an interesting documentary while eating lunch at a restaurant within the complex. The documentary reported that American astronaut Neil Armstrong, who landed on the moon in 1969, noticed a vivid glow coming from Earth. Upon inquiry, it was found that the glow was emitting from Borobudur.
Experiencing Borobudur is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that visitors travelling to Indonesia must not miss. Unless one sets foot on the grounds of Borobudur, it is impossible to fathom the grandeur and beauty of this architectural marvel.
On this eve of Buddha Day 2020, I would like to wish happiness and prosperity to all by transferring my merit (or punya) to the worldwide victims and sufferers of COVID-19.
— By Dr. Dilip K. Barua
Copyright © Dr. Dilip K. Barua 2020
About the Author:
Dr. Barua is a coastal, marine and ocean engineering professional with more than 30 years of research and versatile work experience. As a researcher, his work has been published in many academic journals, including his website Wide Canvas where he discusses nature, social interactions, and science & technology.
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