Thursday, February 02, 2006

From Nirvana to Heaven

How far is it from Nirvana to Heaven? About 60km if you're on the Indonesian island of Java.

The path to enlightenment
We rounded a corner in the approach avenue, the morning mist still hanging in the air less than an hour after sunrise. And stopped dead in our tracks.

Standing before us was the silent, tranquil, presence of Boro Budur. This is the world's largest Buddhist monument: built of more than 2 million stone blocks it takes the form of a giant mandala, 123m square at its base, and has levels to represent the world of desire (at the base, level 1), the world of forms (lower levels, 2-5) and the world of formlessness (upper levels, 6-8).

The world of desire is depicted by hundreds of panels depicting various acts of desire and human capriciousness - drunkeness, sloth, abortion/infanticide and bad acting (I kid you not) to name a few. However, the vast majority of these panels are covered up by plain stone blocks. Two theories exist - either they were covered up because they represented bad acts, or it was an ancient patch job with the extra blocks used to hold up the building which started to sink into the soft ground as soon as construction was completed.

Climbing through the square levels of the world of forms (the pilgrim's path would have you walking clockwise around each level in turn, slowly climbing to enlightenment) you pass panels depicting the life and times of Siddharta on the second level and then the other incarnations of Buddha (and his followers?) on the others.

And then you reach the world of formlessness and the landscape changes. No longer square terraces, but circular ones (without beginning or end). No more carved panels (there are no forms in the world of formlessness) only 6 dozen bell-shaped hollow stupas arranged in rings and each containing a (ruined) life sized statue of Buddha. The outer ring has diamond shaped (unstable) holes through which you can see the Buddhas inside, the next has square (stable) holes and the topmost stupa has no holes (it is infinite).

All in all, a traquil and beautiful place, with very few visitors. Boro Budur stands testimony to the architectural ability, creativity and organisation of the Javanese - even as far back as 800AD. It's also hard to believe but soon after this enormous monument was completed, the official religion switched from Buddhism to Hinduism as the local families clashed and a new power took over in the region. Nearby Parambanan was built and Boro Budur was abandoned, then covered in ash when nearby Mt Merapi erupted. It lay dormant under the ash until it was rediscovered almost 1000 years later, in 1815, by Sir Thomas Raffles.

Back to heaven
Actually, I'm not entirely sure that Parambanan is meant to be a representation of Heaven/Mt Meru (like Angkor), but it is definitely collosal. Three enormous main temples dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma each have a smaller paired temple, all arranged in a central courtyard. Surrounding these are the remains of more than 200 other temples. Like Angkor Wat, each of the temples is a work of art impressive in scale as well as detail. The three main temples are more than 40m tall and covered in intricate carvings, often depicting scenes from the Ramayana. Photos to follow!


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