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I am a temple fiend. I was converted in 1999, when I arrived in Khajuraho, India, and laid eyes on the 100-meter-tall monuments dedicated to the belief that Tantric worship leads to a higher power. The passion was solidified when I climbed up the steps of Angkor Wat in Cambodia in 2003. I was determined that one day I would visit Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. It is located on the Indonesian island of Java, and was built between the 8th and 11th centuries AD, thereby falling on the same timeline as Angkor and Khanjuharo. And like those two sites, Borobudur is designated a World Heritage Sight.

Corner view of Borobudur looking east.

Corner view of Borobudur looking east.

On Monday September 30, 2013 I was there in time to catch the sunrise, except that, that morning clouds dominated. It did not matter. The pure majesty of this testament to nirvana exerts its power regardless of weather. I mean, check this guy out:
buddha 4The temple consists of a network of over two million stones fitted together to tell stories and teach morals. It spans 15,000 square feet, and towers up to the sky on nine different platforms, each of which gets slightly smaller as you ascend. As you walk east to west, the panels may reveal the biography of Prince Siddhartha from his mother’s dream of how he was conceived to how he learned the lessons that became the tenets of Buddhism:

From the story of Buddha, Level 3.

From the story of Buddha, Level 3.

Under the Bodhi tree.

Under the Bodhi tree.

Or there may be a series of pictorial depictions of “modern” life in 900 AD in central Java:

Horse and carriage.

Horse and carriage.

There are various theories as to who built Borobudur, and why it was built. But from the minimal knowledge I gleaned, the inherent raison d’etre for its existence sprung from an inherent spirituality. Borobudur is a three dimensional representation of the path we must follow to reach nirvana. An architectural roadmap to Buddhism.

The first level contains friezes of what happens when one is dissolute and selfish vs. honorable and charitable:

See how sad and pinched they are.

See how sad and pinched they are?

Another lower level contains scenes of desire:

There are more sinuous curves at this lower level than higher above.

There are more sinuous curves at this lower level than higher above.

But by the time you have entered Level 3, you are ready to be introduced to the prophecy of the man who was born as Prince Siddhartha and died as the Buddha:

This level, as well as Levels 2, 4, 5, and 6, are built in a square formation. Each platform contains rows of cross-legged, seated Buddhas in near identical poses. Four hundred and thirty two Buddhas decorate the four facades of these six lower levels, and depending if you are facing north, south, east, or west, the Buddha’s right hand changes position in accordance with a spiritual teaching. In the east, the right hand clasps the knee. In the south, Buddha’s palm is turned up to the sky. In the west, the Buddhas are meditating. And in the north, the palm is extended out. (Even though our guide Lingga was wonderfully informative, I had to buy the book to find out more.):

East facing Buddhas

East-facing Buddhas.

South facing Buddha.

South-facing Buddha.

North facing Buddha

North-facing Buddha.

West facing Buddha.

West-facing Buddhas.

Then the whole layout changes. Instead of corners, the path turns circular. There are no sharp edges as one moves closer and closer to nirvana in Levels 7, 8 and 9:

Pictorial depiction of Borobudur showing 5 square levels and 3 circular.

Pictorial depiction of Borobudur showing 6 square levels and 3 circular.

In these three levels, the Buddhas are no longer exposed – they are enclosed in 72 separate lattice belled stupas:



stupas 3 stupas 5So we walked round and round, and I tried to absorb as much as I could, but it would take many many visits to fully comprehend all that is Borobudur.

And then it was time to say goodbye, and eat breakfast, and move on to more temples:

Steve - this one printed