“Borobudur is a massive pyramid-shaped stūpa located in a volcanic region on the Indonesian island of Java. It was built in the late eighth and early ninth centuries by the Sailendra kings of central Java, and was rather mysteriously abandoned only a century or so after its completion. The temple is built in the shape of a huge lotus, and is composed of six rectangular stories, with three circular terraces around a central stūpa. This is truly one of the most impressive monuments not only in Buddhism but in the world, presenting, essentially, a physical model of the entire cosmos, one that allows the worshipper to traverse the Mahāyāna path in a condensed manner.
The stūpa is nearly 100 feet tall, and the square base has sides which are nearly 400 feet long. The sheer number of artistic images at Borobudur is staggering: there are nearly 1,500 narrative panels, from the Jātakas, Avadānas, and other sources; there are over 1,200 decorative panels; the monument has some 500 Buddha images and nearly 1,500 stūpas.
Borobodur seems to present a microcosm, albeit a massive one, of the world, allowing the worshipper to go on physical pilgrimage that mimics the religious journey laid out by Buddhism. The lower part of the monument has five levels, diminishing in size as they go up. The sides of each of the first four levels have sculpture galleries around the sides, with stairs on all four sides, linking all levels of the monument. The worshipper begins by going through four galleries adorned with various images and Jātaka and Avadāna scenes, and then entering a terrace with seventy-two stūpas, each of which houses an image of the Buddha, arranged in three concentric circles surrounding the much larger central stūpa.
In much the same way that a maṇḍala offers a kind of visual pilgrimage, Borobudur – which is itself laid out as a kind of three-dimensional maṇḍala – can be seen as a physical monument that allows the pilgrim to follow the course of enlightenment. Thus as one slowly circumambulates the monument, moving around and up, the narrative panels allow one to visually move from the world of base desires and impulses, where humans are bound by their greed and lust; the pilgrim would then ascend to the next level, where there are images of the form realm where these desires are controlled but one is still bound to the material world; finally, in the next level of the monument, there are images of the formless realm, the realm of freedom from such hindrances. Indeed, of the nearly 500 panels on the upper three levels of the monument, about a third present scenes from the Gaṇḍavyūha. This important text, part of the larger Avataṃsaka (Flower Ornament) Sūtra, narrates the pilgrimage of a young man named Sudhana as he travels from teacher to teacher in search of enlightenment. Sudhana’s journey illustrates the importance of gaining wisdom and compassion before one is able to reach enlightenment. What one clearly sees at Borobudur, then, is the degree to which Buddhist art has not only a decorative function, but an instructive one – the panels, essentially, visually guide one on his or her physical and religious pilgrimage.”
See also: Buddhist Art; Sacred places.