Buddhist cosmology is divided into three worlds: the Kamadhatu or the phenomenal world, the world of desires; the Rupadhatu, a transitional sphere where humans are released from their corporeal form and worldly concerns; and finally the Arupadhatu, the sphere of Gods the sphere of perfection and enlightenment.
Borobudur's architecture is modeled after this cosmology. Each part of the monument is devoted to a different world. The Kamadhatu is a huge, rectangular wall that just out at the foot of the monument. Above the base is the Rupadhatu, four rectangular terraces with procession corridors that are decorated with myriad statues and relief. These terraces are three circular terraces and a large dome. When we approach the monument however, it is difficult to discern the three separate elementary structures.
The rectangular foundation is obscure; rather than appearing as a step pyramid, the temple gives the illusion of being a solid circular dome with the final stupa protruding on the top. The monument is a confusion of endless terraces, statues and niches.
The temple's architecture shows incredible precision and tremendous human labor. Fifty-five thousand cubic meters of andesit stone or more than two million blocks of stone were brought from the Progo River to the building site. The rock was first roughly carved in the river bed and then dragged to the monument by elephant and horse. It was Mount Merapi's volcanic activity that provided this building material.
Borobudur was built during the Golden Age of the Syailendra Dynasty, sometime in the beginning of the 8th century. Syailendra translates as "Kings of the Mountains" but it is uncertain where these rulers actually came from. The kings of this period built a number of great monuments through out Central Java. Borobudur was built in various stages under the authority of several different kings.
It was used for meditation and rituals by the Vajrayana sect of the Tantric School of Buddhism which made its way into Java during the 8th century. The word Borobudur is believed to mean monastery on a hill. It is derived from the words "baram" and "buduhur". "Bara" is from the Sanskrit word "Vihara" meaning a complex of temples, monasteries or dormitories. "Beduhur" is a Balinese word meaning "above".
In order to more fully appreciate a structure like Borobudur we should approach and experience the temple as the Buddhist initiates ten centuries ago were required to do. We should enter the temple by the east gate and circle the temple clockwise. There are eleven series of relief depicted on the monument. Sometimes two or three stories parallel each other on a gallery wall. To follow a story from beginning to end we must walk one complete circle around the temple. This process is called Pradakcina or paying homage to the good spirits. To walk counter clockwise is to recognize the spirits of the dead.
In total there are 1460 individual narrative relief and 1212 decorative relief. The stories are taken from several Sanskrit manuscripts that discuss the many lives of the Buddha. On the relief Buddha sometimes appears in human form as the Buddha or in one of his previous reincarnations as a rabbit deer, swan, bird or elephant. If the relief were laid out lengthwise they would cover a distance of three kilometers.
The reliefs of the base level, Kamadhatu were covered up with an extra wall before they were completely finished. There are two theories for the additional wall: 1) the entire structure began to slide and needed support or 2) perhaps the explicit material on the reliefs was considered too revealing for the young Buddhist initiates. During the Japanese occupation part of the wall was removed exposing reliefs from the Karmawibanggha, an ancient Tibetan text that discusses good and bad deeds and their consequences. This particular relief’s can be viewed on the southeast corner.
The Rupadhatu begins with the first terrace. Turning to the left down the corridor we see on the main wall relief’s from the Lalitavistara text, a Sanskrit manuscript which depicts Buddha's life. In brief the story is as follows: Prince Shidharta, the founder of Buddhism, was born in the Lumbini garden in Nepal. His father was a great king. His mother, Maya Dewi, died a week after his birth. Prince Sidharta led a very secluded life. When he reached adulthood he married Princess Gopa. One day he had a vision: he saw four figures that represented aspects of life he had never experienced or imagined: a blind old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk.
Having experienced this, the Prince was inspired to leave the palace in search of wisdom. He became wanaprastha or a hermit wanderer and studied under famous teachers Brahmapani, Rudraka Aradakalapa and five famous hermits. Despite their teaching he was still unsatisfied. Prince Sidharta practised his own way that is the middle path or madyamika. Finally he meditated under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya town and attained Buddhahood. After his enlightenment he was named Buddha Gautama.
In the Rupadhatu there are also small Buddha statues in niches in the balustrades of the four terraces. On the first terrace there are Manushi Buddhas who have manifested themselves in the world. Each directional point is protected by a Manushi Buddha: Knakanmuni to the South, Kacyapa to the West, Ckvanmuni to the East and Maitreya to the North. On the three higher terraces are Dyani Buddhas or meditative Buddhas. They can be distinguished from one and other by the position of their hands referred to as mudra.
On the east wall :
Buddha Akcobya with his palm turned down ward calling the spirit of the earth to witness his victory over evil spirits, and to witness his inner strength (Bhumisparca mudra).
On the south wall
Buddha Ratnasambhawa with his palm open, showing giving blessing (Wara mudra).
On the north wall :
Buddha Amoghasidha with his raised palm, showing his immunity to danger (Abhawa mudra).
On the fifth terrace : Buddha Wairocana with a circular finger gesture which indicates giving instruction with an honest and pure heart (Witarka mudra).
In total there are 504 Buddha :
statues. Buddha wears a cassock consisting of there part two of which are visible: an outer garment that leaves his right shoulder bare and an undergarment that is visible at his legs.
As we ascend the monument, reading the stories and climbing the terraces we will pas six archways. Before the final level, the Arupadhatu, we must pass through a double archway between the third and fourth terrace. These are called the double gates of Nirwikala. After passing through these gates our body leaves its corporeal form. Rupadhatu, and enters the world of formless spirit, Arupadhatu. The Nirwikala is the final door leading to the supreme final reality of Buddhism. The most architecturally complete archway is found on the side of the monument.
Once we enter the Arupadhatu we experdience a more spacious and open feeling different from the confining rectangular corridors of the terraces below. Before us are three circulation terraces.
Geometrically arranged on the terrace are 72 lattice dagobs (small stupa shaped structures) containing Buddha Vajrasat twa statues. The philosophy behind these encased Buddhas is complex and not yet fully understood. Perhaps the lattice Structure represents a sieve like boundary separating the world of form and that of formlessness. Notice that the holes on the first two terraces are diamond shaped but the last terrace holes are square. There is a legend that says if you can reach in and touch the cloth of the Buddha near the east stairway whatever you wish will come true. At the entrance of each stairway there are two mythical lion statues that serve as guards. No lions ever actually existed on Java. The symbol of Prince Sidharta's kingdom in Nepal was the lion.