The Buddha Statues and Chaityas at Borobudur

high-definition creative commons photographs and a video from Borobudur, Java, showing the architecture and the Buddha statues, together with further information drawn from A. Foucher's Buddhist Art in Java.

Video: Sunrise at Borobudur


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from an essay on "Buddhist Art in Java" by A. Foucher

We shall not undertake a detailed review of the bas-reliefs deployed along the upper galleries of the stupa. We restrict ourselves to noticing that, as we mount, they assume a character more and more iconographic, less and less "narrative", and that the edifying story finally [255] gives way to the image of piety. Buddha, monks, nuns, Bodhisattvas of both sexes file past in twenties, at times seated under trees more or less stereotyped, most often installed under the open porches of temples, just as they are seen on the miniatures, or the clay seals, of India. The sculptors weary so much the less of all these repetitions as each one of them represents so much progress in covering the considerable surface which it was their task to decorate. There would be no advantage in noting here and there in passing a few specially characteristic figures, such as, in the second gallery, some Avalokitesvaras with four or six arms, and a Manjusri carrying the Indian book (pustaka) on the blue lotus (utpala); or again, in the third gallery, a group composed of a Buddha between these same two Bodhisattvas, etc. The problem is much more vast, and demands a solution of very different amplitude. It would be necessary to make a census of all these images and each of their varieties, to draw up an exact and complete table of them, and to study attentively their graphic distribution; then only, after having allowed for the necessities of decoration and having among this crowd of idols discerned the really essential types, we might attempt the identification of what for the artists of Java constituted the Buddhist pantheon. We must hope that some Dutch archaeologist will find time to undertake this delicate and extensive task ; it is unnecessary to say that it is forbidden to a simple visitor.

Neither shall we dwell upon the hundreds of statues which decorate this stupa of the "Many Buddhas" (for such would be the meaning of the word Borobudur) : but [256] here the reason for our abstention is quite different. They were, in fact, classified long ago, and W. de Humboldt proposed to recognize among them, in accordance with Hodgson's Nepalese drawings, the images of the five Dhyani-Buddhas. The identification has since been generally admitted, and in principle we see no reason for contesting it : at the most it would need to be pressed further and completed. The arrangement of the groups must in any case be remade. Among these manifold replicas with heads generally well treated and expressive, but effeminate and bloated bodies, all seated in padmasana and only differentiated by the gestures of the hands, we must, in fact, distinguish :

1. in the four first rows of niches (in the proportion of 92 to each facade), to the east, those in bhumisparsamudra;
2. at the south, those in varamudra;
3. at the west, those in dhyanimudra;
4. at the north, those in abhayamudra;
5. in the fifth row of niches, on the four facades (viz. 64 altogether) those in vitarkamudra;
6. in the 72 little open cupolas of the three circular terraces, those in dharmacakramudra;
7. the single image found under the great central cupola.

Whatever identification may be proposed, will, it is understood, have to take into account each of these varieties, without omission and without confusion. Therefore we cannot admit that of Humboldt, which confuses and mixes up nos. 4 and 5. If we must identify [257] 1. Aksobhya, by the gesture of calling the earth to witness, 2. Ratnasambhava, by the gesture of giving, 3. Amitabha, by the gesture of meditation, 4. Amoghasiddha, by the gesture of protection, it is clear that in the last row of niches we must recognize, 5. the fifth Dhyani-Buddha, Vairocana, by the gesture of discussion, although the gesture of teaching is more usually reserved for him and although, on the other hand, the vitarkamudra is scarcely distinguished from the abhayamudra by the fact that in it the index-finger is joined to the thumb. It follows likewise that with the five rows of niches belonging to the polygonal galleries we have, as was natural, exhausted the list of the five Dhyani-Buddhas.

6. The 72 images of the circular terraces would then all be consecrated to the historic Buddha, Sakyamuni, and would exhibit him teaching.

7. As for the purposely unfinished statue which was discovered under the great central cupola, it has been the subject of many hypotheses. Dr. Pleyte regards it as the last enigma of Borobudur : "The great Dagaba", he says, "was formerly without any opening; but at present one can have access right into the interior, part of the wall having been removed. The removal brought to light a hidden image of Buddha, which represents him seated in bhumisparsamudra. This image of Buddha is thus the centre of the sanctuary. By reason of its incomplete form it is considered by Groeneveldt to be a representation of the Adi-Buddha. This would be a manner of symbolizing the abstract essence of this supreme divinity of Mahayanism. Kern, on the contrary, recognizes in this unfinished [258] figure an embryo Buddha : this would be an allusion to the Bodhisattva in the womb of his mother..." If these diverse interpretations fail to satisfy us any more than they did Dr. Pleyte, the short resume which he gives of them is at least sufficient for our purpose. We do not indeed pretend to discuss here the greater or less degree of probability in these theories. Still less shall we stop to criticize that of Wilsen, who saw in this same statue a rough model of a future Buddha, prepared for subsequent completion by the cunning priests. In truth, speculations of this kind are scarcely more susceptible of refutation than of proof; and it is this which makes us suspicious of them. If we in our turn venture a new hypothesis, it is because we should prefer to seek the solution of this problem of archeology elsewhere than in the messianic, symbolical or theistic conceptions more or less familiar in such and such forms of Indian Buddhism.

Let us, then, make a tabula rasa of all this metaphysics and consider again, as briefly as possible, the essential elements of the question. Under the central dome of the stupa of Borobudur, at the spot where we should expect to find the usual deposit of relics, or at least the upper deposit - for it happens sometimes that there are along the perpendicular which joins the summit to the base several of them, one above the other - was discovered an image of Buddha, whose emplacement sufficed to prove its specially sacred character. Now this statue was intentionally left unfinished; "The hair, the ears, the hands and the feet are not completed", says Leemans; and further on he adds : "One is forced to admit that the artist who made the plan of the whole really had a premeditated intention [259] of leaving the statue of the central sanctuary in the state in which we possess it". On the other hand, this image shows us Buddha seated, his legs crossed in the Indian manner, the left hand resting in his lap, his right hand hanging down, the palm turned inwards and the fingers stretched toward the ground. Before committing ourselves to any apocalyptical explanation of this figure it is well, in point of method, to ask ourselves, first of all, whether the iconography of India, the recognized model for that of Java, does not comprise any type of Buddha composed in the same attitude and presenting the same peculiarity of incompletion.

If it were permissible to judge by the facility of the solution, the question would in this case be well put : at least, in order to answer, it is not necessary to push far our interrogation of the Indian tradition. The two most celebrated prototypes of the pretended portrait images of Buddha are that of Kausambi (or Sravasti) and that of Mahabodhi, near to Gaya. The former is in this case out of the question. Concerning the second we possess two versions of an identical legend, the one reported by Hiuan-tsang, the other by Taranatha. Anxious before all to guarantee the authentic resemblance of the image, they naturally attribute its execution to a supernatural artist : on two points they seem none the less in harmony with historic truth. First of all, we learn from the texts, in the most formal manner, that the original work was regarded rightly or wrongly, matters not as not being finished, an accident which people were unanimous in explaining as due to an unfortunate [260] interruption in the mysterious work of the divine sculptor. Among the unfinished parts Taranatha cites especially the toe of the right foot and the locks of hair. Whilst these material details would he less easy of verification than might be thought in the obscurity in which, as Hiuan-tsang tells, the majesty of the idol was hidden, there is some appearance that this general belief in its state of incompleteness was in one way or another well-founded. In the second place, and in any case, it is a fact attested by the monuments, as also by the descriptions of the texts, that it represented Buddha seated, the left hand at rest, and the right hanging, at the moment when, disturbed from his meditations by the assaults of Mara, he touched the earth with his fingers, in order to invoke it as witness. In short, the image of Vajrasana of Mahabodhi, to use the term under which it was known, made the gesture of bhumisparsa, and was, or which for us comes to the same thing, passed for being, incomplete.

We leave to experts the task of concluding. To us this double rapprochement appears sufficiently precise to allow of our putting forward the idea that the central Buddha of Borobudur, incomplete and in bhumisparsamudra, is, or at least intends to be, nothing but a replica of the statue of Bodhgaya. In addition to its simplicity, the hypothesis has also this great advantage, that it frees us from the necessity of attributing exceptionally to the artists of Java, always so respectful towards Indian tradition, the creation of a new model which India would not have known. Finally, if it does away with one difficulty, in our opinion a considerable one, we do not think that it raises another in its [261] place. It is a fact historically established by Chinese evidence that from the VIIth to the XIth century of our era, that is, during the period covering the construction of Borobudur, which is attributed to the second half of the IXth century the "True Visage of the Throne of Diamond", or "of Intelligence", was the most venerated Buddhist idol in India, and even the model most in request of exportation, whilst the temple of Mahabodhi had become the greatest centre of pilgrimage. This would explain without effort why a more or less faithful copy of this miraculous image should have been able to assume a character sufficiently sacred to merit being placed by the Javanese architects in the hollow of the great stupa of the Indian Archipelago, just as the original reposed under the niches of the famous sanctuary of Magadha.

Such, at least, is the hypothesis which we could not help long ago submitting to Indianists, with all the respect inspired by the experience of our predecessors and the reservations imposed by the necessity, in which we still were, of trusting to the descriptions of others. At the time of our visit to Borobudur we found nothing to add concerning this statue, inasmuch as it was still in the same state in which Dr. Pleyte had seen it, once again covered up to the neck and left in a state of abandonment very unworthy of all the ink which it had caused to flow. Thus we were obliged to restrict ourselves to reiterating the wish that it might once again be cleared and more closely studied. If we have returned in some detail to this subject, it is because in the interval this wish has been fulfilled, and because the kindness of Major Van Erp allows [262] us to produce at last a photograph of this famous idol. Perhaps this latter will be for the reader a disillusionment : in fact it merely sketches in a rather rough fashion the ordinary type of Buddhas of Borobudur, and it is quite clear that, if a replica of the image of Vajrasana is really intended, it was executed freely and not from a moulding. But upon a moment's reflection it will be seen that this was exactly what was to be expected: and, in any case, it is well once for all to place before the eyes of the public the decisive piece of evidence in a dispute which otherwise would run the risk of being endless.


Borobudur at Dawn


Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

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