Chapter 1, Part 8
In the late eighth century AD, the construction of what would become the world’s biggest Buddhist shrine began during King Dharanindra’s reign. Despite its colossal size, historical accounts of its decades-long construction are scarce, allowing multiple theories to emerge and feeding people’s imaginations.
Taking the layout of a giant mandala – how the universe is perceived in Buddhism cosmology – Bhumisambara, Borobudur’s original name, was built as a stepped pyramid. At the base of the massive temple, reliefs of Karmawibhangga – depiction of human life in the endless cycle of death and rebirth (samsara) as well as the law of cause and effect (karmic law) – were carved on all sides over andesite stones of volcanic origin. Above the base, multiple layers of structures were added, symbolizing Kamadhatu (the world of desires) at the low levels, Rupadhatu (the world of forms) at the mid-levels, and Arupadhatu (the formless world) at the upper levels, a long path one must take to attain enlightenment.
The Karmawibhangga section, however, was covered by stone encasement by later rulers whose intention remains a mystery. Today only the reliefs at the southeast corner of the encasement is left exposed for visitors to see and imagine how the temple looked like right after its completion.
Reliefs of Lalitavistara (the story of Siddharta Gautama from the time he was born until he reached enlightenment), Jataka and Avadana (stories of the teachings of the Buddha), and Gandavyuha (the story of a young man named Sudhana who sought for enlightenment) along with the hidden Karmawibhangga reliefs were carved on a staggering 1,460 panels adorning all sides and levels of the monument except Arupadhatu.
Arupadhatu itself, probably the most iconic part of Borobudur, took shape of a circle, representing the formless world in Mahayana Buddhist tradition. A multitude of Buddha statues, all but one are concealed within small stupas, encircle the biggest stupa at the top center of the shrine. In total, from Kamadhatu to Arupadhatu, there were 504 Buddha statues. Most of them remain on their places, albeit many are headless and more than three dozens are still missing. Museums and private art collectors are the usual culprits, although the looting of the Egyptian Museum during the 2011 uprising may help their argument in keeping artifacts from around the world safe, regardless the controversies.
Despite its location at the heart of Java, reliefs of ancient ships were carved on some panels of Borobudur, suggestive of Medang-Srivijayan maritime tradition as well as hegemony in the region. However regarding the location, an early 20th century Dutch explorer named Wijnand Otto Jan Nieuwenkamp, whose image was immortalized on a temple by the locals in northern Bali, described the Javanese temple in an intriguing way: Borobudur looked like a lotus floating in the middle of a lake.
There was, of course, no lake around the shrine by the time of his visit. Nevertheless today many villages and places around Borobudur bear water-related names, and geologists found alluvial deposit – a typical soil found near inland body of water – around the temple. No conclusive results have been announced so far, leaving only our imagination to render the Buddhist temple’s past a hypothetical, majestic setting.
Today Borobudur still is the largest single Buddhist monument in the world in spite of centuries of destruction caused both by human and nature, notably volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. It was the crown jewel of the Sailendras, although not long after its completion during the reign of Samaratungga Mahayana Buddhism’s grip on Medang’s royal court was seriously challenged by the resurgence of Hinduism, a former power sidelined for centuries and ready to make a comeback to the Javanese royal court.
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