Introduction to the Lalitavistara Reliefs at Borobudur

Candi Borobudur

Candi Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world, and one of the greatest cultural achievements of mankind, being a veritable library carved in stone illustrating some of the most important stories in the Buddhist tradition, and having no direct parallel found anywhere else.

It is situated on the plains of central Java at the heart of present-day Indonesia, and is in the vicinity of the large and volcanoes of Merapi and Merbabu, the former being still active. Although there are no records pertaining to its building or purpose, we can be fairly sure that it was built in the late 8th and early 9th centuries during the height of the Śailendra dynasty, which was a great empire ruling over much of Java and Sumatra.

It is built from nearly a million blocks of volcanic rock, which have been mined locally and built over a small hill, where they were assembled on nine levels. The first five levels were carved with around 1,460 bas-reliefs, and it is also home to around 750 Buddha statues and over 70 small and uniquely fashioned chetiyas which are in a style found nowhere else in the Buddhist world.

As there are no records surviving from those who commissioned the building that might have explained what the builders themselves had in mind, it has been subject to many different theories as to its purpose, and even its affiliation with regard to Buddhist sect.

Its exact purpose is not clear, as it is not a temple, and it is not simply a stūpa, and it is not clear if it was meant as an introduction to Buddhist teaching for the layman either. It is fairly safe to say that it broadly belongs to the Mahāyāna, but it shows signs of Tantric influence.

Many of the texts that were illustrated on the walls have by now been identified, although the exact version of the texts remains unknown, and the stories on the reliefs do seem to differ somewhat from the received texts that we now know.

At the base of the shrine, and now covered up, are found illustrations of the Mahākarmavibhaṅga text, which tells of the workings of karma and the rewards for good and bad deeds in heaven and hell, some of the reliefs have been identified as belonging to certain stories, but the majority have not.

Although this part of the shrine is no longer accessible, except for a small corner which has been opened up, it was photographed in the late 19th century by the Javanese photographer Kassian Cephas, and it is in fact one of the most important parts of the monument, because it was covered over before it was completed, and the builders left traces of inscriptions on some of the half-finished reliefs, which would have been removed upon completion as they were elsewhere.

It is from these inscriptions, which are written in Sanskrit and in an old Javanese script, that we can date the monument on epigraphic grounds quite accurately and that we also have an idea of the texts that were available to the builders, and how they went about construction.

 Karmavibhanga

Above that in ascending order we have Jātaka tales from the previous lives of the Buddha, the exact source book for which is unknown; the Life of the Buddha told on 120 panels according to the story as found in the Lalitavistara, a Sanskritised Prakrit text that appears to be an expansion of an earlier work belonging to the Sarvāstivāda school, which is the work we are centrally concerned with in this book.

Many of the reliefs in the next set have been identified as belonging to the Avadāna series of stories, which again tells of the karmic results of actions good and bad. A number of them – but not all apparently – occur in the collection known as the Divyāvadāna (the Divine Traditons), but many of the reliefs remain unidentified from those stories.

On the next level there are more Jātaka and Avadāna type stories, and also the beginnings of the illustrations of the major work that is featured at Borobudur, the Gaṇḍavyūha and its culminating hymn, the Bhadracarī, which tells of the young man Sudhana’s pilgrimage along the Bodhisattva Path, in which he meets a series of spiritual friends who reveal parts of the truth which he seeks.

This is topped by three more levels where no reliefs occur. On the penultimate level we find chetiyas, or shrines, housing Buddha statues displaying particular gestures indicative of teaching and blessing, and at the top of the monument is a large stūpa, which dominates the whole construction.

Borobudur Section

That is an overview of the Candi, but it is far from the whole story, because it is clear that the monument was part of a larger construction which was built along a twelve kilometre lay line, that takes in the ancient candis of Pavon, Mendut and Ngawen as well. As with Borobudur itself the exact function of these temples in the greater scheme of things is still unclear, though they do in themselves house shrines and also have relief carvings, and may have been part of a pilgrimage route to the greater monument.

Borobudur-Pavon-Mendut

Lalitavistara

The Lalitavistara is one of the central texts of the Mahāyāna tradition, it tells part of the traditional story found in all the early schools of the life of the Buddha, and covers the period from when he is approached in his last life in the Tuṣita Heaven until the preaching of the first sermon in the Deer Park at Ṛṣipatana near Vārāṇasi.

The correct interpretation of the title is not known, as it is not explained in the text itself, but it seems to mean An Elaboration (Vistara) of the Play (Lalita) (of the Buddha’s life), either meaning that this is an elaborate telling of the story, a telling in extensio; or an elaboration, or enlargement, of an earlier telling of the story.

The emphasis is on how the Bodhisattva attained Buddhahood and then started his teaching career, rather than on what happened after he began teaching. This corresponds to only a section of the story known to the early traditions, and omits his long career through many hundreds of lives as a Bodhisattva, and also his later life and teaching, and indeed his final Emancipation from the sorrowful world of saṁsāra.

Lalitavistara Manuscript
Cambridge University Library (CC BY-NC 3.0)

The extended (vaipūlya) text as we have it now is a patchwork of early and later writings in prose and verse, that have been pieced together rather imperfectly, not having been very well edited or harmonised, so that some parts of the story are told more than once, and they sometimes even contradict one another.

Similarly, the language is also a kind of hybrid, with some early Buddhist Sanskritised Prākt, mixed with a more regular and well-formed Sanskrit, which shows that the time span for the writing of the text is probably quite wide, incorporating very early materials, which have an oral or folklorish feel to them, with writings in a more learned and studied fashion from a later period.

There are several editions of the text still available to us in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese but they differ somewhat from each other, and although the written source for most of the panels can be identified, it appears that the text the sculptors worked from was either different from any we have received, or they felt able and free enough to depart from it when they wished to.

This is shown best when we come to the panels near the end of the story, which illustrate in fair detail the Buddha’s journey from Gayā, where he attained Awakening, to Ṛṣipatana, the place where he gave his First Sermon. In the Lalitavistara texts we receive this is passed over very quickly, but in the panels we see the Bodhisattva being entertained along the way by various gods and prominent people, something which is known to us not from the Lalitavistara, but from other texts like the Mahāvastu.

The Panels and their Iconography

The 120 panels that illustrate the Lalitavistara story form the upper registrar of the first floor of Borobudur, and are placed above similar panels illustrating the Divyāvadāna texts. They are all of the same height, being approx. 34" tall, with the width varying, the most regular being approx 9ft wide (giving an aspect of 2.9:1), but some that have to fit into corner-pieces are only a little over 6ft wide (2.2:1).

Lalitavistara Size

The story that is illustrated on the panels can be divided into five sections:

Conception and Pregnancy, panels 1-27
Birth and Youth, panels 28-52
Signs and Renunciation, panels 53-69
Meetings and Striving, panels 70-95
Awakening and Teaching, panels 96-120

When you take time to look a little more deeply at the reliefs you will see that the Borobudur craftsmen had a wonderful eye for detail, and also for conveying the emotion of the characters, as well as producing harmonious compositions.

The former is especially evident in the detail in which costumes, ornamentation and instruments are presented; and also in the amazing exuberance of flora and fauna which populate the reliefs.

The memorable expressions of the faces of the gods, bodhisattvas and humans, which make up the central figures, is sublime even after centuries of wear have taken their toll on the figures.

The ability to encompass stories, or parts of stories, on the reliefs and act as a storybook is remarkable, and it is possible to return to the reliefs over and over again and still find more of the story embedded in the stone.

The carvings themselves are bound by the blocks of stone the sculptors were carving on: these were not one large plain and open surface. The Lalitavisatara reliefs for instance, are four blocks high, and faces especially had to be fitted to the space available on the blocks, so we see both the constraint of the medium and the ingenuity of the artist is working with the materials on hand.

Lalitavistara Blocks

What follows now is a guide to the reliefs themselves which give detail on the story being illustrated, and also point out some of the significant parts of the relief, and things to look out for on the panels.