The Borobudur: The Largest Buddhist Temple In The World Hidden In Indonesia

The builders of the colossal temple of Borobudur attempted to construct on the soil of Java a convincing facsimile of the fabulous Mount Meru of Indian mythology, the giant golden peak on which the entire universe rests. The results, still looming immense after 20 centuries with its fantastic multiplicity of pinnacles and images and carvings of Buddha, it is said to be the largest monument in the whole southern hemisphere.

The Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world
The Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world

Seen from the air, Borobudur (the name meaning "many Buddhas") can be recognised as a huge three-dimensional mandala, or ritual diagram of the universe, combining symbols of heaven and earth. Built on and over a hill, it is a step pyramid of receding terraces, rising to some 1,310 feet (400m) and estimated to contain more than 2 million cubic feet (56,634 cu m) of stone. The five lower terraces are square and represent the earthly, material world. Above them are three circular terraces, representing the spiritual realm. The pilgrim makes the slow climb up the levels from the material to the spiritual.

On the upper terraces are rows of stupas, or bell-shaped shrines, each with a meditative Buddha inside, the hands in differing symbolic postures conveying different aspects of Buddhist teaching. At the top of the whole construction, in the centre of the highest terrace and commanding a stupendous view of the surrounding mountains, in a single shrine 50 feet (15m) in diameter, which represents the final goal of nirvana, the spiritual freedom of heaven.

Visitors should follow the processional path, climbing the steps to each terrace, and then, turning always to the left (to go in the other direction is to turn towards evil), walk all the way around the monument at each level before going up to the next terrace. The walk, just over 3 miles (5km) all told, passes one of the largest assemblages of Buddhist art in existence.

There are 1,500 panels carved in relief with scenes of the Buddha's life and teachings, adding up to an encyclopedia of Buddhist doctrines in stone. Hundreds of other panels depict scenes of everyday life - work on the land, family life, storm-tossed ships, dancers, monkeys, material arts - that make up another textbook in stone about Java in the 9th century. These carvings were painted in bright colours originally. The whole monument is in the style of Indian art.

The Borobudur Temple Complex
The Borobudur Temple Complex

Borobudur was built by the Sailendra dynasty of kings around the year 800. It may have taken 75 years or more to construct and must have required an enormous workforce and the services of many sculptors and craftspeople. It was apparently abandoned about 200 years later, being left to molder quietly away and being swallowed by the jungle. Long afterward, when an English expeditionary force occupied Java during the Napoleonic Wars, one of the army officers rediscovered Borobudur. The vegetation was gradually cleared away, and a major restoration by Dutch archaeologists began in 1907. In the 1970s and 1980s, another major restoration project was carried out with assistance from UNESCO.

Lord of the Dance

The area of central Java in which Borobudur stands is historically and culturally the island's heartland. Among tall mountains (there are still active volcanoes) there is a great wealth of archaeological remains. There are Buddhist and Hindu temples, ancient mosques, Portuguese castles, and the palaces of Muslim sultans. With Indian influences powerful in Indonesia from the 8th century on, there were Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms whose rulers claimed to be earthly incarnations of Indian gods.

The temple complex of Prambanan, 11 miles (17km) northeast of Yogyakarta, was built in the 9th and 10th centuries and, like Borobudur, is covered with bas-reliefs in stone, in this case vividly depicting scenes from an Indian epic tale, the Ramayana. There are delightful carvings of mythical beasts and frolicking monkeys, trees of heaven, and the cosmic dance of the Hindu god Shiva, creator and destroyer of worlds.

The principal temple, 20 - sided and about 160 feet (49m) high, is dedicated to Shiva and contains a 10 - foot (3-m) statue of the god with four arms. In another chamber is a figure of his consort, the goddess Durga, known here as "the slender virgin," her breasts worn shiny over the centuries by the touch of pious hands. Shiva's temple is flanked by two others, to the Hindu gods Vishnu and Brahma. There were once more than 200 smaller temples in the complex.

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