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A cosmos etched in stone

Be it the Egyptian Pyramids or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Roman Colosseum or France’s Eiffel Tower, these structures stand the test of time as symbols of man’s achievement. They are not merely stone-and-mortar constructions; they are visions of our ancestors. They stand as bridges between our glorious past and our momentous present, inspiring us towards a future full of possibilities.

One such architectural marvel is Borobudur Temple–the biggest Buddhist monument in the world. It is said that the name Borobudur is derived from Sanskrit word Vihara Buddha Uhr, meaning Buddhist monastery on the hill. This heritage site sits on a remote hilltop at Kedu Valley in Central Java, Indonesia. The temple’s beauty lies in the way it blends the physical structure of stonework with the metaphysical framework of spirituality.

Borobudur is believed to be Buddha’s vision of the cosmos. Interestingly, the very plan of Borobudur, when seen from a vantage point resembles a three-dimensional mandala–a diagram of the cosmos used for meditation. Etched in stone, this Borobudur cosmos points towards the sky. The very architecture reflects the principles of Java Buddhism as seen during the reign of Sailendra Dynasty. Shaped as a pyramid with multiple tiers, the symmetrical stupa has six square terraces, three circular terraces and a central dome. They are made accessible by four stairways. Several carved structures in the galleries depict events from the Buddha’s life and propagate the core teachings of Buddhism.

Walking along the temple’s pathways, we realise that the journey matters more than the destination. And just as we realise this, we begin to see how Borobudur’s physical pathways symbolise the non-physical path to enlightenment. 


Decorated with over 2000 relief panels and housing 504 Buddha statues, Borobudur has a lot to offer a yearning pilgrim. Borobudur consists of passageways that radiate around a central axis. Devotees walk clockwise along the circular walkways to ascend to the uppermost level. The three Realms of Existence–Kamadhatu (the realm of desire), Rupadhatu (the realm of form) and Arupadhatu (the realm of formless) can be experienced first-hand as the pilgrim walks from the base of the pyramid to the top.

At the base sits the realm of desires. Here, relief sculptures depict various events from the Jataka Tales. Next, the realm of forms is symbolised by sculptures in the galleries. The central dome on the top is surrounded by stupas. This represents the realm of formless. The pathway from the base to the top recounts the life of Buddha.

The uniqueness of Borobudur lies in its pathways. They instil in us Buddha’s teaching: “There is no path to happiness; happiness is the path.” Walking along the temple’s pathways, we realise that the journey matters more than the destination. And just as we realise this, we begin to see how Borobudur’s physical pathways symbolise the non-physical path to enlightenment. We emerge from the dark, closed galleries and into the open-sky gallery of the central dome. That is, from the realm of desires, to the realm of forms, and finally into the realm of formless. As the Buddhist belief goes, the closer you are to heaven, the closer you are to the gods. And that is the feeling one leaves Borabudur with. 

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