Borobudur – Ascending to Nirvana

BorobudurIndonesian antiquities officials, worried that tourist footprints are wearing down the ancient stone, are now pressing to have the terraced walkways closed to visitors. Go before you lose your chance.

It was built to be walked on, after all—the winding pathway of this stepped pyramid was specifically designed for meditation, and you’ll see hosts of saffron-robed Buddhist priests pacing along, chanting as they wind around the 3.2km-long (2-mile) route to the top. Set on a smooth green plain south of Magelang on the gardenlike island of Java, Borobudur is not only the largest Buddhist monument in the world, it is quite simply one of the most stunning architectural creations you’ll ever see. Some two million blocks of lava rock completed the original pyramidlike design, though some have been lost over the centuries. Seen from the ground, it looks like a mountain, bristling with odd little spires; seen from above, it looks like an open lotus blossom, the sacred expression of Buddhism.

But the true brilliance of Borobudur can only be understood if you walk around it. The first six levels (plus another one left underground to stabilize the pyramid) are rectangular in shape, decorated with sculpted bas-relief panels, 1,460 in all. Seen in order, the panels are more or less a spiritual textbook, depicting the life and lessons of Buddha. Each ascending level represents a higher stage of man’s spiritual journey.

The top three levels, however, are circular terraces with no ornamentation—Buddhism considers simplicity far more virtuous than decoration. Instead, these upper levels hold a series of beehivelike stone stupas, their bricks arranged in perforated checkerboard patterns, with stone Buddhas tucked inside. Each inscrutable Buddha sits cross-legged, making a hand gesture that signifies one of five spiritual attainments. At the top, one large central stupa crowns the pyramid, empty inside—scholars still debate whether it once contained a bigger Buddha, or whether its emptiness symbolizes the blessed state of nirvana.

One of the many mysteries of Borobudur is why it was ever abandoned. When Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles discovered it in 1814, Borobudur was buried under layers of ash from nearby Mount Merapi. Perhaps it was buried Pompeii-style; or maybe a series of eruptions brought famine to the region, causing the population to move away. Either way, Borobudur lay forgotten for centuries. Nowadays, it’s Java’s most popular tourist destination. Despite the level of visitor traffic, however, a meditative peace still holds sway. It would be a shame to lose it.