Borobudur: Goddesses, Gods and the Language of the Stone

Author : Melati Sorongan

Borobudur: Goddesses, Gods and the Language of the Stone

Artwork of architecture, standing tall on the face of Java, its crown-shaped presence with stone edges reaching to the gods. It was in the 9th century when the Temple of Borobudur was completely and finally born into the land of Central Java. It was there as a Buddhism pilgrimage destination, welcoming the faithful from faraway lands. It's unmistakable grandiose inevitably inviting curious minds of the present, essentially questioning how the stone giant was created without the presence of today’s technology, or even something quite simple as mortar. The Temple of Borobudur is more than wondrous 95-foot tall steps after steps of stone, for ages it has been telling us stories of women and men, gods and goddesses, for those who are willing to sit and listen.


Step into the Borobudur and let yourself get sucked into the narration of the reliefs. The engravings will guide you to every story in each panel there is, just like sequences of a film. The panels are alive from stories of Java around the year 800, they exist as witnesses to tell the tales of the environment and the living during the era. Amongst the 1460 panels, Lalitavistara on the temple wall of the first gallery is a string of story relief that will walk you through the life story of Buddha. The reliefs take advantage of a two-dimensional element to effortlessly depicting where the characters are heading to, they are either facing left or right. The reliefs talk in the way of Pradaksina, that is, the silent, visual of a narration that starts from the right side to the left. When the character is going somewhere, it is portrayed facing to the left, though there is an exception, Bodhisattva and the Buddha is nearly always facing the front, this allows them to be recognized straightforwardly. Furthermore, the frequent appearance of Bodhisattva and Buddha in Lalitavistara – in 98 out of 120 panels – reinforces the importance of these characters.


Reading the panels the Pradaksina way is sophisticatedly uncomplicated. Bodhisattva or Buddha depicted on the panel on very right side, is telling you that their journey is about to begin, while the characters that are on their way to their destination is located on the centre of a panel, and finally, the left part of the panel shows Buddha or Bodhisattva nearly coming to his destination. You might be wondering then, who are these other figures appearing now and again throughout the storyline. They certainly are not there merely to fill spaces, each engraving carries layers of explanation, a language ready to be translated, a culture waiting to be unveiled. The message of each story lies in the positioning of each figure, gods and goddesses – usually followed by the son of gods after – are introduced by being around and facing Bodhisattva or Buddha, doing homage to either one of them to show you where to avert your attention to. In other cases, you may encounter a story of common people – not gods – by identifying the amount of people around them you may distinguish the different ranks they are portrayed as, for instance, in panel 13: “the conception”, a woman with high rank pictured lying on her couch accompanied by other women attendants.


One string of story after another continues to lead your way deeper into the sutra – Buddhist scripture – as you follow the carvings inside the Borobudur Temple. The 1460 panels of engraving depict not a single text, instead of a series of silent visual narration. The stories flow chronologically in the order of Pradaksina, where the movement of characters frozen in each panel, that goes right to left, lining the inside of the grand Temple of Borobudur. So why wait? Gods and Goddesses, nobility to common people have been waiting for their stories to be told to those who are willing to explore.

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