Borobudur – A mountain of combined virtues

If it weren’t for my friends, JJ and Aruna Trada in Kuala Lumpur, I doubt I would have heard of, let alone visit, Borobudur in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. My sister, Sudha Seshadri, is very knowledgeable about ancient monuments, going to show I need to spend more time in tapping into her know-how. Well, live and learn.

Anyway, I am fortunate in that I have just come back from a short holiday in Yogyakarta with some unforgettable memories and a mind that has now turned to exploring Indonesian history. Not to mention the birth of an insatiable curiosity about the unquestionable links between ancient India and the countries in what is now known as the South-East Asia region.

Borobudur, like Angkor Wat, was discovered in the 19th century when Sir Stamford Raffles learnt of an ancient monument buried under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth from the locals in the area. It is important to mention here that Mount Merapi, on the border between Yogyakarta and Central Java, is the most active volcano in Indonesia and has erupted regularly since 1548. The last eruption was as recent as November 30, 2010.

There is no written record of who built Borobudur. All that we know today has been gleaned from carved reliefs on the temple’s hidden foot (these reliefs have some Sanskrit instructions left for carvers. The distinctive lettering enabled archaeologists to date the temple to the mid-9th century during the reign of the Saliendra dynasty in the area).

Some more knowledge has been carved out of the inscriptions commonly used in ancient charters. But other than that, a great deal of mystery still surrounds this ancient marvel of a monument, including the origins of the name Borobudur. Wikipedia offers detailed information on the various theories surrounding the name. Including those that posit that the original name was not Borobudur.

Of the many interpretations though, the one that personally fired my imagination is the one suggested by De Casparis: Bhūmi Sambhāra Bhudhāra, which in Sanskrit means ‘the mountain of combined virtues of the ten stages of Boddhisattvahood’, was the original name of Borobudur.

De Casparis’s interpretation, to my mind, fits the fact that the Borobudur temple was built to represent the many layers of Buddhist philosophy.

Consider that the temple is in the shape of a traditional mandala. The mandala, which is central to ancient Buddhist and Hindu art, is a square with four entry points to a circular centre point. In Borobudur, working from the exterior to the interior, three zones of consciousness are represented, with the centre standing for the achievement of Nirvana. Makes you think about the importance of being centered to achieve self-realisation and self-actualisation!

The other fact that may interest you to learn is that the Borobudur temple has also been built to represent the three major zones described in Buddhist cosmology. The zones are built-in layers till you reach the centre representing Nirvana:

  • Kamadhatu – the world of desire.
  • Rupadhatu – this is a world where beings have let go of desire but are still bound by form.
  • Arupadhatu – This part is symbolic of the Nirvana and Sunyata worlds, represented by three terraces in the form of circles. Arupadhatu also means the formless world, comprising those beings who have attained, I imagine, Nirvana. I guess it means merging with the Supreme Consciousness.

The facts above do seem to add up to De Casparis’s explanation that Borobudur’s original name stood for a mountain of combined virtues.

As you climb the temple, you end up doing pradikshinas (circumambulation) to reach the top. The pradikshina corridor walls are filled with reliefs reminiscent of Hindu temple carvings. Looking at the panels, one’s mind travels back in time to wonder about the 9th century artisans who worked on the panels. Were they locals trained by Indian craftsmen? Or did the Indonesian king of that time bring hordes of artisans from India to help construct Borobudur?

I wish I could travel back in time to ask the people who lived in Indonesia then.

In my mind, I did travel back in time to imagine Buddhist monks walking down the pradikshina corridors. So much so, that my friend and I waited for a rare moment to capture the image of a corridor devoid of twenty-first century people.

Here is the image. Look at it and then imagine the backs of saffron or white-clad monks doing their pradikshina.

Pradikshna corridor in  Borubudur. Image by Lata Subramanian.
Imagining monks in the 9th century walking down a Pradakshina corridor in Borobudur. Image by Lata Subramanian.

Can you see those monks of a much earlier era? Yes?

Hold on to that visual. Because here’s another image to help sharpen the image in your mind. For, believe it or not, just as we had managed to capture the image above, the corridor was suddenly flooded by a troupe of young monks clad in white. They were led by a couple of senior saffron-clad monks. We were delighted to say the least!

Young monks in the twenty-first century Borubudur. Image by Aruna Trada.
Young monks in the twenty-first century Borobudur. Image by Aruna Trada.

More delight awaited at the top of Borobudur. Instead of describing the delight, I will simply let the image below do the talking.

Stupas right at the top of Borubudur. Image by Lata Subramanian.
Stupas right at the top of Borobudur. Image by Lata Subramanian.

Stupendous, right?

How did those ancient people build such an architectural marvel?

Think. How many modern structures can lay claim to leaving such an enduring legacy?

I have many more pictures of Borobudur that will speak of an ancient people’s legacy. But I imagine you, the reader of this post, would rather go and experience the delight yourself and discover a mountain of combined virtues.

#Borobudur #yogyakarta

Featured Cover Image Credit: Borobudur – A Frontal View. Image by Lata Subramanian


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