Borobudur Re­liefs Tell Wise Tales

Borobudur Tem­ple was built in the eighth cen­tury and has more than 2,670 re­liefs. Each set of re­liefs tells a wise tale that por­trayed the beauty yet obliv­i­ous­ness of ev­ery­day life.

Indonesia Expat - - CONTENTS - Text and im­ages by Ani Suswan­toro

What’s new about Borobudur? Almost ev­ery­one has vis­ited Borobudur Tem­ple, a Ma­hayana Bud­dhist pagoda in Mage­lang, Cen­tral Java, 40 kilo­me­tres north­west of Yo­gyakarta. It is well known, so much so that one may over­look what’s re­ally im­por­tant there: the re­liefs’ con­so­la­tion and guid­ance in nav­i­gat­ing a stress­ful life.

The beauty and wis­dom of Borobudur can­not be en­joyed in haste. To re­ally savour the splen­dour and con­tem­plate the mes­sage hid­den in th­ese mys­te­ri­ous fig­ures, its best to go in early morn­ing, when the site is less crowded.

Borobudur Tem­ple, built in the eighth cen­tury by King Sa­ma­rat­tungga of the Syailen­dra dy­nasty, sits on the fer­tile Kedu Plain, be­tween Mount Sin­doro – Sumb­ing in the west and Mount Mer­api – and Merbabu in the east. The Menoreh high­lands are in the south and flanked by the Progo and Elo rivers.

The tem­ple, which con­sists of nine plat­forms, keeps 504 Buddha stat­ues and is adorned with 2,670 nar­ra­tive and dec­o­ra­tive re­lief pan­els. The re­liefs at the base tell sto­ries of Kar­maw­ib­hangga. Jataka re­liefs on the up­per lev­els il­lus­trate Buddha’s pre­vi­ous lives as gods, hu­mans in var­i­ous pro­fes­sions and an­i­mals. This was be­fore he was born as Prince Sid­dharta, Avadana (which means Noble Deed) and Gan­davyuha (Sud­dhana’s quest for en­light­en­ment). Arya Sura in the fourth cen­tury wrote the fun and en­ter­tain­ing Jataka sto­ries, con­tain­ing moral­ity and Bud­dhist virtues. Lal­i­tavis­tara, a set of 120 re­liefs on the first plat­form, de­pict Prince Sid­dharta’s life from birth to en­light­en­ment.

Suwardi, a Borobudur tour guide, ex­plained the mean­ing of four vis­i­ble pan­els out of 160 pan­els of Kar­maw­ib­hangga:

“Th­ese re­liefs por­tray the law of cause and ef­fect. You reap what­ever ac­tions you per­form, good or bad, per­haps in this life, prob­a­bly in the next.”

Suwardi pointed to a small writ­ing above the panel: “Th­ese are old Ja­vanese let­ters, say­ing

virupa, a San­skrit word mean­ing ‘ugly face.’ If you like gos­sip­ing, you might be re­born with an ugly de­meanor. This let­ter might have been used as a guide­line for the sculp­tor at that time on what scenes to carve, and in­ad­ver­tently, ar­chae­ol­o­gists were able to use it to pre­dict the pe­riod of the tem­ple’s con­struc­tion, based on the let­ters used.” The pan­els de­pict the com­mon life of peo­ple more than one thou­sand years ago. They in­clude the ori­gins of Ja­vanese mas­sage and the mak­ing of her­bal medicine, bet­ter known today as jamu. The rest of the re­liefs were cov­ered by stone after they were put up, prob­a­bly due to con­struc­tion is­sues. Luck­ily, in 1890, Ja­vanese pho­tog­ra­pher Kas­sian Cephas took pic­tures of th­ese re­liefs dur­ing a ren­o­va­tion. Now, they can be seen at Museum Kar­maw­ib­hangga in Borobudur Park.

On the first level we will see touch­ing fa­bels. An­i­mals per­form self- sac­ri­fices for other be­ings. Suwardi points to a re­lief de­pict­ing a sad mon­key hug­ging a buf­falo’s neck and ex­plained:

“This is the story of real friend­ship. One day a mon­key had a prob­lem. An ogre wanted to eat him. Dev­as­tated, the mon­key told his buf­falo friend about his fate. The buf­falo com­forted the mon­key, say­ing that he would of­fer him­self in­stead. What’s more, the buf­falo’s body was big­ger. The buf­falo just asked the mon­key to send his best wishes to his rel­a­tives. Then they both met the ogre. Touched by the kind­ness of the buf­falo, the ogre dis­missed his plan to eat ei­ther of them.”

Suwardi led us to an­other set of re­liefs. “This is a tale of for­give­ness and com­pas­sion. Once upon a time there was an eight-legged deer. Be­cause of th­ese spare legs, the deer could keep run­ning for long dis­tances. If he felt tired, he could just flip over and run on the other legs. One day a king was hunt­ing with his en­tourage in the for­est. See­ing the deer, the king hit his horse and chased him. It seemed that the deer never got ex­hausted, but the king was soon out of breath and fell into a gorge. Know­ing this, in­stead of es­cap­ing, the deer de­scended into the ravine and took the king back to his palace.”

The first level, called the balustrade, is packed with such fa­bels about al­tru­ism. Op­po­site the balustrade is the main wall where the Lal­i­tavis­tara is lo­cated.

Suwardi showed us a few re­liefs and nar­rated the Buddha’s life:

“Prince Sid­dharta was born to King Sud­ho­dana and Queen Maya of the Sakya clan who reigned in Kos­ala, In­dia, around the fifth cen­tury BC. One day Queen Maya had a dream of a white ele­phant en­ter­ing her womb. This dream was in­ter­preted by priests as a sign that the cou­ple would bear a son, who would be­come ei­ther a world ruler or a Buddha. The king pre­ferred him to be the world ruler, so he con­fined the prince in the palace and in­dulged him in sen­sual plea­sures. As fate had it, one day the prince went out of his palace and he saw a sick per­son, an old per­son, a corpse and a monk. Sid­dharta re­al­ized that he, too, would be­come old, sick and die. Later, he re­nounced his mun­dane life and em­barked on his search for true hap­pi­ness. After learn­ing from sev­eral spir­i­tual teach­ers, and prac­tic­ing se­vere as­cetism for six years, he fi­nally med­i­tated un­der a bod­dhi tree where he at­tained en­light­en­ment. Be­cause of his com­pas­sion for fel­low hu­mans, he re­vealed the path to achieve un­con­di­tional hap­pi­ness.”

Ex­treme self- mor­ti­fi­ca­tion is not needed to fol­low Buddha’s path. One step is to sim­plify our lives, avoid he­do­nism and ill-will, be kind and re­spect moral­ity, con­cluded Suwardi wisely.

How to get there and where to stay

Borobudur is reach­able by train or plane from most air­ports in In­done­sia. There are Damri buses from Adi Su­cipto air­port ev­ery hour to Jen­dral Soedirman Street in Mage­lang. Vis­i­tors may con­tinue via ojek (mo­tor­cy­cle taxi) or pub­lic trans­port. The eas­i­est and most con­ve­nient way is by car rental (www. yo­gyes.com).

Manohara Ho­tel is lo­cated in the back­yard of Borobudur Tem­ple. An­other cheaper but nice ho­tel, Gra­haru Bou­tique is in the coun­try­side, two kilo­me­tres from the tem­ple. With only 12 rooms, it is a quiet place.

Apart from Borobudur, Mage­lang Re­gency has 11 other smaller tem­ples such as Men­dut, Pa­won and Sel­o­griyo. The po­si­tion of Borobudur, Pa­won and Men­dut Tem­ples form a straight line so it is be­lieved that Pa­won and Men­dut were used to cleanse the mind of Bud­dhist pil­grims prior to climb­ing Borobudur.

Sel­o­griyo Tem­ple, 740 me­tres above sea level, has cool air and is sur­rounded by green­ery. This ninth cen­tury small Hindu tem­ple is ded­i­cated to God Shiva. It sits in Can­dis­ari Vil­lage in the Win­dusari dis­trict. The peace­ful co­ex­is­tence of Hindu and Bud­dhist tem­ples is an in­di­ca­tion of a har­mo­nious so­ci­ety at that time.

Pun­thuk Se­tumbu in Karangrejo Vil­lage, five kilo­me­tres from Borobudur Tem­ple, is 400 me­tres above sea level, lo­cated in the Menoreh high­lands. Once a pho­tog­ra­pher dis­cov­ered this place as a suit­able lo­ca­tion for sun­rise watch­ing, it soon be­came pop­u­lar. The best time to watch the sun rise is be­tween June and Septem­ber, when there is less fog. The Elo and Progo rivers of­fer rafting. Um­bul Tem­ple is rec­om­mended for its nearby nat­u­ral hot­spring and Sekar Lan­git Water­fall for its trekking.

In the next life, the gos­sip­ing peo­ple would be re­born with de­formed fea­tures. The Old Ja­vanese let­ters (virupa) were writ­ten on the stone right above this re­lief.

With a heart­bro­ken face, the mon­key told the buf­falo the news. Borobudur re­liefs are adorned with carv­ings of lo­cal plan­ta­tions - the tree be­hind the buf­falo is prob­a­bly a bread-fruit tree.

Side view of Borobudur Tem­ple

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