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The first question one must ask is 'How did the Buddhist faith spread to Java from its homeland in India in ancient times - a distance of over 5,000km?  ' Originating in India around the sixth century BC, Buddhism began to move out of India and Sri Lanka and spread into South East Asia by the third and fourth centuries CE. As with the worldwide transmission of ideas and knowledge, Buddhism spread via trade. We are aware of maritime trade routes that linked South East Asia with India, China and Rome enabling the transportation of goods, technology and sophistication notions of the cosmos and Gods. Merchants spread the word of this new path to salvation and Buddhism 'considered merchants to be self-sacrificing people who undertook long and dangerous journeys in order to satisfy other people's needs'  . In Borobudur's reliefs of the Avadanas we see scenes of boats and observe the tradesman Maitrakanya's shipwreck as sailors hurriedly escape on to lifeboats before their ship get taken over by a vicious sea monster. The merchants are and were clearly depicted as heroes.
If getting Buddhism across to the people of Java and pilgrims from far away then Borobudur achieves this on all levels. Its strong presence is comparable today only to Angkor Wat and with no other structures in miles Borobudur only has to merely compete with the rolling rice fields, coconut groves and mountains. We are aware of the immense impact Indian cosmology had on the architecture of South East Asia as 'architects attempted to reproduce on earth a replica of the universe in order to foster and perpetuate the harmony between heaven and earth, between macrocosm and microcosm'  . So it is interesting to view Borobudur that consists of nine tiers with the bottom six square platforms representing the earth whilst the top four circular platforms represent the heavens or the sky. When researching deeper I found that this immense monument more specifically represents the three worlds of Mahayana Buddhist cosmology. The base levels represent the world of desire (Kamadhatu) whilst the middle levels represent the world of forms (Rupadhatu). Finally the top level represents the world of formlessness (Arupadhatu), the highest level of enlightenment, expressive of Nirvana. On each side of the monument 108 Buddhas are seated, some in protective niches. The repetition of the Buddha images ensures observers with a clear view from all angles. Akshobya (figure) sits prominently on the East side in the Bhumisparsa mudra which shows him touching the earth with his right hand stating him as the unmovable Buddha as just before enlightenment the devil tried to distract Buddha with his beautiful naked dancing daughters. Ratnasambhava (figure), shown in the Vara mudra symbolising charity, sits on the south side. Amitabha (figure) can be seen on the west side in the Dhyani mudra of meditation and Amoghasiddhi (figure) in the Abhaya mudra, eliminating fear, is on the North side. Finally one can admire the impressive Vairocana (figure) in the centre showing the Dharmacakra mudra as he turns the wheel of the law. The fact that these Buddhas are showing signs of 'giving' and 'have no fear' really reminds the observer of the Buddhist religion, its teachings and what we as mere mortals need to strive for in our lives.
At the top of Borobudur surrounding and almost guarding the main Stupa sit 72 Buddha statutes most of them enclosed in bell-shaped small Stupas and these statues can be seen through numerous decorative openings. The stupas on the lower terrace are perforated with diamond-shaped holes whilst the stupas on the upper terraces are pierced with square holes. It is said to be lucky if you are able to reach in through the holes and touch the Buddhas. The 'Stupa form originated in pre-Buddhist India as a burial tumulus of earth surmounted by a wooden pillar symbolising the link between heaven, earth and the underworld'  . These burial mounds are believed to enshrine the relics of the Buddha however are solid and one cannot enter so pilgrimage cicumambulate clockwise. They are built in all areas where Buddhism spread and whilst signifying the death and nirvana of the Buddha they also evoke his presence and distribute it to places he never visited. Asoka, the great emperor of the Mauryan Empire between c.268 - 285BC, transmitted Buddhism and is said to have spread Buddha's relics amongst 84,000 stupas. The three types of relics are body relics which are physical remains, contact relics which are objects associated with Buddha and final Dharma relics which are texts consisting of the word of Buddha. Relics are 'expressions of the Buddha and extensions of the Buddha's biographical process'  , however did Borobudur ever house a relic? The first description we have of Borobudur states that the main Stupa had a 'large hole in it revealing two empty chambers inside, one above the other, but no relic was found. According to one rumour, the Dutch Resident of Kedu stole a gold image from the chamber'  . Nothing has been proved.
When observing the stone Borobudur it is not difficult to reminisce of mountains and 'Ancient Javanese came to Borobudur as pilgrims - to climb this holy man-made mountain and attain spiritual merit. Borobudur provided a place where Buddhists could physically and spiritually pass through the ten stages of development that would transform them into enlightened bodhisattvas'  . Miksic claims that this is the main purpose of the monument and we remember the local inscription that names Borobudur as 'BhÅ«mi-sambhÄra-bhÅ«dhara', meaning 'mountain of accumulation of merit by stage'. Borobudur's shape may relate to animist worship of mountains however it is also a representation of Mount Meru which in Indian belief is the mountain on which the gods reside. Whether you enter from any of the four entrances this notion of on a journey is reminiscent of the journey that Buddha himself went on to achieve enlightenment. Each tier is connected by steep stairs and gates connect and welcome you into each sector. The teachings of Buddha have always been the main influence when building religious monuments and 'at the core of his teachings...was the search for release from suffering and....for the individual to take responsibility for his own actions rather than looking to the gods to intervene'  . In my opinion I believe the stairs of Borobudur are the trails of life that you have to conquer and overcome until you reach that point where you can go no further; enlightenment. To get to that point you pass walls adorned with Buddhist reliefs and on the circular terraces we see scenes of Samantabhadra who vows to help all beings attain final enlightenment. As you get closer to the top tier other scenes show Samantabhadra teaching Sudhana to fly and this hints at the important issue of joining the Buddhas.
Reliefs of Borobudur
'Though we will never be sure why the Javanese built Borobudur, the monument's main meaning is more likely to be found in the complex relationship that exists between the reliefs and the architecture'  . As you pass up through and subsequently cicumambulate Borobudur, the first four levels consist of seven feet wide galleries with balustrades. These galleries are alive with narrative reliefs and the visitor or pilgrim can walk down the narrow corridors with images to their left and right, traditionally with the right side of their body facing the monument, following the reliefs depicting Buddha's journey towards enlightenment. When walking around you get this overpowering sense of information. As you cicumambulate the walls of relief are fairly high and the galleries are narrow which hem you in as your eyes force you to take in every scene. The reliefs are deep and full and have been created cleverly so when you walk past them the light catches on the craftsmanship creating dramatic pockets of shadow bringing the scene further more to life. The images at Borobudur 'clearly owe much to their Indian forbears, but there is a difference. They are sculpted in a softer, more naturalistic style, with gentle, subtle contours that speak of a calm, divine beauty. The carving of the reliefs echoes this grace, and again the modelling of the figures is more restrained than in Indian scultpure'  . The reliefs are, like the monument, nothing but impressive. Quality, design and depth are achieved in a mere few millimetres. Despite there being four entrances, ancient pilgrims studying the reliefs would start on the east side where the stories are thought to begin. The relief panels, of which there are thought to be around 1460, on the outer walls 'depict Jataka stories, episodes from the previous lives of the Buddha; on the inner walls the reliefs progress from incidents in the life of the historical Buddha...the final stages of these panels at the top level  '. This idea of progression is mirrored in the relief work with secular subject matter at the base with 'scenes of human life, depicting good and bad deeds, together with the corresponding rewards and punishments  '. This is interestingly juxtaposed with the holy imagery and inscriptions depicted at the top tiers that 'show Buddha figures enthroned in the heavens together with other celestial beings.  ' As you walk around, follow the exquisite art work and ascend onto each tier you are continually reminded of this notion of the journey. The panels follow one next to each other however on the first level there are four series of reliefs, two on the inner wall and two on the outer wall one above the other so one would have to cicumambulate the first level four times to read each panel consecutively. The other three levels have two series of reliefs on either side so you would have to cicumambulate all levels twice which totals to walking around the monument ten times, a distance of nearly three miles. This is a clear display of why Borobudur was built as a religious monument as 'People visiting Borobudur...came as pilgrims to immerse themselves in and grasp the truth of the Buddha's teachings by studying the contents of the narrative reliefs and to practice meditation in order to obtain the supreme truth'  .
The reliefs start right at the base of Borobudur at the hidden foot which was discovered in 1885 but covered again until the Japanese army re-exposed the south eastern corner in the 1940's. The Mahakarmavibhangga depict visions of worldly desire and clearly express the 'classification of actions' within 160 panels. Just above the ground they 'served as moral lessons to pilgrims, depicting men and women performing both good and evil deeds and then being rewarded and punished in hell or heaven for their actions'  . For example we see scenes of warriors being re-born as sickly children. As with all the panels firstly we see the action then it is followed by its punishment or reward. Buddhists are strongly against the killing of animals so in figure... we see fishermen punished for cooking fish and turtles and subsequently in return they themselves are thrown into a large cauldron in the Pratapana Hell. These 'reliefs were intended to prepare the pilgrim to ascend the monument by acquainting him with the difference between good and evil, and reminding him of the desirability of escaping from the sorrows of existence by achieving Nirvana. But even before the monument was finished these reliefs were buried'  . As we move up the tiers of Borobudur we observe the Jatakas, meaning 'Birth story', and Avadanas, meaning 'Heroic deeds', reliefs. We are aware that the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama was born many times previously and there are around 550 tales of his previous incarnations as animals and people so the reliefs at Borobudur seek to express the morals and doctrines. In one story we see 'The future Buddha is a rabbit who teaches his friends - a jackal, an otter and an ape - the importance of generosity. When Indra appears disguised as a Brahman, his friends all bring food but the rabbit is unable to do so and jumps in the cooking fire himself'  . The reliefs get progressively abstract and 'can be compared to animal fables, fairytales, romances and adventure stories. Some Avadanas have very little religious significance and at least two storied even depict Buddha incarnated as a robber'  . Within the Avadanas we observes the honourable Sibi King offering to save a dove by offering his own flesh to protect the dove from the hungry falcon who are both disguised gods. The Gandavyuha reliefs are the most prominent and were left the most space of three galleries on Borobudur by the Javanese. They illustrate Sudhana's search for enlightenment as he seeks help from various spiritual teachers. He arrives at the heaven of Maitreya where he meets the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra who vows to help all beings attain final enlightenment. We see them sitting side by side in figure... with five Jinas of the Borobudur terraces plus the Dharmacakra Buddha of the circular terraces. The final relief aids the art of continual narrative as we firstly see Samantabhadra standing then rising between two temples on a lotus. Finally we observe him floating into the air to join the Buddhas amongst flowers with his knee's bent in the traditional way that reiterates that he is flying. There is 'no doubt pilgrims who reached this stage of instruction now identified themselves with Buddha...we do no not know what came next, but we can imagine that the pilgrims ascended to the round terraces at the top of the monument. there, their long journey at a successful end, their visit to Borobudur reached its climax'  .
Mandala comes from the Sanskrit word which loosely translates to mean circle and can be understood as a cosmic diagram or symbolising the universe. These diagrams that consist of circles, squares and triangle are arranged in a specific way, symmetrical and concentric and can be painted on flat surfaces or represented in three dimensional structures. They represent the sacred abode of deities as they are placed in hierarchical order with the main one in the middle with four entrances on each side. They are similar to 'A cosmogram used in Tantric Buddhism for the purpose of meditation, visualisation and/or initiation'  and so one can visualise being within the diety's realm by meditating on images of deities starting from the outside and moving inwards. Despite there being approximately 3,500 mandala designs around the time of Borobudur the main debate lies with whether or not Borobudur's layout bears any resemblance to a mandala design. Mandalas 'have several features which represent parts of a building such as Borobudur. The outer border of the diagram is a square resembling a wall pierced by four arched gateways, each guarded by a demonic face at the top, with heads of beasts with elephants' trunks at the bottom'  . The main types of mandala taught and studied are the Dharmadhatu meaning the Matrix World and the Vajradhatu meaning the Diamond World. The 'Diamond World mandala consists of nine separate mandalas. The central one is sometimes said to symbolise the jewel tower on Mt. Sumeru where Vairocana first described the Diamond World mandala'  . As with a vast majority of history we are missing a lot of documents and manuscripts that may help us further understand if Borobudur is indeed a Mandala. If we view a plan of Borobudur next to the 9th century Tibetan Diamond World Mandala straight away we see similarities, 'Borobudur's form and hilltop location recall the setting of the jewel tower on the summit of Mt. Sumeru. The statuary in the niches on the balustrades which face the four compass directions correspond to the four Buddhas who surround the Supreme Buddha in the Diamond World mandala'  . However 'to classify Borobudur as a Mandala, it is not enough to say that it looks like one, we must prove that it was used as one'  . People such as Paul Mus and Alex Wayman who call Borobudur a Mandala whilst David Snellgrove says it is clearly not the full 37 member Vajradhatu Mandala but merely a simple Mandala form. Interestingly Moens writes 'The Barabudur ultimately became the Mandala of the transcendental Buddha, the Tathagatagarbha - the Blessed Place of all the Bharabuddha sovereigns of Central Java'  . Marijke Klokke argues against Borobudur being a Mandala because the 72 Vairocana Buddhas in stupas are not in the exact centre but around the central Stupa and Mandalas hardly have narratives yet Borobudur has 1460 narrative reliefs panels. She continues to state that in a pre-helicopter age it would be impossible to see the Buddhas for tantric visualisation but then she has a rather simplistic notion of meditation. Whether or not Borobudur is a mandala has continued to complex art historians and Buddhists alike. I think it can best be described as based on the later Tantric Diamond World Mandala.
I strongly believe that Borobudur's central function is as a religious monument and as an icon signifying the Buddha and evoking his presence. It remains even today a centre for worship where pilgrims perform the act of circumambulation and use the vast pyramid bedecked with Buddhas in a cosmic formation to progress in a spiritual journey.