Saturday, April 18, 2009

Indonesian Cultures - Borobudur (Part 1)

Borobudur, a name deriving from an expression meaning 'Mountain of accumulation of merits of the ten states of Bodhisattva' is commonly thought of as a Buddhist structure, yet its initial construction was planned and conducted by Hindu builders sometime around 775 AD. The enormous first and second terraces were completed by a declining Hindu dynasty, construction was then halted for some years, and later, from 790 to 835 AD, the Buddhist Sailendra dynasty continued and finally completed the great stupa. The huge stone mass might have then been permanently abandoned, for it was difficult to adapt to the needs of Buddhism. However, leaving in evidence such an obvious manifestation of Hinduism was probably not deemed politically correct and thus the unfinished Shiva temple was transformed into the world's largest Buddhist stupa. After 832 AD the Hindu dynasty of Sanjaya began to reunify central Java and soon reappropriated the Buddhist monuments built by the Sailendra. Although the Sanjaya were themselves Hindu, they ruled over a Buddhist majority and thus, while some Hindu modifications and ornamentations were done on Borobudur, the stupa remained a place of Buddhist use. During the 10th and 11th centuries there was a transfer of power from central Java to the east, and the great stupa fell into decline.

For centuries the site lay forgotten, buried under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth. As we see it today, Borobudur is the result of three major restoration schemes. Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles revealed Borobudur Temple in 1814. He found the temple in wined condition and ordered that the site be cleared of undergrowth and thoroughly surveyed. Nevertheless, degradation continued; making casts of all the reliefs was contemplated, and in reliefs be dismounted and displayed in a purpose-built museum. The massive restoration project began from 1905 to 1910, with the help of UNESCO, the second restoration to rescue Borobudur was carried out from 1973 to 1983.

The Borobudur stupa is a massive, symmetrical monument, 200 square meters in size, sitting upon a low sculptured hill. Symbolically, Borobudur is an embodiment of three concepts: it is, at the same time, a stupa, a replica of the cosmic mountain Mt. Meru, and a mandala (an instrument to assist meditation). The pathway up the temple spirals around the centre so that the pilgrim may view over nearly five kilometres of bas-reliefs depicting events found in Buddhist sutras and in the Buddha's life. The base of the temple is square, perhaps to symbolize the profanity of the earth. As the pilgrim rises, the squareness gives way to circular rings on the upper terraces, symbolizing the heavens. The rings are composed of miniature stupas, each holding a Buddha inside. The pilgrim symbolically spirals upward from the everyday world to the nirvanic state of absolute nothingness.

The first six terraces of which the first one is a hidden foot, are filled with richly decorated
relief panels in which the sculptors have carved a textbook of Buddhist doctrines and a fascinating panorama of 9th century Javanese life. A large base platform was added at a later date and remains something of an enigma, actually hiding the first terrace and its relief panels. Only discovered in 1885, they were merely photographed and then covered again, except in one corner, to ensure the stability of the monument. Upon the upper three terraces are 72 small stupas, each containing a statue of the Buddha (these statues are usually headless; relic hunters stole many of the heads, others are in museums). Crowning the entire structure is a great central stupa. It is not known whether the stupa was always empty, but if it was, the stupa's emptiness conveys the symbolism of having arrived at nirvana where the chain of rebirths finally ends.

As usual, we arrived at the site rather late, nevertheless we had enough time to admire it fully. Furthermore we are more for sunsets than for sunrises, and to our big astonishmernt the sun came out at the very right moment. Stephan thought himself very close to photographer's nirvana and we were rewarded for our patience with great pictures, which brought both of us close to a nirvanic state.


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