Building Borobudur -- the world's largest stupa, or Buddhist shrine -- required several thousand workers and the better part of a century. For its construction, peasant laborers assembled a casing of unmortared stone over a hillock in central Java, Indonesia. This feat required them to hew and transport one to two million stones without modern engineering techniques or tools -- only ropes, hammers, rolling logs, and muscle power.
Even more incredible than its scale is the fineness of Borobudur's carvings, which have been called "a magnificent Buddhist rosary in stone." The carvings are mounted along an ascending three-mile path that represents the journey of the human spirit along the road to spiritual perfection.
Seen from above, Borobudur resembles a mandala, or spiritual diagram of the
universe. See more pictures of famous landmarks.
At the base, a series of bas-reliefs depict the transitory Sphere of Desire, with its earthly pleasures and punishments. This base has now become nearly covered by earth and stone. Moving higher on the processional path through five square levels, the pilgrim encounters a more spiritually elevated world, the Sphere of Form, with carved scenes from the life of Prince Siddhartha as he progresses toward enlightenment as Gautama Buddha.
The more than 1,200 bas-relief panels on the five levels also depict scenes of life in Indonesia more than a thousand years ago -- vibrant with farmers and warriors, musicians and dancing girls, ships and elephants and kings. More than 400 carved Buddhas appear along the path as well.
The next levels are three circular terraces, representing the Sphere of Formlessness, where 72 latticed stupas hold statues of the Buddha. Reaching through the open mesh to touch one of the figures is thought to bring good luck. The pilgrim's final steps upward, as he ascends from the material world to the sublime, reach a large central stupa. This summit represents release into nirvana, an ineffable state of wisdom and compassion. Now the pilgrim has reached the center of the universe, or the center of the self -- or perhaps they are the same thing.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.