Borobudur is pretty cool. It's a Buddhist monument left over from a time when Java was ruled by Buddhist empires not unlike the Khmer kingdom in Cambodia, the guys that built Angkor Wat. Java today is sooooo not that place, but once, there was enough heat behind a project like this that Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. Built around a natural hill, it's a gigantic, stepped pyramid of walkways, carved narrative walls, stupas, stairways, and statues, surmounted by the ruins of a really big domed stupa that once had a big seated buddha in it. Once, it was covered in sparkly, mica-infused plaster, colorful paint, and gold leaf, but that all disappeared when it fell into such ruin that it looked like a jungle-covered rock pile. It was excavated and restored during the Dutch colonial era, so, now, it looks something like it once did, minus the bling.

The most interesting thing about Borobudur, for the student of narrative placemaking, is its manipulation of space and sequence as one travels from the bottom to the top. The monument forms a giant mandala when viewed from above. (Look up "mandala" so I don't have to digress here.) As with a lot of mandalas, the outermost parts are squared and the innermost parts are circular.

The journey up the pyramid mimics the process of gradual enlightenment. One is supposed to circumambulate the monument one level at a time. (Look it up, we're moving on.) As devotees would circumambulate the stupa, walls to their right, they would pass by carved imagery representing the lower levels of spiritual existence. From the first levels, one could not perceive the upper parts of the structure. All one saw was what was immediately apparent. As once ascended, the imagery carved on the walls becomes more elevated, yet still wordly. The upper regions of the stupa are circular, and these are only revealed as one passes out of the squared levels, as if one is entering a higher consciousness in which the summit of enlightenment is now perceptible and reachable. The upper regions never had carved imagery, which is, after all, the quintessence of illusion. There are, however, a series of carved seated Buddhas. These were once covered by domed stupas pierced by little openings, limiting the pilgrims ability to percieve the Buddhas. Another metaphor.

Nowadays, a visit to Borobudur is a bit more frenetic than it used to be. Hordes of school kids clamber over the ruins, mixing their excited voices with the amazed chatter of international tourists. Guides intone descriptions in a dozen languages. Wimps complain about the tropical heat. But, it is spectacular to stand near the summit, close to the symbols of compassion, peace, and enlightenment and to gaze out, like the stone Buddhas, at this, our beautiful but temporary world.

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