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The Ancient Puzzles of Borobudur

Borobudur Temple

The Borobudur Temple is considered by many to be a wonder of the ancient world. We all probably have heard raves of its majestic landscapes at the break of dawn, the timeless beauty of its reliefs, or the “spiritually enlightening” physical challenge of reaching its top.

Standing 13 centuries old, the largest Buddhist monument in the world is bound to have mysteries. It is hard enough to fathom its 100-year construction in the 8th and 9th centuries, and such perfect structures produced with such simple technology. Nobody knows who ordered the construction of Borobudur, though tradition credits it to the Syailendra Dynasty, which probably meant two to three kings including Samaratungga. And apart from the temple’s obvious religious functions, researchers have long hypothesised surprising alternative functions.

Professor Agus Aris Munandar, a University of Indonesia archaeologist who has been studying Javanese temples for 30 years, confirms that there are many unsolved mysteries of Borobudur. Some of them indicate how mindbogglingly intelligent ancient Indonesians were.

“There is so much finesse in Borobudur that early Dutch archeologists refused to believe that Javanese people made it. It must have been the Indians who came to Java to spread Hinduism and Buddhism,” said Prof Agus. “But Indian [polymath] Rabindranath Thakur visited Java in the early 20th century and said, “I see India everywhere in Java, but I do not know where,” meaning that as much as there are strong Indian influences in Javanese temples, they are also very different from Indian ones.

According to Prof Agus, one of the greatest mysteries of Borobudur is the hidden base, also known as the Mahakarmavibhanga. Hundreds of beautifully carved relief panels are completely covered a couple of metres underground, except for a section in the southeast, which the Japanese detonated in the 1940s out of curiosity. Previously, Dutch archaeologists had unearthed it for research and re-covered it.

There are two theories for why the Mahakarmavibhanga is buried. “The first theory reckons that when the construction of Borobudur was completed, the foundation turned out unstable. So to prevent collapse, the builders had to fasten the foundation from all directions,” said Prof Agus, adding that this is the theory he supports.

The second theory speculates religious reasons. The Mahakarmavibhanga portrays despicable human acts such as torture, decapitation, robbery, and begging – thus deemed inappropriate for laymen’s eyes. “But violence only makes up a small percentage of these reliefs, so I don’t think it makes sense to cover them for that reason,” said Prof Agus.

Borobudur can be divided into three levels from the bottom to the top: Kamadhatu (realm of desire-filled common people), Rupadhatu (life on earth in which the soul has been purged of all desires), and Arupadhatu (the soul’s departure from the body and uniting with the gods in Nirvana). Which leads to another marvel: the holey stupas on the Arupadhatu level and the superstition that touching the Buddha through the holes would make wishes come true.

“Buddhist scholars philosophise the shadows of the form. Only Buddha’s shadows are visible, because Buddha exists in another realm, like a relic housed in a stupa,” said Prof Agus. “Likewise, nobody sees the sheltered Buddha relics on Borobudur, except its curious shadows under the sunlight or a full moon.”

Prof Agus is perhaps best known for researching the proxemics of Borobudur’s relief panels. In communication science, proxemics is the personal space between individuals, which indicate the level of intimacy. In Borobudur, proxemics refers to the most comfortable distance and angles to perceive each panel in its entirety and fully understand their message. The closer the distance required to achieve this, the higher the spiritual level (i.e. “closer ” to Buddha) of the audience for whom the panel is intended.

“It took us 10 expeditions to fully decode Borobudur,” said Prof Agus. “Buddhist scriptures happen to refer to the 10 stages of Bodhisattva. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Borobudur is designed as such that it would take 10 times to find its ‘path of Enlightenment.'”

While we’re on proxemics, note that the inter-stupa distances are unequal. However, on a top-view blueprint of Borobudur, the stupas look orderly positioned. Prof Agus said that Borobudur is meant to resemble a mandala – an elaborate meditation circle within a square, with symbols of the gods strategically coordinated to create harmonious patterns.

This phenomenon has been researched by Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB)’s archaeoastronomy team. According to ITB astrophysicist Evan Irawan Akbar, the stupas’ unequal spaces were supposed to mark the lengths of a gnomon’s shadows during different times of the year. In other words, Borobudur was a giant sundial. Except that if this hypothesis were true, the gnomon that casts the sundial’s shadow is missing, and its dimensions remain unknown.

Prof Agus said that ancient Indian stupas often had chatras (umbrella-like structures) and yasthis (pillars on which the chatras are erected). A now missing yasthi could have functioned as a gnomon for this hypothetical Borobudur sundial, he said. In the 19th century, the Dutch set a gnomon on top of Borobudur, but removed it after being struck by lightning. The locals never liked it anyway, and its basis on an unproven hypothesis gave the Dutch no strong reason to keep it there.

Nevertheless, Borobudur may have served as an ancient astronomical observatory. A 1930s study by Dutch ethnoarchaeologist J.L.A. Brandes found that the 8th century Javanese mastered astronomy, which dictated agricultural and maritime practices. ITB archaeoastronomers also found the importance of celestial orientation in the construction of Borobudur.

Due to the earth’s rotation and the bobbing on its axis, the stars visible from the skies of the North Pole changes every couple centuries. “When Borobudur was constructed, Polaris was visible from Java. Gunadharma (the architect traditionally credited for building Borobudur) would ascend on Mount Menoreh and instruct his builders to align the construction to the ‘true north’ star that shifts neither east nor west,” said Evan. Nevertheless, today’s north on the magnetic compass would not match Borobudur’s north back then because it was affected by the earth’s rotation.

Another astronomical curiosity of Borobudur is the ship reliefs on the East. They depict a sailed double outrigger canoe underneath celestial objects, presumably commemmorating a voyage to Africa. Back then, ancient Indonesians crossed an unmapped ocean without a compass, depending solely on the stars for navigation. In 2003-2004, a wooden replica of the Borobudur ship sailed the Cinnamon Route from Jakarta to Accra (Ghana) to demonstrate the trans-Indian Ocean trading links ancient Indonesians fostered with ancient Africans. Now housed in the Samudra Raksa Museum in the north side of the Borobudur Archaeological Park, the ship is a testament of millennia-old Indonesian maritime and astronomical genius.

The puzzles of Borobudur are many still. Some are scientifically plausible, such as the temple’s resemblance to a lotus floating in a now dried ancient lake basin. Others are mythical, such as the urban legend that Gunadharma slept on Mount Menoreh and became the sleeping giant-shaped mountain now visible from Borobudur. Scholars don’t have the answers. But perhaps it is those riddles that keep drawing people back to Borobudur with awe. They’re called mysteries for a reason.

Candi Borobudur
Taman Arkeologi Borobudur
Desa Borobudur, Kecamatan Borobudur
Magelang, Jawa Tengah
Tel +62 293 788 266
Fax +62 293 788 132
Tickets @ Rp30.000 for Indonesian citizens, US$20 for foreigners


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