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Hindu/Buddhist past in Java, Indonesia

I wrote this for India Currents in 1991.
S. Rajeev

Borobodur and Prambanan - Gems of Indo-Javanese Culture

Indonesia's millennium-old monuments remain witness to Indianized past

The 13,000 islands of Indonesia still hold the relics of a past that
was Indian-influenced - it is not clear whether by conquest or
cultural assimilation. This history is most visible in the Hindu
civilization of Bali, but also in other ways, subtle and obvious: in
the Sanskrit-based words in the Bahasa Indonesia language, the shadow
puppet theatre ("wayang kulit") that recounts tales from the Ramayana,
and in the 1200-year-old monuments at Prambanan and Borobodur.  Even
the old Javanese script, introduced by the southern Indian Pallava
dynasty, looks like Telugu. For an Indian, travel in Indonesia is
bitter-sweet: there is much that reminds one of home; yet most of the
Buddhist/Hindu past is now merely of archaeological interest.

The earliest known Indo-Javanese inscription dates itself to 654 Saka
Era (732 Common Era) and is from the Hindu Mataram dynasty. The
Mataram were conquered by the Buddhist Sailendras, who built
Borobudur. In turn the Sanjayas defeated the Sailendras and built the
Prambanan temple complex.  Thereafter, a succession of Buddhist/Hindu
dynasties ruled Java.  The last and most glorious Indo-Javanese
dynasty was the Majapahit, which, in the 14th century C.E., controlled
the entire archipelago.  However, in the next century, the Majapahit
were overthrown by the Islamic state of Demak; the entire
Hindu-Javanese aristocracy then fled to Bali.
This summer I visited central Java - a densely populated rural area.
On the horizon looms Mount Merapi, an active volcano. Both Borobudur
and Prambanan are in the plains of central Java which are dotted with
"candi", or temples.

Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world; along with
Cambodia's Hindu-Buddhist Angkor Wat, this was the product of a
splendid flowering of Indo-South-East-Asian art a thousand years ago.
It is a tremendous sight from afar - a hillock with several levels of
terraces, leading up to a large spire.  The base is an elongated
rectangular shape, and above this are four square galleries, leading up
to the three round terraces, which, in addition to the central spire,
also hold a number of bell-shaped stupas. Each of the stupas is
perforated, allowing one to view the Buddha inside.  The structure
represents the Mahayana Buddhist universe - kamadhatu, or lower plane
of desires, rupadhatu, the sphere of form, where men are beginning to
conquer desire, and finally arupadhatu, the sphere of formlessness and
detachment from the world.

The terraces are framed with beautifully-carved reliefs that recount
stories from the life of Siddhartha/Buddha, and from the Jataka tales
about various Bodhisattvas. Along the way, one can also see, in little
niches, a large number of Buddha images, indicating by their hand
positions (mudras) that they symbolize fearlessness, charity,
meditation or reasoning.

If it was intended to be one of the wonders of the world, Borobudur
certainly succeeds. It is a great testament to human faith.  Built
around the year 800 C.E., it was soon abandoned, probably because an
eruption of volcanic Mt.  Merapi left it concealed.  After it became
partially uncovered, Borobudur was plundered and neglected for a
hundred and fifty years.  Finally, a massive UNESCO-sponsored project
restored Borobodur to close to its original state. I hope Borobudur
will dazzle visitors for centuries to come.

Candi Prambanan feels very different from Candi Borobudur: where
Borobudur is squat and powerful, Prambanan is tall, slender and
ethereal. The Prambanan site consists of temples to Siva, Vishnu and
Brahma. The Siva temple was the tallest structure in Southeast Asia
until an earthquake toppled it; it is also known as Loro Jonggrang
(Slender Maiden) - legend tells of a princess turned to stone. She
remains in one of the chambers of the Siva temple, as Durga.

Against the backdrop of Mt. Merapi, surrounded by the early morning
mist, the delicate, almost feminine grace and balance of the temples is
very appealing. Each of the temples is in the form of a stepped tower.
By climbing a few steps, you reach the circumabulatory path, where the
best bas-reliefs are found.  The images here are from the Ramayana,
including the stories of Hanuman comforting the captive Sita in the
bower, the building of the bridge to Lanka, and Jatayu's valiant
death.  Some of the panels are also illustrations from the Natyasastra.
The whole thing is a triumph of the sculptor's art; even the small
stupa-like fluted pinnacles that march around the perimeter of the
complex and decorate the top surfaces of the temple are exquisite.

Inside the Siva temple, there are several sancta - the main sanctum
holds a 10-foot-tall idol of Siva. In the other chambers, there are
Durga, Agastya, and Ganesha.

I was fortunate enough to also witness the remarkable "Ramayana
Ballet", which is performed nearby.  With the floodlit temple complex
in the background, and the large troupe of colorfully-dressed dancers
in the foreground, it is a mesmerizing sight on full-moon nights.
Accompanied by a full gamelan orchestra, various episodes from the
Ramayana are portrayed - the ones I saw were Sita's abduction and
Ravana's death.

I clearly couldn't do justice to these beautiful temples in my short
hours there; but one day I hope to return. Java leaves me nostalgic,
for as Rabindranath Tagore said, you see India all around you there.


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