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Episode 59 - Borobudur Buddha head

Borobudur Buddha head (between 780 and 840 AD). Stone; from Java, Indonesia

I am in the Indonesian island of Java - just a few degrees south of the equator. It's hot and it's humid, but I, and hundreds of other people on this steamy early morning, am about to set off on a walk that will take us around the world - or at least, around a symbolic representation of the world, as it was imagined and built here sometime around 800 AD. I'm at Borobudur, one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world, and the huge, square, terraced pyramid in front of me, is nothing less than the Buddhist view of the cosmos, in stone. And as I climb it, I shall be treading a physical path that mirrors the spiritual journey symbolically transporting the walker from this world to a higher plane of being. It's quite a journey.

"When you are at Borobudur, you are standing on this great monument. You can see the entire world around you, beneath you - it's an enormous experience of spaciousness, of freedom, and a far vaster perspective." (Stephen Bachelor)

This week we're tracing the great arcs of trade that linked Asia, Europe and Africa around a thousand years ago. My object today is a stone head of the Buddha, from Borobudur. Through it we can plot the huge network of connections across the China Sea and the Indian Ocean, by which goods and ideas, languages and religions, were exchanged among the peoples of south-east Asia.

I want to focus on the immensely rich and strategically important island of Java. Because it's in Java, at the monument of Borobudur, that we witness a spectacular example of how this network of international trade allowed Buddhism to spread beyond the boundaries of its birth and become a world religion.

Dominating a volcanic plane in the middle of Java, Borobudur is a stepped pyramid, made from over one and a half million blocks of stone. Built around the year 800, it's conceived as seven mounting terraces getting smaller as they rise: four square terraces below, then three circular ones above - and at the top of the whole structure is a large domed shrine.

As you climb through the different levels, you take the material road to a spiritual enlightenment. On the lowest level, the sculptured reliefs present us with the illusions and disappointments of ordinary life, with all its troubles and shortcomings. They show us the punishments meted out to adulterers, murderers and thieves - a Dante-like vision of sin and its inevitable punishment. Higher up, the reliefs show the life of the historical Buddha himself, as he negotiated this imperfect world, moving from his princely birth and family wealth to renunciation and, eventually, enlightenment. After that, come single statues of the Buddha, meditating and teaching, showing pilgrims how to continue their journey towards the realms of the spirit. The monument, or stupa, is decorated with well over a thousand stone relief carvings, and peopled with hundreds of statues of the Buddha. Borobudur is without question one of the great cultural achievements of humanity.

But when Islam became the dominant religion in Java in the sixteenth century, Buddhist Borobudur was abandoned, and for centuries it lay overgrown and almost invisible. Three hundred years later, in 1814, it was rediscovered by the first modern visitor to describe it, the British administrator, scholar and soldier Sir Stamford Raffles. Raffles had been appointed lieutenant governor of Java after the British captured the island during the Napoleonic wars, and he became passionate about the people and their past. He heard about a "hill of statues" and he ordered a team to go to investigate. The news they brought back was so exciting that Raffles went to see for himself the monument which he at that stage knew as Boro Boro:

"Boro Boro is admirable as a majestic work of art. The great extent of the masses of building, covered in some parts with the luxuriant vegetation of the climate, the beauty and delicate execution of the separate portions, the symmetry and regularity of the whole. The great number and interesting character of the statues and reliefs, with which they are ornamented, excite our wonder that they were not earlier examined, sketched and described."

But the monument had been badly damaged by earthquakes, and had been largely buried under volcanic ash. Even today many stone fragments stand in rows around the site, surrounded by grass and flowers. Nevertheless, Raffles was enraptured. He knew at once that this was a supreme architectural and cultural achievement, and he collected two of the fallen stone heads of the Buddha.

Raffles' rediscovery of Borobudur, and his later uncovering of important Hindu monuments on the island - for Java had embraced both Hinduism and Buddhism - led to a fundamental reassessment of Javanese history. Raffles wanted to persuade Europeans that Java was indeed a great civilisation, as the anthropologist Nigel Barley tells us:

"Raffles believed fervently in the concept of civilisation, he never defines it but it has a number of clear markers. One of them is the possession of a writing system, another is social hierarchy, and yet another is the possession of complex stone architecture. So if you like, Borobudur was one of the proofs that Java was a great civilisation, the equal of ancient Greece and Rome. And the whole of his collection at the British Museum, the Raffles collection, and the whole of that book he wrote, the 'History of Java', is an attempt to establish that proposition."

The Raffles collection consists of the two heads and some fragments gathered at Borobudur, and a modest number of ancient Hindu and Islamic works of art. But, in addition, he collected objects that for him summed up the Javanese culture of his own day - indeed in a later programme I'll be talking about some of his shadow puppets, the star attractions of popular theatre. This was a very particular kind of collecting: Raffles hoped that the objects themselves would plead the cause of this Indonesian civilisation, and would make it clear that the culture of Java was part of a greater South Asian cultural tradition.

Back in the British Museum, I'm standing in the section of the East Asia Gallery devoted to Java, with one of the fallen stone heads of the Buddha that Raffles found in the ruins at Borobudur. It's slightly larger than life-size and it shows the Buddha, with his eyes lowered, in a state of peaceful inner contemplation. His mouth has the classic serene half-smile, his hair is tightly curled, and we're reminded of his life as a prince - before he became enlightened - by the elongated earlobes, intended to suggest long years of wearing heavy gold earrings. Looking at this head, I'm immediately reminded of the first human images of the Buddha made about five hundred years earlier, in north-western India, which I talked about in an earlier programme. Raffles of course knew India very well, and it was immediately clear to him that the statues of Borobudur - and indeed much of Javanese culture - owed a great deal to long and sustained contacts with India.

These contacts had been going on for well over a thousand years before Borobudur was built. People used to think that these connections were the result of conquest or emigration from India, but we now see them as part of a great maritime trading network, which inevitably carried not just people and goods, but skills, ideas and beliefs. It was this network that brought Buddhism to Java and beyond - travelling along the Silk Road to China, Korea and Japan, and sailing across the South Asian seas to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. You can, I think, say that Buddhism was the first religion to go global, but it was never an exclusive faith, and at roughly the time that Borobudur was rising out of the landscape, great Hindu temples were also being built on a comparable scale.

To construct monuments like these, of course, required manpower and money. Manpower has never been a problem in Java. It is so fertile, it has always supported a huge population, and in the years around 800 the island was immensely rich. Besides its agriculture, it was a key staging post for international trade, especially the inevitable spices - cloves above all - coming from further east. From Java these luxury goods would be shipped on to China, and all over the Indian Ocean.

I'm now standing in front of the one of the reliefs at Borobudur that gives us the best possible, and most vivid, evidence for this kind of seaborne contact. It's a superb carved panel, showing a ship of around 800, and it's one of several you can find here at Borobudur. It's an image of great vigour and skill, deeply carved, with a lot of energy, and indeed humour - because right at the front, at the bows under the figurehead, you can see a sailor grimly clinging on to the anchor. But above all, it offers us visual evidence for the kind of ship that was able to make these long sea journeys, with multiple sails and masts - a kind of ship perfectly able to make those long sea runs from China and Vietnam to Java, Sri Lanka and India.

I suppose it's true of all great religious buildings, but at Borobudur I was particularly struck by what I think is a universal paradox: you need huge material wealth, acquired only through intense engagement with the affairs of the world, to build monuments that inspire us to abandon wealth and to leave the world behind. Here's the Buddhist teacher and writer Stephen Bachelor:

"It clearly was a very grandiose equivalent to one of those great Gothic European cathedrals, and it would have taken probably 75 to 100 years to construct it, similar to the cathedrals here in Europe. And so it's a great symbol of the Buddhist world, the Buddhist vision, and it's an intellectual exercise at some level. But because it is so brutally physical, it is so concrete, it is more than that. It somehow embodies something, in a way, that goes beyond just metaphysics or religious doctrine, and stands for something very vital about what the human spirit can achieve."

The experience of climbing the terraces of Borobudur is a powerful one. As you emerge from the enclosed corridors of the lower terraces, into the clear open spaces above, surrounded only by a circle of volcanoes, you are very conscious of having entered a different world. Even the most hardened tourist has the sense that this is not a site visit, but a pilgrim's progress. The builders of Borobudur understood perfectly how stone can shape thought.

I've now reached the three circular terraces on the top, and at this point the teaching stops, there are no longer any reliefs telling stories, there is simply a series of bell-shaped stupas, and inside each one, a seated Buddha. We are in the world of formlessness, having left behind us and below us the illusory world of representation and reality. And at the very summit of Borobudur, a huge bell-shaped stupa. Inside it, nothing - the void. The ultimate goal of this spiritual journey.

In the next programme we follow the path of the trading ship carved in the reliefs of Borobudur. We move from Java around the Indian Ocean, to finish on a beach on the east coast of Africa. And once again we'll find a great religion, travelling with the traders - but this time it's Islam. I'll be talking about a handful of pottery fragments... but it's amazing what a few broken pots and plates can tell us.

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