10 September 2008

Borobudur

Borobudur (or Barabudur - the origin and meaning of the name are unknown) is a squat pyramid-shaped stupa 40km to the north west of Yogyakarta, in a volcanic region on the Indonesian island of Java. Erected in the late 8th or early 9th century, presumably by the kings of central Java, this Buddhist monument was probably abandoned within not much more than a century after construction when the power-base moved to east Java. There is no foundation inscription, no way of dating beyond the palaeography of the workers' inscripitions, and no later mention of the sanctuary until 1709 AD.

The quality and importance of Borobudur are world-class, for the sheer abundance and beauty of its figured reliefs, decorated panels and sculptures. In Europe, no such sculptural complexes had been seen since well before the fall of the Roman Empire; and none would be seen until more than 100 years after its abandonment. In the region, it ranks with a much larger complexes at Pagan (Burma) and Angkor (Cambodia).

The stupa is some 31.5m high, and almost square with a side of 123m. From a broad podium, the visitor progresses through four relief-covered galleries to a circular terrace, adorned with 72 bell-shaped perforated stupas, each containing a seated Boddhisatva, surrounding a central stupa, once much taller than it is now, which may once have held a relic of the Buddha. Because the structure was built out of a mid- to dark-grey volcanic stone, the tropical climate, with an average rainfall of over 2m per annum, has ensured that the structure has been invaded by mosses and lichens. Originally, it was probably plastered white, and painted in bright colours. There must have been a substantial monastery for the monks who looked after the structure and the pilgrims, but nothing adequate has yet been discovered. The point of the pilgrimage was that the stupa (its shape perhaps intended as a replica of the universe) allowed the pilgrim to mimic a journey from base life through to enlightenment - from this temporal world to the attainment of enlightenment, symbolised by the Bodhisattvas on the circular terrace. (There are parallels here with the mazes found in mediaeval Christian buildings.)

The shape of the stupa - like a badly-risen cake, says one scholar - results from a mix of climate and ambition. The first building campaign began with a basement covered in 160 relief panels but, when the substantial weight of the first terrace was added, the land slipped, no doubt because the core of the structure (part natural hill, part infill) soaked up water like a sponge. A decision was taken to abandon the basement by girdling it with a terrace - a corset to ensure against future landslips. Hence we might assume that the profile originally intended was taller and sharper than what we see today.

As we see it today, Borobudur is the result of three major restoration schemes. After its description by by the Engineer officer H. C. Cornelius on the commission Sir Stamford Raffles, the English Governor, in 1814, the trees and bushes on the site were felled, and stones dislodged by water and earth movement rolled down to the base (with some damage) to await re-positioning. The resident of Kedu, C. L. Hartmann, did further clearance work in 1834 and 1835. Nevertheless, degradation continued; making casts of all the reliefs was contemplated, and in 1882 it was even proposed that the reliefs be dismounted and displayed in a purpose-built museum. The fact of the filled-in basement was discovered by J. W. Ijzerman in 1885, and this helped provoke the second great restoration which resulted in the monumental monograph by N. J. Krom & Th. Van Erp of 1919, which published photographs of all the sculptures and reliefs, including the hidden base. It is from this monograph that the digital images which adorn our VRML presentation of the stupa were made.

Nor was Van Erp's careful and restrained restoration the final one: the volcanoes and the climate saw to that. IFollowing a request of 1967, UNESCO undertook the dismantling, stabilisation and restoration of the monument once more.

needs more to finish.

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