Did the Abhayagiri Mahayana monks help build the world famous Borobudur stupa?

It might be of some interest to the readers of the Sunday ISLAND newspaper that some anthropologists and archaeologists in several different countries are continuing their research on the ancient Hindu-Buddhist period in Central Java, Indonesia, including the probable relations which existed during the 8th to 10th centuries between the Old Mataram Kingdom in Central Java and Sri Lanka. Focus is on the role which Mahayana Buddhist monks from the ancient Abhayagiri Monastery near Anuradhapura may have played in the design and construction of the world famous Borobudur stupa in Central Java, which since several years is also included in the

UNESCO World Heritage List.

Hopefully, some of the readers of the Sunday ISLAND newspaper are in a position to answer some of the questions posed or to provide other information relevant in this particular context.

My American friend and colleague Jeffrey Sundberg, now back in the USA after a stay of several years in Central Java where he made intensive studies of the ancient Hindu and Buddhist sanctuaries including efforts to decipher and translate ancient inscriptions in Sanscrit and other languages, called my attention for an item mentioned in the Insight Guide’s travel series edition on Sri Lanka, 1983 edition, page 172-173. In a section entitled ‘The Buduruvagala Buddha" it briefly discusses seven colossal Mahayana figures sculpted into a rock face, which, according to the Guide, authorities date from the 9th or 10th centuries. The largest sculpture is 15.5 meters tall (the largest on the island), and is attended on either side by two bodhisattvas, each 12 meters tall. Iconographically, the flanking statues are Avalokiteshvara and either Maitreya or, significantly, Vajrapani. Avalokitehsvara, in turn, is attended by Tara and (probably) Sudhanakumara. On the side of Maitreya/Vajrapani, one of his two attendants holds a vajra! Buduruvagala is in the highlands of Sri Lanka, about 14 miles south of Badulla and 3 miles south of Wellawaya.

The name Buduruvagala of course conjures up images of the famous stupa of Barabudur (or Borobudur) in Java, the more so since we know from various inscriptions found in Central Java that Mahayana Buddhist monks from South India and/or Sri Lanka came on several occasions to Central Java and that some of them apparently stayed there for extended periods at a local monastery supposedly near the Borobudur, named after the Abhayagiri Monastery. In addition we know from a statement by Professor Roland de Silva, recently President of UNESCO’S International Commission on Monuments and Sites ICOMOS, published by the Japanese expert on Buddhism and on cultural exchanges Prof. Eji Hattori, that in the ruins of the Abhayagiri Monastery a drawing has been found depicting a lotus-shaped stupa believed to represent a ground plan of the Borobudur. At the same Abhayagiri location was also found a Buddha statue which greatly ressembles the very characteristic Buddha statues which exist in great numbers at the Borobudur stupa.

Various experts have published alternative derivations for the name "Borobudur", none of which thus far appear to be entirely satisfactory. Some of these derivations include references to the presence of Buddhist monks from South India and/or Sri Lanka in Central Java. Therefore, Jeffrey Sundberg poses the question whether an alternative explanation for the name "Borobudur" could be a derivation from the name Buduruvagala, and that this name was given to this stupa in Central Java by Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka, just as they referred to the Abhayagiri monastery when indicating a local monastery in Central Java. If this assumption is correct, this would constitute another proof of the relations between Mahayana Buddhism in Sri Lanka and in Central Java, in particular in its form of Yoga Tantric Mahayana Buddhism which in the 9th century was practised locally both in Sri Lanka and in Central Java.

According to Jeffrey Sundberg the most interesting thing about the name Buduruvagala would be to determine whether its name in Sinhalese is spelled with a sub-dotted ‘d’ or not. The original Javanese spelling of Borobudur is Barabudur: If this lead bears fruit, then of course the meaning of the word ‘Buduru’ would be of demonstrable interest, especially as it seems connected to Vajra-oriented Buddhism.

In this connection it is interesting to note another fact. Local oral traditions in the present-day Islamic Central Javanese villages situated around the Borobudur stupa mention regularly that the Borobudur stupa was constructed by Gunadharma, who found his last resting place on the crest of the Menoreh Hills to the south of Borobudur, where his body and face are still outlined in the sky-line. However, Gunadharma is not mentioned in a single written text or inscription, and nothing else is known about him than what is stated in the local oral traditions, for which reasons anthropologiss, archaeologists and art historians most often refer to Gunadharma as a mythical personality, pointing out at the same time that this name is not a Javanese name but a Sanscrit name. One may therefore wonder how much truth there could be in such a local oral tradition, especially when one considers the fact that we know from many parts of the world that such oral traditions can be transmitted unaltered from generation to generation during many centuries. I have myself for this very reason put forward the theory that Gunadharma was indeed a historical personality, that he was a monk of the Abhayagiri Monastery near Anuradhapura, and that he played an important role in the design and construction of the third building phase at Borobudur when the upper terraces of the sanctuary were laid out as a Yoga tantric Vajradhatu-Mandala. It would also explain his profound knowledge of Yoga tantric Mahayana Buddhism, including various elements which would have reached the Abhayagiri Monastery through far-reaching contacts with the Nalanda monastery in Nord-east India, the Gandhara region in North-west India with its Hellenistic influences, China, Japan and Central Asia, all connected by monks and missionaries travelling along the Maritime Silk Road between China, Japan and India and beyond and along the Overland Silk Road between China via the Central Asian deserts and steppes with the Black Sea and Caspian Sea areas and Byzantium. Monks and missionaries, who were translating various Buddhist texts from one language into the other and who were certainly also responsible for the exchange of cultural elements and for the spreading of various forms of Buddhist teachings.

Another very relevant question by Jeffrey Sundberg is whether the sculpture of (probably) Sudhanakumara at Buduruvagala might possibly refer to the young pilgrim Sudhana from South India, who travelled far and wide and who consulted many holy men and gurus in the search for wisdom, as is depicted in a long series of narrative reliefs based on the text of the Gandavyuha on the upper part of the Borobudur. This would be another link between Buduruvagala in Sri Lanka and Borobudur in Central Java.

This entire subject is also for me personally of great interest, being a retired professor in general and applied geology from the Netherlands, who has been engaged several times by UNESCO as an expert/consultant for projects for the restoration and conservation of ancient monuments. I am in particular familiar with the Borobudur, which I visited many times with my parents during my childhood in the Netherlands East Indies. Later between 1968 and 1975 I was intensely involved in the UNESCO sponsored Borobudur restoration project as an expert/consultant and during four years also as the general UNESCO and UNDP project coordinator and adviser to the Indonesian government for this particular restoration project. For a number of reasons I live now in Bulgaria, where I am about to complete the manuscript of another monograph on Borobudur, in this case intended in particular for the general public and for the many interested thousands of tourists from all parts of the world who visit each year Borobudur.

Any relevant information which could be provided by you and/or by the readers of the Sunday ISLAND newspaper on the questions and issues raised in the above would be most welcome to me. And, of course, it will be a great pleasure also to transmit such information to Jeffrey Sundberg in the USA and to other interested colleagues in the Netherlands, India and Japan.

Prof. (Em.) Dr. Caesar Voute
Ul. Tzar Simeon" no. 214, Gradoman
Gr 1320 BANKJA, Bulgaria
Phone: +359-2-9976525 and GSM number +359-87932349
E-mail: cvoute@omega.bg