This colossal temple was built between AD 750 and 842: 300 years before Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, 400 years before work had begun on the great European cathedrals. Little is known about its early history except that a huge army of workers worked in the tropical heat to shift and carve the 60,000 m3 of stone. At the beginning of the 11th century AD, because of the political situation in Central Java, divine monuments in that area, including the Borobudur Temple became completely neglected and given over to decay. The Sanctuary was exposed to volcanic eruption and other ravages of nature. The temple was not rediscovered until the 19th century. A first restoration campaign, supervised by Theodor van Erp, was undertaken shortly after the turn of the century. A second one was led more recently (1973-82).
Borobudur is built as a single large stupa, and when viewed from above takes the form of a giant tantric Buddhist mandala, simultaneously representing the Buddhist cosmology and the nature of mind. The foundation is a square, approximately 118 meters (387 ft) on each side. It has nine platforms, of which the lower six are square and the upper three are circular. The upper platform features seventy-two small stupas surrounding one large central stupa. Each stupa is bell-shaped and pierced by numerous decorative openings. Statues of the Buddha sit inside the pierced enclosures.
The monument is both a shrine to the Lord Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimage. The journey for pilgrims begins at the base of the monument and follows a path circumambulating the monument while ascending to the top through the three levels of Buddhist cosmology, namely Kāmadhātu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness). During the journey the monument guides the pilgrims through a system of stairways and corridors with 1,460 narrative relief panels on the wall and the balustrades.
The large bell-shape structures are known as stupas and some of them contain a statue of Buddha. A stupa is a mound-like structure containing relics, typically the remains of Buddha, used by Buddhists as a place of worship.
Evidence suggests Borobudur was abandoned following the 14th-century decline of Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms in Java, and the Javanese conversion to Islam. Worldwide knowledge of its existence was sparked in 1814 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, then the British ruler of Java, who was advised of its location by native Indonesians. Borobudur has since been preserved through several restorations. The largest restoration project was undertaken between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and UNESCO, following which the monument was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Borobudur is still used for pilgrimage; once a year Buddhists in Indonesia celebrate Vesak at the monument, and Borobudur is Indonesia’s single most visited tourist attraction.
Besides being the highest symbol of Buddhism, the Borobodur stupa is also a replica of the universe. It symbolises the micro-cosmos, which is divided into three levels, in which man’s world of desire is influenced by negative impulses; the middle level, the world in which man has control of his negative impulses and uses his positive impulses; the highest level, in which the world of man is no longer bounded by physical and worldly ancient desire.
It is devotional practice to circumambulate around the galleries and terraces always turning to the left and keeping the edifice to the right while either chanting or meditating. In total, Borobodur represents the ten levels of a Bodhisattva’s life which he or she must develop to become a Buddha or an awakened one.
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