Antiquities of Central Java – The World’s Largest Buddhist Monument

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For the Javanese, the candi or ancient stone monuments of Java are tangible evidence of the great energy and artistry of their ancestors.

For the foreign visitor, communion with one ot those 1,000 years old shrines provides and opportunity to ponder the achievements of a culture other than one’s own. For just about anyone, a visit to one of the hundred odd candi, major and minor, that lie scattered about the dramatic volcanic landscapes of Central Java, is an unforgettable event.

A great deal of excavate, reconstruct and restore their reliefs, study their iconography and decipher their inscriptions. Still, we know little more tahn the most basic symbolism of these structures. Fundamental questions as to their stylistic affinities with Indian art and their function within ancient Indonesia society remain unanswered – even their chronology is in doubt. What we do know is that they are among the most technically accomplished structures produced in ancient times: and that the awe inspired by their very presence has always formed a substantial part of their message.

The World’s Largest Buddhist Monument: A leisurely one hour’s drive across the river beds and rice field of the Kedu plain, brings you to the steps of fabled Borobudur, 42 kms (26 miles) to the northwest of Yogyakarta. This huge stupe, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, was built sometimes during the relatively short reign of the Sailendra dynasty in Central Java, between 778 and 856 – 300 years before Angkor Wat and 200 years before Notre Dame. Yet within little more than a century of the completion, Borobudur and all of Central Java were mysteriously abandones. (See, An Age of Empires.”) At about this time, too, neighbouring Mt. Merapi erupted violently, covering Borobudur in volcanic ash and concealing her for the greater aprt of a millennium.

The story of Borobudur’s “rediscovery” begins in 1814, when the English Lieutenant Governor of Java, Thomas Stamford Raffles, visited Semarang and heard rumours of “a mountain of Buddhist sculptures in stone” near the town of Magelang.raffles dispatched his military engineer, H.C.C. Cornelius, to investigate. What Cornelius discovered was a hillock overgrown with trees and shurbs, but curiously scattered with hundreds of cut and carved andesite blocks. For two months, he directed a massive clearing operation, removing vegetation and a layer of erath, until it became clear that an elaborate structure lay beneath the surface. Cornelius dug no further, for fear of damaging the ancient monument.

In the years that followed, Borobudur was fully laid bare and subsequently suffered almost a century of decay, plunder and abuse, during which thousands of stones were “borrowed” by villagers and score of priceless sculptures ended up as garden decorations in the homes of the ricj and powerful. Typical of the attitude of Dutch officials was the presentation, in 1896, of eight cartloads of Borobudur souvenirs to visiting King Chulalongkorn of Siam – including 30 relief panels, five Buddha statues, two lions and a guardian sculpture. Many of these and other irreplaceable works of Indo – Javanese art ended up in private collections, and now reside in museum around the world.

Finally in 1900, teh Dutch government responded to cries of outrage from within its own ranks, and established a committee for the preservation and restoration of Borobudur. The huge task of reconstruction was accomplished between 1907 and 1911 by Dr. Th. Van Erp. A Dutch military engineer with a keen interest in Javanese antiquities. Scattered stones were replaced, collapsed walls and stupas were straightened, weak spots were reinforced and the drainage system was improved. It was at this time, too, taht borobudur was discovered to be a fragile mantle of stone blocks built soon realized that his efforts at reconstruction were insufficient: rainwater was seeping through the stone mantle and eroding the soft foundation from within, while mineral salts were collecting on the monument’s surface, where they acted in conjunction with sun, wind, rain and fungus to destroy it. But Erp’s grandiose plans for a permanent restoration were never realized, due to the intervention of two world wars and a depression.

During the 1950s and 1960s, it became increasingly evident that Borobudur was structurally endangered. Parts of the north wall on the lowest terrace began to bulge as a result of internal pressure, and two earthquakes in May of 1961 created severe cracks and dislocations. Some lower balustrades were dismantled in 1965, but within a year work was discontinued for lack of funds. In 1967, an appeal was made by Professor Soekmono (head of the Indonesian Archaeological Institute) at the International Congress of Orientalists in Ann Arbor. To his suprise, the Indian delegates proposed a motion that UNESCO be called upon to direct a rescue operation; it passed unanimously. “Save Borobudur” became a rallying cry among art lovers around the world, technical assistance and financing became available, and the project officially got underway in 1973.

The scale of the Borobudur Restoration Project was spectacular. It took 700 men, workimg six days a week, fully 10 years to dismantle, catalogue, photograph, clean, treat and reassemble a total of 1,300,232 stone blocks. In addition, a new infrastructure of reinforced concrete, tar, asphalt, epoxy and tin has been constructed to support the entire monument, and a system of PVC drainage pipes installed to prevent further seepage. IBM donated the use of a computer to keep tabs on the stones and to coordinate various phases of the operation. Each stone had to be individually inspected, scrubbed and chemically treated before being replaced.

In the end, the work was completes on time, but at a cost of US$25 million, or more than three times the original estimate. In his dedication address at the of ficial re – opening of Borobudur in Feb. 23, 1983, President Soeharto explained that his government had decided to underwrite the additional expense, so that the Indonesian people would not be deprived of their ancient and gloious heritage. “It is now to be hoped,” he said, “the Borobudur will live a thousand year more.”

It is unlikely that we shall ever know the full import of Borobudur as a religious monument. It is estimated that 30,000 stonecutters and sculptors, 15,000 carriers and thousands more masons worked anywhere from 20 to 75 years to built the monument. At a time when the entire population of Central Java numbered less than one million, this represents a commitment of perhaps 10 per cent of the total workforce to a single production. Was it spiritual faith or coercive force that drove so many men create this statment in stone? We shall never know.

What is clear is that the Sailendran rulers of Java were able to command a surplus of rice and labour from the populace. The easiest way to accomplish this was of course to convince the cultivators that it was in their own best interest to donate a part of their production to the gods. When we look for the meaning, then, in the monument of Borobudur, we must recognize that its primary function was to embody and reinforce the very beliefs which created it. Seen from the air, Borobudur forms a mandala. Or geometric aid for meditation. Seen from a distance, Borobudur is a stupa or reliquary, a model of the cosmos in three vertical parts – a square base supporting a hemispheric body and a crowing spire. As one approaches along the traditional pilgrimage route (from the east), and then ascends the monument, circumambulating each terrace clockwise in succession, every relief and carving contributes to the symbolism of the whole.

There were originally 10 levels at Borobudur, each falling within one of the three divisions of the Mahayana Buddhist universe: Khamadhatu the lower spheres of human life; rupadhatu, the middle sphere of “form”; and arupadhatu, the higher sphere of detachment from the worls . the lowest gallery of relief, now covered, once depicted the delights of this world and the damnations of the next.

The next five levels (the processional terrace and four concentric galleries) show, in their relief (beginning at the eastern staircase and going around each gallery clockwise), the life of Prince Siddharta on his way to becoming the Gautama Buddha, scenes from the Kataka folktales about his previous incarnations, and the life of the Bodhisattva Sudhana (from the Gandavyuhha). These absorbing and delightful tales are illustrated in stone by a parade of commoners, princes, musicians, dancing girls, shios, saints and heavenly throngs, with many interisting ethnographic details about daily life in ancient java. Placed in Niches above the galleries are 432 stone Buddhas, each displaying one of five mudras or hand positions, alternately calling upon the earth as witness and embodyinng charity, meditation, fearlessness and reason.

Above the square galleries, three circular terraces support 72 perforated dagobs (miniature stupas) which are unique in Buddhist art. Most contain a statue of the meditating dhyani Buddha. Two statues have been left uncovered – to gaze over the nearby Menoreh mountains, where one series of knobs and knolls is said to represent Gunadharma, the temple’s divine architect. These three terraces are in fact transitional steps leading to the 10th and highest level, the realm of formlessness and total abstraction (arupadhatu), embodied in the huge crowning stupa, now missing its spire and sunshades.

Borobudur was thus erected for the glorification of the Ultimate Reality – the serene realm of the Lord Buddha – and as a tangible, tactile lesson for priests and pilgrims, an illustrated textbook of the path to Buddhist enligtenment. It was also likely a massive mausoleum, and may have once contained the remains of a Buddhist ruler or saint.

Read Also : Antiquities of Central Java – Mendut and Pawon

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