Navigating Parenting

thinkingman4A few days back my nine year old casually declared that he doesn’t believe in God. “There is no place like heaven, so where does God even stay? It’s all a wash.”

I did not (could not) reply immediately, busy as I was turning his words back and forth, up and down in my head with wonder. A need to comment responsibly stemmed from the fact that I am a believer. Don’t know how it happened, having grown up in a pretty non conformist household with an atheist mother but here I am,  a believer. Not rabid though, far from it, I don’t follow the numerous rituals my religion calls for, don’t visit the temple every month- or even six- but I believe in the divine and I do find comfort in God.

Calibrating my response was important because having my son tow my line of thinking just because I birthed him is not my cup of tea. In fact, I take a disproportionate amount of pride in the independent thought process he displayed. Think about it, how many Democrats have Republicans for children? Or how many hardcore hagglers have their progeny getting ripped off when shopping? I’m sure there are some, but they don’t constitute the norm. What cannot be overstated is the influence parents exert consciously or unconsciously over their child’s life choices. So I laboured yet again on an interesting, unending debate I often have in my head. God vs Science. Fear vs Self Belief. Unknown vs Known. Fate vs Action …and so it went till it dovetailed (as it always does without fail) into concepts of Karma, Dharma, Moksha, Kismet, Universe, Circle of Life, Meaning of Life…

Needless to say, I still don’t have a cogent enough response for him. But after all that rumination I know that I will encourage him to draw *his* conclusions based on *his* life experiences, *his* knowledge of the world and *his* ability to process religion and philosophy. How exciting, I can’t wait to write more about about our discussions going forth.

Plus he’s only nine; for all you know one day he may run his own religious cult in Utah!



Shakti, my way

IMG_0481She lost her mother a little too early in life. I was a management trainee then..doing the rounds of a factory in Punjab when I received her call. She was strong and collected – well as much as she could have been under the circumstances – and heartbroken as I was, I couldn’t have been prouder.

So when she moved into her swanky new sea-facing home and asked me to paint something for her bare walls, what else could I paint but Ma….Shakti…..that primordial female cosmic energy blessing her everyday, keeping her strong, vibrant and crazy as ever.

This is my house-warming gift to her. This is my love for aunty, one of the sweetest, kindest souls I’ve had the privilege of knowing .


Painting details: Mixed Media on Canvas – acrylics, modeling paste, stamps, metal and glass.



Decoding Borobudur

My friends ask me why I put myself through an Art History course, writing  papers that no one except the very, very few might be interested in reading. My answer is – because I love it. 

It  has been very difficult,  going back to school and sitting with Ph.D students given my  ~ZERO~ background in the subject. But you know what? I love it.

I’ve written several papers to-date on Art and Architecture but this one is special because it was excruciatingly  esoteric in nature. I had to read what felt like a million books to  write one full page on a subject so steeped in religion, spirituality and philosophy (in addition to art and architecture). So even if there is only me and my class at Columbia that reads this, I maintain – I love it 

The text here is copied and pasted from the original paper so some of it may not align, the pics are missing captions and there may be some formatting errors. 

Heres to the extremely beautiful monument of Borobudur – Long may it live and shine


“…There are things known and things unknown, and in between are the doors…”

The line above succinctly encapsulates Borobudur in more ways than one. Attributed in parts to William Blake, Aldous Huxley, and the rock band The Doors, no one knows where exactly this fine thought should be pegged. Similarly, as much is known about Borobudur since its discovery in 1814 as needs to be known. This terraced, pyramid-like structure made of andesite stone found amply in this volcanic region, was built in Central Java in the late 8th or early 9th century A.D. by a king of the Shailendra Dynasty. Exactly what kind of a building is Borobudur, what does it signify, what does its name mean, why was it made, who was it made for and who ended up using it are only some of the many questions that abound in any Borobudur study.


Paul Mus was the first scholar to prescribe to the idea of structural dualism in the concept of Borobudur. Every examination of Borobudur concludes that its architectural form cannot be associated with a single concept because it lends itself to multiple interpretations. Although each of these interpretations has its unique connotations, their symbolisms overlap. It wouldn’t be far fetched to assume that just as it is difficult to completely disentangle these today, so must it have been for the local Javanese populace of yore. The objective of this paper is to examine the nature, development and details of this stunning, albeit complex monument in order to Decode Borobudur. Employing works with art historical, theological, textual and visual approaches, this paper seeks to show that Borobudur, using the architectural class of (1) a Stupa is in parts a representation of (2) a Mandala, and (3) the Cosmic Universe

Borobudur, a description

Before proceeding further, it is imperative to understand the location and architecture of Borobudur in some detail because these help us piece together critical missing links to what this monument was intended to be. Borobudur sits atop a natural hill that serves as its foundation in part. The rest of the foundation is made of non-homogenous materials. It rises from a base that is approximately a 373 feet square, with a central stupa about 115 feet above the ground level1. Stairways cutting through the middle of each of it’s four sides face the cardinal directions. Rocks roughly 9 inches X 41 inches X 9 inches in dimension are used throughout the structure. A great manifestation of the Buddhist Doctrine, amongst other things Borobudur features 1460 narrative reliefs, 1212 decorative reliefs, 324 ratnas (jewels ornaments), 1740 triangular ornaments, 100 gargoyles and 32 lions.2The body of the entire monument is usually spoken of in three parts (1) base (2) galleries (3) terrace.

While the base of Borobudur is broadly a square, it is not a perfect quadrangle. There are zigzag indentations at each of its four corners.  The rather plain looking upper surface of the base is approximately 23 feet wide 3 and forms a walkway around the monument. However,  this foot was added after the monument was completed. The original base, just above the ground, featured 160 relief panels all around. Each one of these measured 7 ½ feet X 2 ½ feet and depicted a scene from the Mahakarmavibhanga, a Buddhist text about the doctrine of Karma (Cause and Effect) and consequently, Heaven and Hell. This original base and its decorations, the so-called hidden foot, were discovered only in 1885 and there are multiple theories about why these beautiful panels, some incomplete and some even disfigured were covered. The more prevalent school of thought believes that this embellished base had to be covered when it proved too narrow to support the monument on top and probably collapsed. A contrarian viewpoint believes it was covered deliberately as it corresponds to kamadhatu – the realm of desire, best left behind when approaching the more evolved spiritual experience of Borobudur. We will read more about kamadhatuand what it implies going forward but either way, a much broader but unadorned mantle of stones is the base of Borobudur as we see it today.

ImageThe second part of Borobudur consists of four levels of galleries with walkways almost six and a half feet wide through each one of these. Since the monument is shaped like a pyramid, each successive level is smaller than the one below. The first gallery is a walk of 360 meters while the second, third and fourth galleries constitute walks of 320 meters, 288 meters and 256 meters respectively. A complete circuit of all four galleries therefore covers 1.2 km or 3/4th of a mile. Multiple circuits of each gallery in order to enable detailed viewing of all relief panels in fact make for a 3-mile long walk. Bound by a main wall on one side (to the right when circumambulating) and a fairly high balustrade on the other, these galleries house most of the relief panels of Borobudur. The balustrades are tall enough to block one’s view of the sylvan environs around. As devotees follow the reliefs clockwise, always entering from the east, their journey is enlivened by frequent changes of direction due to the zigzag shape of corners, which prevents them from obtaining a view of the corridor extending for any great distance.At the corners one finds antefixes, panels topped by triangular ornaments. Waterspouts shaped like makaras(crocodiles) are placed on the lowest level while upper levels exhibit face similar to kala (demon). 4 Walking these galleries must have been akin to watching moving pictures in a theatre today – a plethora of reliefs surrounding you, telling enchanting stories in an enclosed space for the time it takes to walk 3 miles!

The first gallery features tales from the Lalitavistara5 (historical Buddha’s life story) spread over 120 reliefs, and Jatakas and Avadanas (tales of previous incarnations of people who became Buddhas) spread over 500 reliefs. With four sets of relief panels progressing simultaneously – two large ones, one above the other on the main wall, and two smaller ones on the balustrade, there is almost too much to take in all at once. However, the countenance of the subjects is pleasant and sometimes even humorous, so it is a not an


overwhelming experience. Decorative pilasters and ornate scrollwork, each one unique in its own right, divide the scenes for easy viewing. Interestingly

enough, the backs of Buddha niches (these Buddha niches appear throughout on the balustrades and we will discuss them in detail shortly) on the lower balustrade are decorated with a crowning motif representing a jewel while those in the upper galleries are decorated with small stupas.

The second gallery houses 100 panels of Jatakas and Avadanas on its outer wall. On it’s inner wall, with 128 panels starts what can be considered the primary theme of Borobudur reliefs, the tale of Sudhana, a pilgrim who visits several kalyanamitras or personages in search of the truth. This tale is based on the Buddhist text Gandavyuha.6 Sudhana’s story continues on the third gallery with 176 relief panels and culminates with 156 panels of the fourth gallery with Bhadracari, tale of Sudhana’s vow to bodhisattva Samantabhadra.


Extensive as this display of sculpture is, Borobudur’s sculptural plan of galleries is not nearly exhausted. 432 Buddha images appear inside aforementioned niches on the five balustrades. These measure 3 ½ feet in height and look outwards from each of the four cardinal directions. There were 104 such statues on the first and second levels, 88 on the third, 72 on fourth and 54 at the very top. However, several of these are now missing. We will return to a detailed account of the hand mudras (gestures) of these Buddhas and what they imply in a while.


The third part of Borobudur, its terrace, is distinctly different in feel from the confined galleries below. Upon getting here, the enclosed space suddenly opens up to offer fabulous views of the countryside around, setting the devotee free. It would not be an overstatement to say that the transition to this spacious, uncluttered area is dramatic. Unfettered by high walls, this part has three concentric, nearly circular terraces featuring seventy-two stupas in total, each with a Buddha image enclosed.  The lowest terrace has thirty-two stupas,middle one twenty-four and the highest, sixteen.  Stupas on the lowest and middle terrace have latticed, diamond shaped openings from which life-sized Buddhas within can be viewed while on the highest terrace, these openings are square shaped. All seventy-two Buddha images here display the same gesture, the dharmachakra mudra (turning the wheel of Dharma gesture). These stupas are 11 feet and 12 ½ feet in diameter. In the center of the entire monument, almost crowning it as it were is a large stupa 52 ½ feet in diameter. Only fragments of the original central stupa remain, though they give an idea of the simple carved horizontal bands it once possessed, and the tall spire containing a 13 tiered parasol which once surmounted the entire monument.7 This stupa is not perforated like the others and therefore what it houses, cannot be viewed from the outside. It has two unconnected hollow chambers inside. An unfinished statue of the Buddha in bhumisparsha mudra (touching the earth gesture) clearly blocked out is supposed to have been found inside it. But this fact is disputed. Some scholars believe that this statue corresponds to the arupadhatu realm (which we will discuss soon) and was intentionally left unfinished. Others consider it as nothing more than a filler for the stupa. Whatever the case, currently this image sits in a small museum on Borobudur grounds.

Usually religious art is a dimension of religious culture of the times. Therefore an adequate method of its interpretation ought to consider such religious culture and practices as might have been prevalent when the piece of art was created. One could also turn to Foucault’s notion of heterotopia, a concept in human geography for describing places and spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there and are simultaneously physical and mental – such as the space of a phone call or the moment you see yourself in the mirror. It can also be a single real place that juxtaposes several spaces, for instance, a Persian garden is a heterotopia because it is a real space meant to be a microcosm of different environments with plants from around the world.8 Our task is therefore to understand what the religious culture and practices might have been prevalent in Java of Ca. 800 and what heterotopia was Borobudur at its creation.

Religious sanctuaries in their layout and decor aim to provide tangibly, a vision of the problems of mankind. Most important amongst these is the relation of Mankind with the world of Holy. This ‘meeting’ of Ultimate Reality and Man is a mystery recognized by various religions in different yet essentially identical ways. According to Kempers, two mysteries occur in such sanctuaries, the micro-mystery of “God meeting his flock” and the macro-mystery of the sanctuary in itself being a symbol representing this mystery in action.9 Decoding Borobudur entails finding its place in this mystery and thereby understanding the spiritual background that led to its construction, iconographic program and symbolism. Over years of study, various theories about how the religious sanctuary of Borobudur can be interpreted have been propounded. Most influential amongst these are – Borobudur is a stupa, a mandala, a representation of the universe or a prasada. While each of these theories has been advanced individually, this has not been done at the cost of contradicting the other theories. Let us see how some of these concepts fit together to make a whole.

Borobudur, a Stupa 

How is Borobudur a Stupa?

Amongst other things, Borobudur is a representation of the Universe and the device deployed to achieve this effect by the architect is the stupa. This is because in Borobudur’s symbolism we find several critical features of a stupa’s function. For instance, a stupa recalls the life and previous existences of the historical Buddha and other personages. This element is found in the reliefs of Borobudur. A stupa stands for the Buddhist doctrine, as does Borobudur with its numerous symbols and reliefs that stamp it as a “Shining Tower of the Law”10. A stupa is the most abstract and therefore the most exact symbol of the Holy. In the case of Borobudur, this understanding can be applied to the main stupa on top. Finally, a stupa seeks to represent the Universe with the terraced cosmic mountain Mt. Meru in its center. Borobudur with its terraced structure recalls the same. It is also worth noticing that the stupa motif is repeated 1+16+24+32+1472 times all over Borobudur. In addition, some distinguishing features of earlier stupas, like Sanchi and Bharhut, can also be observed in Borobudur’s construct. For instance, the most important part of the entire structure, the central stupa at the top, bears the traditional hemispherical shape. The pathway to this central stupa (galleries) is studded with tales from the biography and previous lives of the historical Buddha. In addition, traditional motifs and architectural elements like the railings, gateways, lotus flowers, Buddha images, the pinnacle and sunshades, the yakshas, nagas and lions appear in abundance. Thus various elements of the earlier stupas may be seen in Borobudur. They were just applied and continued in a manner that is both original and elegant.11

Questions about the Stupa Theory

ImageRight from 1905, when Foucher first advanced the Stupa theory, many scholars have subscribed to it.12However what is not obvious, and what is an essential part of any typical, traditional stupa is the anda or the hemispherical body covering the base. This missing feature has led to debates about the theory of Borobudur being a stupa. Proponents of the theory argue that this element can be identified in the central stupa on top. However the issue is that the central stupa, while clearly visible from the terrace, is too small in proportion to the rest of the monument – it can only be seen by walking away and looking at the monument from a certain distance. Getting any closer only makes it sink below the outline of the balustrades. This central stupa therefore does not lend itself to being regarded as the dominant architectural element.

To solve this problem, Mus was the first to suggest that the silhouette of Borobudur with its stupas and stupa motifs resembles a hemispherical dome and hence it should be considered a stupa anda. This perspective however requires a good amount of squinting and some imagination to work. That there isn’t a stupa anywhere that resembles Borobudur is a definite damper for those who believe the stupa theory.

On the other hand, Woodward pointed out, “ is not the outer form of the stupa which provides the greatest number of clues for our understanding of these matters but the inner workings”. 13 This can allude among other things to the early accounts of the central stupa that state it has two hollow chambers inside”14, as is the case with a traditional stupa. No relics however were discovered from this space. Alternatively if the unfinished Buddha supposedly found in the central stupa was a part of the intended plan, it could have been the means to establish the Buddha’s presence in the structure.

What the stupa theory does provide us with is the understanding that pathways through the galleries of Borobudur were designed to perform a pradikshana, even though the central stupa was not visible through the gallery and was therefore not the focus of the circumambulation. Most scholars agree that this ritual was probably performed by a wide variety of people at Borobudur. While few have suggested that access to the upper levels of Borobudur might have been restricted, 15 they are usually proponents of the view that Borobudur offered experiences of a far more esoteric nature, which could be actualized only by the initiated few.

Borobudur, a Mandala

Another major theory, one we will focus on, is based to a large degree on the ground plan and aerial view of Borobudur. This theory Imagesubscribes to the view of Borobudur as a mandala. Heinrich Zimmer was one of the first proponents of this theory in 1926. In the scheme of Buddhist cosmos, humans seeking enlightenment must move from its violent and unconscious periphery to the sacred center. This concept has been rendered in the architectural construct of Borobudur with galleries that lead-up from the periphery of the monument to the central stupa on top. As Kempers suggests, Borobudur is a ‘dynamic space’, which by its very nature forces anyone entering to proceed in a certain direction. It invites the participation of an individual seeking enlightenment or spiritual progress by offering him a predetermined path for the same.16

What is a Mandala?

The word mandala is composed of two elements – manda (core) and la (a container). Since a mandala is regarded as a microcosm of the Universe, all gods find a fixed place here: the highest god sits in the center and various other gods are found elsewhere as his manifestations. Each of these gods is represented by a portrait or a single syllable that stands for its innermost essence.17

It becomes rather obvious upon observing the galleries and terraces of Borobudur that it is in fact, a mandala. Another giveaway is the presence of four stairways running straight through the middle of each side of the quadrangle, to reach the central stupa. These stairways look like the standard four entryways into a mandala. In itself, this is a very strong piece of evidence in favor of the mandala argument.

While there are multiple mandala theories, a common thread running through nearly all of them is that they equate the Buddhas in the niches of galleries and latticed stupas of the terraces with the Buddha figures in the panchajina (five Buddha mandala) on the basis of the mudras displayed. However, this belief can be a double-edged sword, as we will see shortly.

Let us now proceed to the mandala theory in detail. We will first see how on purely technical grounds, Borobudur can be considered a mandala. From there we will look at what kind of a mandala might it be; if it can be identified as one. Finally by using its architectural class – the stupa, as discussed above, we will recognize it as a replica of the cosmos.


How is Borobudur a Mandala?

Technically speaking, the concept of a ‘core’ and ‘container’ as described above can be interpreted for Borobudur in multiple ways. According to Wayman, one Borobudur sub mandala is composed of its galleries: the fifth gallery (the low balustrade that surrounds the platform near the tip of the monument, top of the fourth gallery) is the core and remaining four galleries are its container. Another sub mandala is composed of its terraces: seventy-two smaller stupas are the containers for the core that is the central stupa. The main mandala however is composed of the central stupa along with the seventy-two stupas as the core with the galleries as its container.

If this is the case then the dynamic, predetermined passage provided by the galleries with their stories and consequent teachings that keep getting more spiritually complex with every passing level are meant to engage and encourage devotees to make their way towards the main stupa and the spiritual significance it embodies. That is also the reason why multiple spiritual guides, in particular bodhisattvas like Maitreya, Manjushri and Samatabhadra are found in the fourth gallery, just before entry into the core. Spiritual guides or bodhisattvas play a central role in helping a devotee choose the right spiritual path in order to achieve his spiritual goal. The relation between a devotee seeking enlightenment and a bodhisattva helping him in this goal is summarized thus, using the example of Sudhana and Sumantabhadra:

“First of all, the person must have the right circumstances of life, which are called the four reasons: 1) he should be in this family; 2) taken in hand by spiritual guides; 3) be compassionate toward living beings; 4) have zest for austerities. And he should have one or the other power to generate that Thought (of enlightenment) 1) his own power, whereby he craves the perfect Enlightenment: through his own force (of character); 2) another’s power, whereby he craves it by the way of another’s power; 3) the power of a (deep-seated) cause, whereby he generates the Thought through the mere hearing in the present life of praises of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas by reason on having formerly cultivated the Great Vehicle; or 4) The power of praxis, in the course of which he has for a long time been following a path of virtue, seeking out high – minded persons and listening to the Law.” 18

Because the fourth gallery ends with Sudhana’s study of Sumantabhadra and since traditionally Mara appears at dusk, what Wayman refers to as the fifth gallery is metaphorically, twilight. Thus the sub-mandala of galleries symbolizes twilight. Moving from here into the night, and explaining the significance of the seventy-two stupas found here, Wayman draws a parallel between the location of Mt. Meru at the center of the universe and the system of thirty-six decanates. Seventy-two is of course, the double of thirty-six, the number of star groups north and south of the ecliptic. Borobudur also is situated very near the equator and the zodiacal stars north and south of the ecliptic can be viewed with equal clarity here.19 Thus the sub-mandala of terraces symbolizes the night. This highly metaphorical interpretation obviously bases itself on the idea of metaphorical night, the traditional time of Enlightenment and movement of the devotee from twilight to such a night/time.

Another explanation for the number seventy-two is rooted in Tantra. Taking the thirty-seven elements of the universe with Lord Mahavairocana as one and thirty-six remaining, number thirty-six can be considered twice – once as the ideal world of the Vajradhatu-mandala and again as its reflection in the natural world of Karunagarbha-mandala to lead us to seventy-two. This means that seventy-two + one Buddhas in those stupas realize the whole system.

What kind of a Mandala?

To answer the interesting, albeit complicated question of just what sort of a mandala Borobudur is, scholars turn to the Panchajina mandala model and draw parallels from there to the Buddha figures found in Borobudur. In a Panchajina mandala, Buddha Vairocana sits in the middle and displays the dharmachakra mudra (turning of the wheel gesture). In Borobudur, the seventy-two Buddha figures sitting inside the latticed stupas on the terraces also display this gesture. Around Vairocana are four directional Buddhas, each displaying a specific gesture 1) Akshobhaya in the east in the bhumisparsha mudra (earth touching gesture) 2) Ratnasamabhava in the south displaying the vara mudra (boon granting gesture) 3) Amitabha in the west, displaying the dhyana mudra or (meditation gesture) and 4) Amoghasiddhi in the north, displaying the abhaya mudra (fear not gesture). In Borobudur, the Buddhas in the niches on the balustrades display exactly these four mudras for the corresponding cardinal directions. Additionally, Kala and makaras guard the four gateways to the monument just as they guard mandala entry points. It must be noted that there are versions of the mandala theory where the Buddhas are given different names than the ones mentioned above, but the structure of the argument essentially remains the same: the Buddhas of Borobudur display the correct mudras for the correct directions.

Questions on Mandala Theory


ImageAs was mentioned before, adherence to the Panchajina theory is a double-edged sword as a sixth Buddha is also found in the monument making it depart from the standard five Buddha pattern. This is the sixth Buddha located in the niches of what Wayman calls the fifth gallery. On all four sides of the gallery, this Buddha displays the same gesture, vitarka mudra (gesture of instruction). This of course becomes the main issue in terms of pegging the mandala type down since there are six gestures and six Buddhas, something that isn’t observed in any known mandala to date. Another complication is that if indeed the unfinished Buddha image in bhumisparsha mudra was found in the central stupa, then the “wrong” Buddha is in the center of the mandala.

While several arguments and explanations have been expounded by scholars to address these issues, the argument for Borobudur as a mandala will stand to gain a lot from the identification of a known mandala with the same arrangement, or a known text that can be linked to. It must be noted here that while there exists a debate on what tantric text Borobudur was based on, it is quite certain that tantric texts did exist in Borobudur Java. Miksic points out to the fact that a tremendous variety of mandalas existed in Borobudur’s time and at least 3500 mandala designs were known. Also, famous tantric practitioners like Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra spent time in Java. They taught the use of two particular mandalas – the Vajradhatu mandala (Diamond World) and Dharmadhatu mandala (Matrix World). 20

In fact, even without the knowledge of a known tantric text, scholars such as Robert A.F. Thurman state that the mandala principle can be seen in several Mahayana texts including the Gandavyuha.

“For the Universal or Messianic Vehicle, expresses the ideal of the ‘perfection of the Buddhaverse.’ Such a cosmic transformation is possible because of the infinite non-dual presence, in every atom and subatomic energy, of the truth-and beatific bodies; it is actualized by the activities of countless emanation-bodies of the Buddha, ceaselessly helping beings throughout the universe.”21

Thus from several perspectives: technical, religious, art historical, historical and philosophical, it can be argued that Borobudur was built to represent a Buddhist mandala and that probably did serve some of the functions of one in the time it flourished.

Borobudur and the three cosmic realms

Borobudur is a mandala in that its various galleries featuring personages teach important life lessons and offer guidance to those seeking spiritual salvation. Stutterheim believes that the relief panels of Borobudur were used as foci for meditation. He (and several other scholars subsequently) also stressed that Borobudur’s structure metaphorically interprets the Buddhist cosmological thought which divides the universe into three realms: Kamadhatu (realm of desire), Rupadhatu (realm of forms) and Arupadhatu (realm of formlessness), with Mt. Meru in the center. First and outermost of these realms, the Kamadhatu is what human beings are born into. It features all kinds of hells, violence and unsavoriness. Rupadhatu consists of evolved beings living in heavens where there is no desire, only meditation. Inhabitants of Arupadhatu are the most spiritually evolved beings. They do not possess a form and are ethereal bodies spread over four heavens corresponding with the four highest degrees of meditation. In the architectural structure and decoration of Borobudur, Kamadhatu can be identified in the Mahakarmavibhanga-based reliefs of the original base and probably even the entire outer region of the building. This is what the devotee is born into, this is what he wants to escape, and this is where he is before entering the sphere of Rupadhatu, which corresponds to the four galleries. Here he is spiritually guided with the aid of a plethora of images (rupa) and proceeds slowly but surely towards Arupadhatu, represented by the three circular terraces and the main stupa. This vacant and open area offers the highest level of spiritual awakening having nearly no reliefs and in that sense being arupa (formless). The central stupa can be envisioned as Mt. Meru with a shaft in the very center. Upon getting here, the devotee reaches what is comparable in spiritual terms to the concept of Nirvana of Hinayana.

Borobudur, symbolizing the Cosmic Universe

Kempers succinctly paraphrased Borobudur as a monument that represents the Holy; its descent into the Universe, the Universe being pervaded, and the ascent of Man.22According to him, the descent of the Holy is depicted in Borobudur by the Buddha figures studded all over the terraces and galleries and the ascent of man is symbolized by the relief panels in the galleries. This brings us to the theory that Borobudur represents the cosmos where such interpenetration is a regular, constant occurrence.

ImageAn important element of the cosmos is the cosmic, terraced mountain Meru. Borobudur too in its construct is a terraced pyramid. Additionally, the location of Borobudur suggests that it was intended to represent Mt. Meru because just like Meru is supposed to be surrounded concentric rings of alternating seas and mountain ranges, topographically Borobudur is surrounded by a ring of mountains. Casparis further points out that Borobudur rises from the midst of a plain of rice fields that during certain parts of the growing seasons look not unlike a vast lake.23 Thus one would not be wrong to assume that basis its general shape and location, Borobudur was meant to represent the cosmic mountain at the center of the Chakravala cosmos.

Borobudur’s circumambulation route represents the bodhisattva path by which the devotee ascends towards spiritual enlightenment and Buddhahood. The same route also represents the descent of the already enlightened Buddhas in niches who meet the devotee every step of the way, at each level of his or her ascent. These niche Buddhas however are no longer visible from upper platforms and terraces. This can be a metaphorical way of letting the devotee know that he or she has evolved spiritually and literally moved to higher things – from a world of illusion to the world of enlightenment.

Borobudur, Organic Architectural Flow

Everything that happens in the cosmic world, its spiritual realm of enlightenment, is a transition. There are no sharp changes, you cannot leap or take sudden shortcuts. This principle is reflected gloriously Borobudur’s architecture. The architect has ensured that there are no sharp divisions in the monument. Every element organically flows into the one next to it. Indeed the entire building pulsates as one organic whole with flexible transitions throughout. For instance, the balustrade of one gallery is the top of the main wall in the gallery below.

The whole is recognizable in the details and the details in the whole, much like the concept of Indrajala.24 Wherever there are horizontal divisions: in the terraces, galleries or ambulatory, they are sewn together by the ingenious use of ornaments, especially stupa shaped ones.


It is clear from all that we have seen that Borobudur cannot be reduced to one, singular element. This is because at the very least it encompasses within itself three principle concepts that are inextricably intertwined. They all contribute to a detailed and nuanced understanding of the monument. Such an understanding would be difficult to achieve if just one of them were to be considered in isolation. Borobudur is a mandala that prescribes a path for salvation, its architectural class is that of a stupa – the most evolved of all Buddhist concepts, and it represents the cosmos within which all of us sentient beings exist. The brilliant planners and architects of this monument succeeded at getting these three to create a seamless, stunning, meaningful, organic whole; a whole that embodies complex spiritual metaphors with ease and ensures that all its parts coexist in perfect harmony.


  1. Soekmono, R “Chandi Borobudu,” 15
  2. Kempers, Bernet A.J “Ageless Borobudur,” 172
  3. Soekmono, R “Chandi Borobudu,” 15
  4. Miksic, John N “Borobudur: Majestic Mysterious Magnificent,”42
  5. Krom, N.J. “The Life of the Buddha on the Stupa of Barabudur According to the Lalitavistara
  6. Gandavyuhasutra, ed. With intro by P.L. Vaidya, Buddhist Sanskrit texts, 5 (Darbhanga:The Mithila Institute,1960). English translation Thomas Cleary, trans. Entry into the Realm of Reality: The Text: the “Gandavyuha,” the Final Book of the “Avatamsaka Sutra” (Boston: Shambhala,1989).
  7. Miksic, John N “Borobudur: Majestic Mysterious Magnificent,” 44
  8. Chemburkar, Swati  “Monument, Memory, and Meaning: Heterotopia at Borobudur, Indonesia,” 1. (Marg: A Magazine of the Arts, Sep2012, Vol. 64 Issue 1, p12, 14p
    Item: 82830016).
  9. Kempers, Bernet A.J “Barabudur: A Buddhist Mystery in Stone,” 110-111 in Gómez, Luis O. “Barabuḍur, history and significance of a Buddhist monument.” Vol. 2. Asian Humanities Pr, 1981.

10. Kempers, Bernet A.J “Barabudur: A Buddhist Mystery in Stone,” 113 in Gómez, Luis O. “Barabuḍur, history and significance of a Buddhist monument.” Vol. 2. Asian Humanities Pr, 1981.

11. Kempers, Bernet A.J. “Ageless Borobudur: Buddhist mystery in stone, decay and restoration, Mendut and Pawon, folklife in ancient Java,” 147

12. Gómez, Luis O. “Barabuḍur, history and significance of a Buddhist monument.” 7-8

13. Woodward, Hiram W “Barabudur as a Stupa,” 122 in Gómez, Luis O. “Barabuḍur, history and significance of a Buddhist monument.” Vol. 2. Asian Humanities Pr, 1981.

14. Miksic, John N “Borobudur: Golden tales of the Buddhas,” 50

15. Miksic, John N “Borobudur: Golden tales of the Buddhas,” 27

16. Kempers, A. J “Ageless Borobudur: Buddhist mystery in stone, decay and restoration, Mendut and Pawon, folklife in ancient Java,” 178

17. Kempers, A. J “Ageless Borobudur: Buddhist mystery in stone, decay and restoration, Mendut and Pawon, folklife in ancient Java,” 180

18. Wayman, Alex “Reflections on the Theory of Barabudur as a Mandala”, 152-153 in Gómez, Luis O “Barabuḍur, history and significance of a Buddhist monument.” Vol. 2

19. Wayman, Alex “Reflections on the Theory of Barabudur as a Mandala”, 153-154 in Gómez, Luis O “Barabuḍur, history and significance of a Buddhist monument.” Vol. 2

20. Miksic, John N  “Borobudur: Majestic Mysterious Magnificent”, 50

21. Thurman, Robert A. F. “Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment,” in “Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment”, ed. Denise Patry Leidy and Robert A.F. Thurman, 128

22. Kempers, Bernet A.J. “Barabudur: A Buddhist Mystery in Stone”, in Gómez, Luis O. “Barabuḍur, history and significance of a Buddhist monument,”112

23. Casparis, J. G de “The Dual Nature of Barabudur,” 70 in Gómez, Luis O “Barabuḍur, history and significance of a Buddhist monument. Vol. 2”

24. Kempers, Bernet A.J “Ageless Borobudur,” 149



  1. Gómez, Luis O ed, “Barabuḍur, history and significance of a Buddhist monument.” Vol. 2. Berkeley, 1981
  2. Kempers, Bernet A.J. “Ageless Borobudur: Buddhist mystery in stone, decay and restoration, Mendut and Pawon, folklife in ancient Java,” Wassenaar, 1976
  3. Miksic, John N “Borobudur: Golden tales of the Buddhas,” Boston, 1990
  4. Miksic, John N et al.“Borobudur: Majestic Mysterious Magnificent”, Yogyakarta, Indonesia : Taman Wisata Candi Borobudur, Prambanan & Ratu Boko, 2010.
  5. Kandahjaya, Hudaya. “A study on the origin and significance of Borobudur”Graduate Theological Union, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2004. 3129398.
  6. Gifford, Julie A. “Picturing the path: The visual rhetoric of Barabudur” The University of Chicago, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2004. 3149326.
  7. Chemburkar, Swati  “Monument, Memory, and Meaning: Heterotopia at Borobudur, Indonesia,” 1. (Marg: A Magazine of the Arts, Sep2012, Vol. 64 Issue 1, p12, 14p
    Item: 82830016).


All photographs from Miksic, John N et al.“Borobudur: Majestic Mysterious Magnificent”, except,

Photo 8, which is from Wayman, Alex “Reflections on the Theory of Barabudur as a Mandala” in Gómez, Luis O “Barabuḍur, history and significance of a Buddhist monument” and Photo 10 which is from the website

On Secularism

world-religionA very short, hastily written note that just had to be, well, written.

There’s a difference in the notion of secularism I grew up with, living in Bombay and what my son is growing up with, here in Manhattan.

I had holidays for Diwali, Eids, Christmas, Buddha Jayanti, Mahavir Jayanti, Parsi New Year, Guru Purab etc etc. In school, we learnt Sanskrit shloks alongside O Come All Ye Faithful or Buddham Sharanam Gachhaami, had Santa come give us presents on Christmas and knew Bakr eid from Ramzan.

Secularism gets interpreted in my son’s world by non-celebration of any religious festival in school. In fact no religious displays of any kind are allowed. Merry Christmas becomes Happy Holidays, traditional Christmas songs  sung for winter concerts make appearances with skillfully altered lyrics to cleanse them of any/all religious bias. No holidays are given for festivals (except of course, the winter break that coincides with Christian and Jewish celebrations).

I suppose these are two ways of approaching the same thing, though I prefer my path to my son’s.

Introduction to several religious ideas, festivals, ways of life, broadened my outlook. The world was not merely Hindu I realized very early on. There are Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Sardars, Christians, Parsis and they all have interesting ways of celebrating their lives. A window into the unknown. Association. Empathy.

Not talking about religion is not going to make it go away. It’ll always be there in one way or  another. Why then not celebrate its diversity instead of shunning it in entirety?