The Borobudur Temple: An Architectural and Cultural Wonder

5/12/2020

Borobudur is one of the most remarkable Buddhist monuments in the world. Situated in the Kedu Valley, Central Java, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Let’s delve deeper into the history and architecture of the ancient wonder of Indonesia.

Borobudur History: Construction Phase

There is no single known record of construction or the designated purpose of Borobudur temple. Historians estimated the duration of construction by comparing carved reliefs on the temple's concealed foot and the inscriptions traditionally used in royal charters in the 8th and 9th centuries. It is believed that Borobudur was founded around 800 AD. This tallies well to the peak period of Śailēndra dynasty rule over Mataram kingdom in central Java, spanning the years 760 to 830 AD. The construction has been assumed to have taken 75 years and completed in 825 AD during the reign of Samaratungga.

<em>Borobudur and The Sun </em>by Affandi | Source: sothebys.com

At that time, construction of Borobudur temple and Buddhist temples in general was possible due to the permissions granted by Rakai Panangkaran of Sanjaya dynasty, whom was a Hindu king, to the Buddhist adherents to build such temples. In fact, to show his respect, Panangkaran bestowed the village of Kalasan to the Buddhist society, as is inscribed in the Kalasan Charter dated 778 AD.

Borobudur History: Abandonment and Rediscovery

For centuries, Borobudur laid hidden under layers of volcanic ash and jungle vegetation. The exact reason behind its abandonment remains a mystery. Sometime between 928 and 1006 AD, King Mpu Sindok relocated the capital of Medang Kingdom to the region of East Java after a string of volcanic eruptions; it is not confirmed whether this is the cause, but various sources mention this as the most likely period of the abandonment.

Borobudur temple circa 1866 | Source: wikimedia.org

It's not until 1835 when Borobudur was finally unearthed. The process began on 1814 when Dutch engineer Hermann Cornelius, who in 1806-7 had uncovered the Sewu complex, started cutting down trees, burning down vegetation and digging away the earth with his 200 men to reveal the monument. He was commissioned by Thomas Stamford Raffles, the appointed governor of British-ruled Java at the time. Due to the danger of collapse, Cornelius could not unearth all galleries. It was then resumed and finalized by the Resident of Kedu region, Christiaan Lodewijk Hartmann.

Borobudur after restoration by Dutch East Indies government in 1911 | Source: wikimedia.org

Building Structure

Around 55,000 cubic metres of andesite stones were taken from adjacent stone quarries to build the Borobudur temple. Each was cut to size, transported to the site and laid without mortar. Knobs, dovetails, and indentations were used to form joints between stones. The roof of niches, stupas, and arched gateways was constructed in the corbelling method. After the building had been completed, reliefs were created in situ.

The structure is equipped with a good drainage system to deal with the region's high stormwater run-off. A hundred spouts are installed at each corner to prevent flooding, each with a distinctly carved gargoyle in the form of a giant or makara.

Borobudur cross section stucture | Source: wikimedia.org

The main structure comprised of three divisions formed by nine platforms: base, body, and top. The base is a square platform, 123 x 123 metres in size with four-metre walls. Five square platforms, each of diminishing height, formed the body. The first terrace is positioned seven metres from the periphery of the base. Each following terrace is set back two metres, leaving a narrow corridor at each stage. The top consists of three upper circular platforms.

Each stage supports a row of stupas, positioned in concentric circles. Seventy-two small stupas surround one large central stupa on the uppermost platform. The apex of the central stupa is the highest point of Borobudur temple, measuring 35 metres above ground level. Each and every stupa is bell-shaped and perforated by decorative openings. Inside each pierced enclosure sits a statue of the Buddha.

Borobudur stupas | Source: relationalbuddhism.org

Access to the top is provided by stairways built at the centre of each four sides of the monument. Multiple arched gates complementing each stairway is adorned with Kala's head carved on top of each gate and Makaras projecting from each side. The main entryway is on the eastern side, where the narrative reliefs began at.

Borobudur stairway | Source: wikimedia.org

Architectural Design

Borobudur is built as a single great stupa. When viewed from above, it takes the form of a colossal tantric Buddhist mandala, representing both the nature of mind and the Buddhist cosmology. The design of Borobudur forms a step pyramid reminiscent of the prehistoric Austronesian megalithic culture in Indonesia, which had constructed several stone step pyramid structures called punden berundak. The structure is based on indigenous beliefs that mountains and high grounds are the abode of hyangs (ancestral spirits). While punden berundakstep pyramid is the core design of Borobudur, Mahayana Buddhist ideas and symbolism were also incorporated in the construction.

Borobudur from above | Source: transborobudur.com

The monument's three divisions emblematize the three realms of Buddhist cosmology. The first one is Kāmadhātu, or The Realm of Desires, represented by the base. The second is Rūpadhātu, or The Realm of Forms, represented by the five square platforms (the body). Finally, the Ārūpyadhātu,or The Formless Realm, represented by the three circular platforms and the great topmost stupa.

In 1885, the concealed foot under the base was accidentally discovered. The base contains reliefs, 160 of which are parables describing the real Kāmadhātu. The other reliefs are boards with short inscriptions illustrating the scenes to be carved, presumably an instruction guide for the sculptors. The actual base is concealed by an encasement. The purpose of the encasement remains unknown, but it was first assumed to be an effort to prevent the monument from being subsided into the hill. Regardless, the encasement base was made with meticulous design and with religious and aesthetic consideration.

The carving on Borobudur's hidden foot | Source: wikimedia.org

Reliefs

Borobudur is constructed to reveal various level of terraces, each with intricate architecture. The terraces go from being heavily ornamented with bas-relies to being plain in the circular terraces of Ārūpyadhātu. The bas-reliefs in Borobudur depicted many things, ranging from daily life in the 8th century ancient Java, mythical spiritual beings in Buddhist faiths, while also paying close attention to Indian aesthetic discipline.

Borobudur relief | Source: kemdikbud.go.id

The monument contains 1,460 narrative and 1,212 decorative panels, summing up to a total of approximately 2,670 individual bas-reliefs, which cover the façades and balustrades. The total relief surface is 2,500 sqm, distributed at the Kāmadhātu terrace and the five square platforms of Rūpadhātu terraces. The narrative panels, which depict the tale of Sudhanakumāra and Manohara, are further grouped into 11 series that engirdle the monument with a total length of 3,000 metres.

Relief panel of a ship | Source: Source: kemdikbud.go.id

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