The Karmavibhanga Reliefs at Borobudur on Photo Dharma

Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. It was built in the 9th c. A.D. and contains no less than 2,672 relief panels on five different levels and it also has more than 500 Buddha statues.

Building on such a monumental scale had hardly been attempted before, and it is perhaps no surprise that it didn’t work out exactly as intended.

It was of course built from the ground up, but the original design proved to be too weak, and some time into its construction it was realised that the base needed to be strengthened by widening it.

Unfortunately, by then the ground level reliefs, which are on the lowest and therefore the longest sections of the building, had already been completed. But in order to stabilise the building there was nothing to do but cover them up.

Hence the 160 panels illustrating the Karmavibhanga stories of good and bad deeds and their Heavenly rewards and Hellish punishments were buried under a buttressed casement built around the outside of the building.

Hell Panel 02

They stayed that way for more than a thousand years, until the encasement of the Borobudur temple was disassembled in 1890 to reveal the panels hidden underneath.

Fortunately for us the panels were photographed by Casijan Chepas, because afterwards in order to maintain the stability of the monument, they were covered up again, and as far as I know, they were never re-photographed.

Following the last major restoration between 1975 and 1982 a small section on the southeastern corner of the monument was left open, so that four of these panels are now on display.

The rest, which must constitute some of the most important and best preserved of medieval Buddhist art works, are still hidden and seemingly no one has plans to bring them into the open again.

While I was at Borobudur last year I got new and better photographs of these four panels, and they have now been published on my Photo Dharma website in high-definition photographs.

In this case I merged the best of the photos that were taken in 2009, and with those I got in 2013. Even so there are in this album only 13 photographs altogether.

For those who are interested the photographs by Kasian Cephas made in the 1890s have recently been digitalised the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden, and can be seen in low-definition (640px wide) files at The Hidden Base of Borobudur.

The website is well-designed, and there is also more information there and a description of some of the panels by the Indonesian scholar Dr. Nandana Chutiwongs, but high-definition files are not available.

Karmavibhanga Section Uncovered


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