Borobudur Temple in Java, Indonesia

Sudhana listens to Samantabhadra’s teaching. All bas-relief photographs: Caroline and Hughes Dubois

Built on a plain near the present-day city of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Borobudur, built in the 9th century, is considered the most important Buddhist monuments on the island of Java.

Long hidden by the jungle, Borobudur temple in Indonesia was rediscovered by Europeans in the 19th century, when its existence was reported in 1814 to the British Lieutenant-Governor of the Dutch East Indies, Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826). Raffles commissioned the Dutch engineer Hermann Christian Cornelius (1774-1833) to clear and survey the site, and Raffles published this collected information in his book The History of Java (1817), the first description in Western language of the monument. Its singular structure, imposing size and the finely carved bas-reliefs have rightly earned it a place among the masterpieces of the world-heritage architecture.

This exhibition of Borobudur temple, at the Baur in Geneva, presents some 40 large-scale contemporary photographs of carved reliefs from Borobudur photographed by Hughes Dubois by moonlight. Alongside these images are showcased Buddhist stone and bronze sculptures, as well as books, paintings and watercolours on Borobudur, produced in the 19th century and on loan from the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen in Amsterdam, the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart, and the Bibliotheque de Geneve.

Borobudur Photographed at Night

Seduced by the sheer beauty of the site, Caroline and Hughes Dubois chose to experiment and photograph the temple at night, under the full moon. In this particular light, the bas-reliefs adopt contours infinitely softer than the daylight, and the subtle play of shadows emphasise the magic and mystery of the place. This control of light is a fundamental element that characterises the work of Hughes Dubois for the past 35  years.

The Belgian-born photographer, known internationally for his ‘portraits’ of art objects, has won several awards for his work and has participated in numerous publications and exhibitions. In the Borobudur galleries, he used a Linhof studio equipped with a Schneider-Kreuznach wide-angle lens. Then 108 reliefs were selected from the thousands taken of the monument. The photographs were blown-up and printed life-size, each final digital image having approximately 450 million pixels. To do this, it was necessary to bring together six images of each relief, each with a minimum of 80 million pixels. Due to the complexity of setting up the camera for shooting, only one to two photographs could be taken each night and to complete the series, the photographers needed more than 100 nights on site to complete the task.

The Pyramid-shaped of Borobudur Temple

Occupying the top of a natural hill, Borobudur is built of blocks of andesite, the local volcanic stone. The monument is pyramid-shaped and is oriented towards the four cardinal points. The base is 123 metres in diameter, surmounted by five square stepped terraces with three elliptical terraces on top of that. A staircase placed at the centre of each side allows the ascent to the upper level, which is crowned by a large stupa.

The Lower-Level Galleries

The galleries around the four lower levels are decorated on both sides with some 1,300 engraved narrative panels (representing a total of 2,500 metres of end-to-end narration) and 1,212 decorative panels. The walls of the five square levels are adorned with small stupas and 432 arched niches, each housing a statue of a seated Buddha of 106 cm in height. These figures all have similar facial features, but are distinguished by the positions of their hands (mudra). The specific symbolic hand gestures allow the visitor to identify the Buddhas of the four cardinal points with Aksobhya facing east; to the south, Ratnasambhava; to the west, Amitabha; and to the north, Amoghasiddhi.

The Three Upper Terraces

The three upper terraces of the monument are lower and more open than the preceding ones and are entirely circumscribed by a row of stupas with skylights – 72 in number, measuring an average of 3.6 metres in height, each containing a statue of a fifth Buddha, Vairocana, the ‘Resplendent’ that is partially visible through the openings of the walls. On the central axis of the monument is the great summit dome, 11 metres in diameter and whose original height has been estimated at about 40 metres.

Despite the nearly two centuries it took to build Borobudur, it still remains enigmatic. In the absence of any historical document relating to its foundation and construction, as well as any indication as to the identity of the monastic community that lived close-by, multiple hypotheses have been presented to try to unravel the secrets surrounding its form, iconography, and symbolism.

Interpretation of the Statues

Research in the past has focused on the interpretation of the statues and engraved scenes that adorn the different levels of the monument, in the hope of detecting some correspondence between this iconography and Buddhist texts that could have served as a doctrinal source for the work. Today, a consensus is emerging regarding the identification of a significant proportion of bas-reliefs. On the other hand, the significance of the statues and the nature of their link with the engraved scenes constitute a strongly debated point that has led to extremely divergent positions.

The 1,300 narrative panels of Borobudur are arranged around the lower five levels of the monument, from the base up. They vary in size according to their position and measure 62 cm a panel for the smallest ones, up to 276 cm long and 80 cm high for the larger panels.

Taking a Pilgrim Tour of the Borobubur Temple

The order of presentation of the photographs of Borobudur temple in the exhibition follows the journey of a pilgrim making a tour and climbing the monument. In 1885, another 160 carved panels were discovered around the base, formerly hidden behind the basement wall. Today, only four scenes in the southeast corner are visible. This set illustrates the law of karma according to which actions, good or bad, committed in one life affect the next birth.

To explore Borobudur, the exhibition flows over four galleries with the first exploring the life of the Shakyamuni Buddha. The wall and balustrade of the gallery are divided into two superimposed registers. The biography of the historical Shakyamuni is recounted in 120 scenes in the upper register, following the text of Lalitavistara Sutra, telling the story of Gautama Buddha from the time of his descent from Tushita until his first sermon in the Deer Park near Varanasi, which was composed around the first century. Also on show are scenes from the previous lives of the Buddha that can be seen in the first and second galleries with illustrated stories from the Jataka, as well as edifying stories (Avadana tales) that relate virtuous actions by others. However, a significant proportion of these bas-reliefs still remain to be identified.

Through the second, third and fourth galleries are works relating to the Sudhana pilgrimage with 388 panels illustrating the Gandavuya Sutra (The Excellent Manifestation sutra), composed circa 200-300 in India and incorporated into one of the most influential texts of Mahayana Buddhism – the Avatamsaka Sutra, or Sutra of Ornate Flowering. It tells the pilgrimage of the young Sudhana who visits a succession of 53 masters, Kalyanamitra, or Friends of Good.

His journey culminates with the teaching of the Great Bodhisattvas, provided by Maitreya and Samantabhadra. The sutra ends with a hymn (gatha) of 62 verses to the glory of this last bodhisattva, entitled Bhadracari, carved in Borobudur in 72 scenes – the images of these bas-reliefs are in the exhibition on the wall of the fourth gallery.

The Narrative Scenes at Borobudur Temple

Taken as a whole, these narrative scenes at Borobudur represent the spiritual progression of the practitioner, beginning at the foot of the monument with the basic precepts of Buddhism, moving on to demonstrations of exemplary lives following the sutras, which serve as a prelude to an even deeper teaching, illustrated by the Sudhana pilgrimage showing the path of the Bodhisattva leading to enlightenment. The Geneva show is a novel attempt at bringing the wonders of Borobudur to Europe.

Borobudur Jewel of Buddhist Art, 18 April to 8 July, at Baur Foundation, Geneva, Catalogue available in French