The Pilgrims' Path
It is thought that Borobudur functioned mainly as a sort of teaching tool for people on the path to spiritual enlightenment. People seeking enlightenment would have arrived with a familiarity with certain Buddhist texts which described the life and times of various key figures in Buddhism. The pilgrims would then walk clockwise around the monument ten times (a total of around 5 kilometers) viewing the different series of reliefs along the walls. Familiarity with the texts would have helped the viewers contextualize the highly symbolic scenes depicted in the relief. Unfortunately most of the old Javanese Buddhist texts have been lost (2), and so some of the reliefs remain undeciphered. Over the years scholars have made connections between some of the reliefs and surviving texts. The first "aha moment" came in 1885 when S.F. Oldenburg, a Russian scholar, figured out that some of the reliefs on the lowest exposed level correspond to a collection of stories called the Jatakamala. Over the next 40 years or so other scholars made further connections.
After the pilgrims walked around the lower level, they would move up to the next level and walk around the monument again, slowly viewing the reliefs as they went along. On the first exposed level there are four sets of reliefs, so pilgrims would walk around this level a total of four times before moving on to the next higher level. The second, third, and fourth exposed levels each have two sets of reliefs, so the pilgrim would circumambulate (walk around) each of these two times. To complete the entire circuit a pilgrim would make a total of ten trips (3).
|Balustrade (outer wall) and inside gallery reliefs from the first level.|
- Mahakarmavibhangga: These are the hidden reliefs that are described above
- Guardian figures: These are on the outside of the first level's outer wall. You can see a portion of them in the picture above.
- Jatakas: These start with the lower series of reliefs on the outside wall on the first level. Jatakas ("birth stories") are stories about the previous lives of the Buddha and include stories about when he was incarnated both as people and animals. Many of these are fables which illustrated the importance of some virtue.
- Jatakamala and other Jatakas: Upper set of reliefs on the outside wall of the first level. The Jatakamala is a specific set of Jatakas.
- Manohara and other Avadanas: These begin with the lower level of reliefs on the inside wall of the first level. An Avadana ("Heroic Deeds") is a story about the previous life of an important Buddhist saint. There are many of these, and Manohara is just one but it's described in detail with 20 relief panels here. It's quite an interesting story. Several other Avadanas are depicted with 2-4 panels until you get to the story of King Rudrayana, which covers 22 panels.
- Lalitavistara: This is the upper line of reliefs on the inside wall of the first level. The Lalitavistara ("The Unfolding of the Play") describes the life of Guatama Buddha with a total of 120 panels covering the life of the Buddha up until the time that he delivered the First Sermon.
- Jatakas and Avadanas: These are located on the outside wall of the second level
- Gandavyuha part one: Located along the inside wall of the second level. The Gandavyuha ("The Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble") is the story of a young man named Sudhana and his journeys in search of wisdom. In all 460 panels are devoted to this story on several levels of the monument. These reliefs are more esoteric than those on lower levels, and it is thought that they weren't meant for all pilgrims, because not everyone would be able to grasp the meaning of these lessons.
- Gandavyuha part two: Located on the outside wall of the third level.
- Gandavyuha part three: Located on the inside wall of the third level.
- Gandavyuha part four: Located along the outside wall of the fourth level.
- Gandavyuha part five: Located along the inside wall of the fourth level.
Go To Borobudur
|Two reliefs from main gallery of the first exposed level|
(1) There are 1460 reliefs in all.
(2) Although it is accepted that Javanese and Sumatran (Muaro Jambi) centers of Buddhism had extensive libraries, texts were written on things like palm leaves that deteriorate over time, so nothing is left.
(3) Ten represents the number of steps of development through which a bodhisattva must pass to become a Buddha.
Miksic, John, and Marcello and Anita Tranchini. 1991. Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas. Periplus: Singapore. 158pp.