One of the oldest art complexes and greatest monuments of the world, the Borobudur temple has retained the superb architectural and aesthetic beauty with which it was blessed since its construction sometime in the end of the 7th century AD and its rediscovery in the eighteenth century. There is no foundation inscription, no way of dating beyond the paleography of the workers’ inscriptions, and no later mention of the sanctuary until 1709 AD.
Composed of 55,000 square meters of lava rock fashioned in the form of a lotus (Buddha’s sacred flower) with a stepped-pyramid of six rectangular stories, three circular terraces and a central stupa, Borobudur should be on everybody’s list of great art-complexes in the world for its size, quality, sophistication and excellent state of preservation.
For each direction the steps face, there are ninety-two Dhyani Buddha statues and 1,460 relief scenes. The lowest level has 160 reliefs depicting situations of cause and effect; the middle level contains various stories of the Buddha’s life from the Jataka Tales; the highest level has no reliefs or decorations whatsoever but has a balcony, square in shape with round walls. Here, ninety-two Vajrasattvas or Dhyani Buddhas are tucked into small stupas.
Each of these statues has a mudra (hand gesture) indicating one of the five directions: east, with the mudra of calling the earth to witness; south, with the hand position of blessing; west, with the gesture of meditation; north, the mudra of fearlessness; and the centre with the gesture of teaching.
The Borobudur Temple is also constructed as a replica of the universe. It symbolizes the micro-cosmos which is divided into three levels.
The first level is the world where human desires are influenced by negative impulses.
The middle level is the world where man has the power to control his negative impulses and instead use his positive impulses.
The third and highest level is liberation. The world where man is no longer bound and influenced by physical and worldly desire.
It is a practice among devotees to go around the galleries and terraces always keeping to the left and keeping the structure itself to the right while either chanting or meditating. In summary, the Borobodur symbolizes the ten levels of a bodhitsatta’s (a being striving for awakening. Like Buddha was before he became “enlightened.”) life which he/she must develop to become a Buddha or an awakened one.
Ascending one by one, pilgrims would walk around each of the concentric terraces. The whole comes together to form a mountain. Mountain peaks, according to Buddhist thought, is the place where contact with divine truth may be made. Pilgrims would climb each level of the mountain, drawing them closer and closer to complete infusion by divine wisdom.
In the words of Professor Soekmono, the Indonesian archaeologist who directed the Borobudur Restoration Project: “Borobudur has resumed its old historical role as a place of learning, dedication and training. We might even conclude that the builders of the monument hoped and planned for such continuity.
An excellent training program, either for the pilgrim-devotee or for the field technician, is always based on a wish, a fervent wish, that the trainee will achieve what is projected. For the ardent Buddhist it is the Highest Wisdom that leads to the Ultimate salvation, and for the technician the highest degree of expertise that leads to the appropriate fulfillment of his duty. In both cases, Candi Borobudur is the embodiment of such a deeply felt wish. It is a prayer in stone.”