Unlike most temples, Borobudur was not built as a dwelling for the gods, but rather as a representation of the Buddhist cosmic mountain, Meru. Accordingly, at the base is the real, earthly world, a world of desires and passions, and at the summit is nirvana. Thus, as you make your way around the temple passages and slowly spiral to the summit, you are symbolically following the path to enlightenment.
The first five levels – the square terraces – are covered with three thousand reliefs representing man’s earthly existence. As you might expect, the lowest, subterranean level has carvings depicting the basest desires, best seen at the southeast corner. The reliefs on the first four levels above ground cover the beginning of man’s path to enlightenment. Each of the ten series (one on each level on the outer wall and one on the inner wall) tells a story, beginning by the eastern stairway and continuing clockwise. Follow all the stories, and you will have circled the temple ten times – a distance of almost 5km. Buddha’s own path to enlightenment is told in the upper panels on the inner wall of the first gallery. As you enter the fifth level, the walls fall away to reveal a breathtaking view of the surrounding fields and volcanoes. You are now in the Sphere of Formlessness, the realm of enlightenment: below is the chaos of the world, above is nirvana, represented by a huge empty stupa almost 10m in diameter. Surrounding this stupa are 72 smaller ones, most of which are occupied by statues of Buddha.