Borobudur

A view of the Borobudur Temple at Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Located about 30 miles northwest of Yogyakarta, Borobudur is the largest and one of the most beautiful Buddhist monuments in the world. This amazing structure was built between 778 and 850 CE by the rulers of the Shylendra (Cailendra) dynasty, who were the followers of Mahāyāna Buddhism. According to an inscription, it was founded by King Samaratungga of the Shylendra dynasty.

The Borobudur monument was buried under volcanic ash around 1000 CE and lay hidden for many centuries until it was discovered by the British in 1815. The Dutch, who were the colonial masters at that time, excavated and restored it in 1907 and 1911. Later, Indonesia continued the restoration and completed it in 1983.

Borobudur is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although Hinduism and Buddhism did not originate in Indonesia, Indonesians are proud of their heritage and the monuments. They have done an excellent job of restoring and maintaining these archaeological sites.

Borobudur Structure

Unlike the other Buddhist structures in the world, Borobudur is unique in that its structure looks like a step pyramid and the size comparable to Giza Pyramids in Egypt. The image below is a drawing showing the half cross-section of the monument.

Layers the Borobudur Temple
Details of Borobudur Temple layers

The Borobudur monument is about Buddhist philosophy and Gauthama Buddha’s birth, life, death, and enlightenment. According to Buddhist philosophy,  human beings need to go through three realms to attain enlightenment. These are:

  • Kāmadhātu: The word kāma in Sanskrit roughly translates to desire or lust. This is the actual physical realm of humans and animals with desire and lust. This realm is equivalent to the Bhuloka in Hinduism.
  • Rūpadhātu : The word rūpa in Sanskrit refers to form or shape. This is the realm of ascetics and lesser gods who have controlled their worldly desires but still remain human. This realm is equivalent to Bhuvaloka in Hinduism.
  • Arūpadhātu: The word arūpa in Sanskrit refers to formlessness. This realm is totally an abstract level of consciousness. The holiest of the holy resides in this realm and have no physical form. People who attain enlightenment live in this realm. This realm is equivalent to Svarloka/Svargaloka in Hinduism.

The Borobudur monument has three layers of structures that reflect the concept of the above three realms. The top layer with three round terraces represents Arūpadhātu. The middle layer with five square terraces represents Rūpadhātu. The lowest layer, which is the courtyard, represents Kāmadhātu.

Outer views of the Borobudur Temple

Arūpadhātu Layer

Representing Arūpadhātu is the top layer of the temple consisting of three circular terraces, each of which has numerous bell-shaped stupas and statues of Buddha.

A large bell-shaped stupa with a pinnacle on top is situated at the middle of the topmost terrace. The pinnacle originally had an umbrella mounted on it but was destroyed by lightning. This stupa, which is called mother stupa, believed to have contained a golden Buddha statue inside but was stolen in the 1800s when Borobudur was discovered.

The topmost terrace also has 16 stupas, the second terrace from the top has 24 stupas and the third from the top has 32 stupas. Inside each stupa, there is a Buddha statue called Dhyani Buddha Vajrasattva with the Dharmachakra Mudra (hand gesture), which symbolizes the wheel of Dharma.

Top three terraces of Borobudur

Sunrise

At dawn, the top terraces provide a spectacular view of the temple and lush green mountainous terrain surrounding Borobudur. A lot of tourists visit this monument just to view the sunrise from the top terraces.

Sunrise at Borobudur

Rūpadhātu Layer

Representing the Rūpadhātu realm is the middle layer consisting of five square terraces. This is the body of the temple.

Corridors

A Rūpadhātu terrace is square in shape and has four corridors, each of which with amazing bas-reliefs carved on the inner and balustrade walls and beautiful Dyani Buddha statues placed inside the niches built on top of the walls.

Corridors of the Rūpadhātu  terraces

Dhyani Buddha Statues

The Rūpadhātu layer has 432 Dhyani Buddha (Meditating Buddha) statues. Even though the statues may look-alike, they have different hand gestures called mudras. In Buddhism, there are five standard mudras. 

A Dhyani Buddha statue with a particular mudra has a name and meaning. All the Buddha statues pointing to a cardinal direction (i.e., one of north, east, south, west) have the same mudras. Here is a list of the five mudras and the name of the corresponding Buddha.

Bhumisparsha Mudra

A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Bhumisparshamudra gesture
A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Bhumisparshamudra gesture

Bhumisparsha in Sanskrit means touching the earth. In this gesture,  all the five fingers of the right hand pointing to the ground. This mudra refers to Buddha calling the earth as the witness. The Buddha with this pose is called Asokabhya. The statues in the east direction have this mudra.

Dhyana Mudra

A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Dhyanamudra gesture
A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Dhyanamudra gesture

In this gesture, with both the palms facing upwards. the right-hand palm is placed on top of the left-hand palm. This mudra represents silence or meditation. The Buddha with this pose is called Amitabha. The statues in the west direction have this mudra.

Abhaya Mudra

A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Dhyanamudra gesture
A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Dhyanamudra gesture

In this gesture, the right hand is held upright with the palm facing outwards. This mudra represents fearlessness and reassurance. The Buddha in this pose is called Amoghasidha, and the statues in the north direction have this mudra.

Vara Mudra

A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Varamudra gesture
A Dhyani Buddha statue with the Varamudra gesture

In this gesture,  the right-hand palm is open upwards with the fingers slightly pointing downwards. This mudra represents charity and compassion. The Buddha with this pose is called Ratnasambhava. The statues in the south direction have this mudra.

Vitāraka Mudra

Buddha with the Vitaraka Mudra Gesture - Bas-relief on the Rupadatu layer in Borobudur, Indinesia
Buddha with the Vitaraka Mudra Gesture

In this gesture, with the right-hand palm facing outwards, the tips of the thumb and index finger touch to make a circle and the other three fingers point upwards. This mudra represents teaching and debate. This Buddha with this pose is called Vairochana. The statues in the center have this mudra.

 

Story Panels

The story panels are carved on the  inner as well as thebalustrade walls of the corridors of the five Rūpadhātu layer terraces. They contain narrative bas-rliefs based on scenes from ancient Buddhist texts.  The type of stories covered in the Rūpadhātu layer are:
Gandavyūha: Stories of Sudhana, a boy from India, moving from teacher to teacher in search of wisdom and enlightenment.
Avadāna: Similar stories as Jātaka but people are not bodhisattvas
Lalitavistāra: Life of Buddha in Tushita Heaven
Jātaka: Stories of Buddha in his previous lives

To get te location of the story panels, check the diagram in the earlier section detailing contents of the three layers of Borobudur.

Gandavyūha Story

The Gandavyūha story panels cover the top three of the five terraces of the Rūpadhātu layer. The scenes in the Gandavyūha story panels are based on Gandavyūha Sūtra, an ancient Buddhist text that chronicles the journey of Sudhana – a son of a wealthy merchant – in his quest for wisdom and enlightenment. In his epic journey, he meets a total of 52 teachers from all walks of life, including a king, queen, slave, and even a prostitute. His last three teachers before he attains enlightenment are, Maitreya, Manjushri, and Samantabhadra, who are Mahāsattvas (great bodhisattvas). 

Here are some of the interesting Gandavyūha bas-reliefs carved on the top three terraces of the Rūpadhātu layer:

Sudhana meets A Teacher

Gandavyūha Story - Bas-relief depicting Sudhana listening to a teacher carved on the Rūpadhātu layer of Borobudur in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Sudhana learning from a teacher

This beautifully carved bas-relief depicts Sudhana learning from one of his teachers. As you can see from the image, the teacher is seated on a highly ornate throne, which implies that he is a high-ranking person. It appears from his pose and hand gesture (Vitāraka Mudra) that he is delivering a sermon or engaged in a debate. 

Sudhana is seated in front of him with folded hands (namaste gesture), and behind him are the other disciples or courtiers engaged in debate. The discourse appears to occur in a beautiful setting with Sudhana and other disciples sitting under two big trees with birds flying above.

Sudhana meets Maitreya

Gandavyūha Story - Maitreya revealing Realms of Dharma to Sudhana
Sudhana meets Maitreya, the future Buddha

The bas-relief shown in the image depicts Maitreya, the ante-penultimate (third from last) teacher of Sudhana. Maitreya is the Buddha of the future, whose current abode is the Tushita Heaven and is accessible only through meditation. When Sudhana accesses Maitreya through meditation, he takes him to his wondrous tower and reveals the Dharmadhatus (realms of dharma).

As you can see from the image, Maitreya is seated on a highly ornate throne with the Dhyana Mudra gesture, implying that he is meditating, while Sudhana to his left is kneeling and bowing his head with hands on his knees. This bas-relief is carved on the west-facing inner wall of the third terrace.

Samantabhadra

Samantabhadra Bodhisattva bas-relief in the Rūpadhātu layer of Borbudur in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva

Seated gracefully on a lotus throne is Samantabhadra, one of the eight Mahāsattvas (great bodhisattvas) of the Mahāyāna Buddhism. Bodhisattva Samantabhadra is the final teacher Sudhana meets before he attains enlightenment.

This bas-relief shown in the image is on the balustrade wall of the fourth Rūpadhātu terrace. As you can see, his body is covered with beautiful jewelry, including necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and udiyana (waist chain). Hanging from the left shoulder to the right side of his waist is a looped thread, known as yajnopavita. Adorning his head is an intricately-carved three-stage mukuta (crown).

His facial expression is calm and serene. With his left hand gently resting on his leg, he is making a gesture known as the Karana Mudra with his right hand. In Sanskrit, mudra refers to a hand gesture. The Karana Mudra is performed by pointing the index and little fingers upwards and ring finger downwards, and curving the middle finger in such way that it touches the thumb. This mudra symbolizes positive energy and is performed to eliminate the negative energy around us. It is believed that Karana Mudra wards-off evil.

Gandavyūha Story - Bas-relief depicting Bodhisattva Samantabhadra delivering a sermon carved in the Rūpadhātu layer of Borobudur
Samantabhadra Discourse

At the center of this bas-relief is Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, one of the eight Mahāsattvas (great bodhisattvas) of the Mahāyāna Buddhism. Seated majestically on a throne, he is engaged in a discourse with his disciples seated to his left and right. This beautifully carved bas-relief is on the balustrade wall of the third Rūpadhātu terrace.

Avadāna Tales

The term avadāna means a great act or achievement in Sanskrit. In Buddhism, Avadānas refer to the ancient texts that narrate short stories about the heroic deeds of the people in their previous lives, and the role of Karma in their present lives. The heroic deeds include sacrifices, such as one’s life or wealth, for the good of others. The laws of Karma applies to one’s actions, i.e., the good deeds result in good outcomes, and evil deeds result in grave consequences.

The Buddhist teachers use the avadāna stories to teach morals to their followers. A typical story starts with a context, goes into the details of the deeds in one’s past life, and then their consequences in the present life. The story ends with a moral drawn from it. The Buddha himself narrated some of the stories in his sermons. The avadāna stories are somewhat similar to the parables in the Bible.

Peacock Story

A bas-relief depicting a majestic peacock riding a chariot carved in the Rupadhatu layer of Borbudur in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
A majestic peacock on a chariot

In this story, a peacock – actually a bodhisattva – became known for its beauty and voice, and Queen Anupama of Vāranasi coveted it. Her husband, King Brahmadatta, sends people to capture it with a warning that they would face the death penalty if failed.

When the people came to capture the peacock, it submitted willingly to go with them to the palace to prevent their deaths.  The image shows a bas-relief depicting a lovely peacock standing majestically inside a horse-driven chariot. It is carved on the balustrade walls of the second terrace.

The story ends with the death of the queen. When King Brahmadatta was away from the capital fighting a battle, Queen Anupama started an extra-marital affair. When she suspected that peacock knew her infidelity, she poisoned the peacock, who, instead of dying, became more beautiful. The dejected queen then killed herself.

Distributing Food and Jewels

The bas-relief shown on the left is part of Avadāna story panels covering the inner walls on the first terrace of the Rūpadhātu layer. This detailed bas-relief likely depicts the court of a king. As you can see, the king is seated on a throne on the right side and is receiving offerings from a well-dressed lady. Behind her is a person carrying a box and walking away from the court. Standing at the center is an elegantly dressed young man – most likely a prince – handing over fruits to the people, some of whom are kneeling with their hands stretched to receive them.

This detailed bas-relief  on the right likely depicts the court of a queen. As you can see, she is seated on a throne on the right side and is receiving offerings from people. Standing at the center is an elegantly dressed young man – most likely a prince or the king himself – handing over objects (food or jewels) to the people.

Lalitavistāra

The Lalitavistāra bas-reliefs depict stories from the Lalitavistāra Sūtra, which is a Mahāyāna Buddhist scripture that tells the story of Gautama Buddha from his descent from the Tusita Heaven until his first sermon at the deer park in Vāranasi, India. Note: In Sanskrit, lalita means lucid  or elegant and vistāra means expanse.

The Lalitavistāra Sūtra is a multi-author text compiled together pieces of writings in Prakrit and Sanskrit over a period of time. Because of this, there are some overalping of stories.

Bas-relief on the Rupadhatu layer depicting a scene from the life of Buddha
Shakyamuni leaving Kapilavastu

The bas-relief based on this text appear on the first terrace from the bottom on the Rūpadhātu layer. As you can see, the story panel has two registers. The top register depicts the story based on Lalitavistāra and the bottom is a Avadana story based on Divyavadāna.

The bas-relief on the top register depicts Gautama Buddha leaving his native place, Kapilavastu, in search of the truth. After Gautama Buddha attains enlightenment, he was known as Shakyamuni because of his lineage. Shakya is the name of his clan and muni means sage in Sanskrit.

Jatāka Tales

The Jātaka tales, which date back to 4th century BCE, are an important part of Buddhist literature in which the Buddha appears in different forms, including a king, elephant, and tortoise, in his current and previous lives.

The bas-reliefs of lower terraces of the Rūpadhātu layer depict stories from Jātaka Mala, a book written in Sanskrit by Arya Sura sometime in 8th or 9th century describing 34 Jataka stories. Similar stories are also painted on the Ajantha caves in India.

Kamadhatu Layer

The courtyard of the Borobudur represents the Kamadhatu realm.

A section of the Kamadhatu layer
A section of the Kamadhatu layer

This layer has only one type of bas-relief, which is called Mahakarmawibhangga. The bas-reliefs in this layer depict general stories of human actions and their consequences. Even though there are 160 reliefs, only a few are open to the public.

Related Pages
-Borobudur, Prambanan, Bali, Indonesia
-Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs, Banteay Srei, Cambodia

Copyright © 2017 – 2020 by Lawrence Rodrigues. All rights reserved.

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