The Indonesian wonder of the world

Travel Destinations — By on September 29, 2008 at 7:30 am

One of the most impressive but least known sites in the world is the Indonesian monument of Borobudur. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on this stunning edifice, which is considered the largest Buddhist monument in existence.

Making lists of the world’s most impressive monuments is an irrational and ultimately pointless enterprise: Who has seen all the wonders of the world? And what would the criteria be? Yet scribblers have been at it since the second century B.C., when a Greek poet named Antipater of Sidon came up with his canonical seven, now all gone or reduced to rubble except the pyramids of Giza.

If Antipater had lived a millennium later, he would surely have put Borobudur, the astonishing stone mountain of exquisitely wrought sculpture in Central Java, on his list. No construction of the preindustrial era makes a more wondrous impression…

Borobudur rises to a height of 400 feet, nearly as tall as Cheops’ pyramid, in a series of concentric terraces. Its walls are lined with exquisitely carved bas-reliefs illustrating episodes from the life of the Buddha and his teachings, amounting to more than a mile of continuous sculpture — and that doesn’t include 504 life-size statues of the Buddha…

Like its Egyptian predecessors, Borobudur poses many enigmas to archaeologists. One visionary, slightly mad aspect of its design is that the ground plan, visible only from an aerial perspective, is a perfect mandala, a symbolic schema of Buddhist cosmology that serves as an aid to meditation. Or perhaps the monument represents a lotus blossom, a nearly universal image in Buddhist art. In 1931, a Dutch artist named W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp proposed the whimsical theory that the plain surrounding Borobudur was once a lake, and the monument was conceived as a lotus flower floating on it. His hypothesis became less fanciful in 2000, when archaeologists found stratigraphical evidence of a paleolake in the area.

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