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Largest Buddhist temples of Indonesia: Borobudur

By Devik Balami at

Borobudur is a 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist temple located in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. It is considered as the world's largest Buddhist temple and greatest Buddhist monuments. The temple was designed in Javanese Buddhist architecture. This monument is both a shrine to the Lord Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimage.

Architectural design of Borobudur Buddhist temple

The temple, Borobudur is built as a single large stupa. It is built in such a way that when one views the temple from above then it looks like a gigantic Buddhist mandala. The temple has nine platforms which can be divided into two divisions on the basis of the nature of the design. The nine platforms are again topped by a central Buddha stupa. The six platforms in the lower section are square and the three platforms in the upper section are circular. The foundation of the temple, the first square, measures approximately 118 m on each side. The upper platform consists of 72 small Buddha stupas and a large stupa at the center. Each stupa is decorated with numerous ancient Buddhist arts which also contain Buddha statues. It is recorded that the temples' walls, balustrades were decorated with relief panels, approximately 2,672 in numbers and 504 Buddha Statues. Pilgrims visiting Borodubar are guided by the complex systems of staircase and corridors to reach the top platform. It is believed that each platform is represented one stage of enlightenment.

Symbolically, the temple is divided into three distinct divisions- Kamadhatu (the world of desires), Rupadhatu (the world of forms), and Arupadhatu (the formless world). These three divisions are regarded as three realms of Buddhist cosmology. If we incorporate this ideology in the architecture of the temple, the base of the temple is Kamadhatu, the remaining five square platform is Rupadhatu and finally, the three circular platform and the topmost stupa is the Arupadhatu.

The structures for the platforms are metaphorically different. We can observe detailed decorations in the Rupadhatu and plain platforms in Arupadhatu. This signifies that in Rupadhatu, humans are attached to the materials and forms and in Arupadhatu, humans they don’t have any desires and are detached with the forms. They are in the process to gain nirvana.

While excavating in 1885, a hidden structure under the base was discovered accidentally. This hidden structure contains 160 reliefs and is believed to be the real kamadhatu. The reliefs depict mainly causal effect relationship. There is various thought regarding the base to be hidden. One of them is the original hidden base was incorrect according to the Vastu Shastra.

Reliefs in Borobudur

Borobudur is constructed in such a way that it reveals the high level of architectural design. It is highly decorated at the base and is plain at the topmost part of the temple. The reliefs depicted many scenes of daily life in 8th century ancient Java. These are mainly of courtly palace life, hermits, and ordinary people in the village. The reliefs also depict temples, marketplace, flora, and fauna. Not only had the realistic figures, the reliefs also depicted religious, spiritual figures. The figures of asuras, devata, bodhisattvas, Buddha's life, etc. were also the central theme for the reliefs.

The important reliefs in Borobudur are

The law of Karma (Karmavibhangga)

This relief is depicted in the original hidden base. On the right part of this relief, it shows sinful act of killing and cooking turtles and fishes. On the left part, it shows those who lived by killing animals will be tortured in hell by being cooked alive, being cut, or being thrown into burning house.

The story of Prince Siddhartha and the birth of Buddha (Lalitavistara)

The detailed pictures of preparations in the heaven, on the earth to welcome the Buddha is showed at the start of this relief in this 27 panels. In this series, the relief depicts each and every event in the life of prince until he becomes the Buddha, the enlightened one.

The stories of Buddha's previous life (Jataka) and other legendary persons (Avadana)

In this series of reliefs, the stories of Buddha about previous lives are portrayed in both human and animal forms. Avadanas are similar to Jatakas with little variations. In Avadanas the main figure is not the Bodhisattva himself, it is other legendary persons. Even though there are little differences, these two are included in the same series of reliefs.

Sudhana's search for the ultimate truth (Gandavyuha)

This 460 panels of relief portray Sudhana's tireless wandering in search of the highest perfect wisdom. This narrative relief clearly portrays the journey of Sudhana's search to understand supreme knowledge and ultimate truth which he acquires with the help of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra.

The History of Borobudur clearly shown that in the period of 14th century CE, Java experienced the decline of Hindu kingdoms and most of the Javanese convert to Islam. Hence, world largest Buddhist monastery was abandoned. It was only in 1814 CE, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, British ruler of Java discovered this largest Buddhist monument. Since then Borobudur has been preserved through several restorations and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.