The world’s largest Buddhist stupa, Borobodur Temple is constructed from 1.6 million blocks of volcanic andesite and is constructed over 9 levels. Five square terraces are surmounted by three round ones and one other stupa at the top. The construction’ s powerful image is enhanced further by 5 levels of elegant carvings depicting the lives of the Buddha, expounding the meaning of his doctrine. These images form probably the most comprehensive ensemble of Buddhist reliefs ever carved. As pilgrims circumambulate, praying before every image, they ascend from the terrestrial to the divine world. Abandoned within the tenth century, and later buried under ash from a volcanic eruption, the temple was not discovered again till 1815.
There are 1,460 fantastically carved bas-reliefs, extending for three miles (5 km), across the 5 lower levels of Borobodur. As visitors stroll clockwise, keeping the monument to the right, the reliefs on the lowest terrace present everyday life, earthly pleasures, the punishments of hell, and the laws of cause and effect, or karma. This vivid evocation of daily life in historical Javanese society was later coated with stone to support the temple’s weight. The second level depicts the Buddha and his life. These reliefs feature graceful figures with serene expressions carrying jewels and headdresses. Images on the other levels follow texts such as the Jataka Tales and Lalitavistara, and the Buddha’s earlier incarnations and seek for enlightenment.
Initially constructed as a Hindu temple, Borobodur is a re-creation of Mount Meru, the mythical mountain abode of Hindu gods. Symbolically, it’s a mandala, an aid to meditation, and a meeting place of heaven and Earth. It represents the transition from the lowest manifestations of reality through to the highest spiritual awareness on the summit. The bottom represents the lowest sphere of consciousness (Kamadhatu bas-reliefs). The following stage (Rupadhatu bas-reliefs) is the intermediate period of consciousness. The higher levels, with 72 small, perforated stupas, each containing a seated Meditating Buddha, symbolize the sphere of formlessness. At the top, the empty central stupa suggests nirvana, and symbolizes enlightenment, the ultimate religious realm.