Vietnamese Buddhist Art

by Nguyen Ngoc Vinh | 2009 | 60,338 words

This essay studies Vietnamese Buddhist Art in South and South East Asia Context.—In the early spread of Buddhism to Vietnam, three primary sources are investigated: Chinese histories, Sanskrit and Pali literature and local inscriptions and art: Initially Buddhist sculptures were carried from India to Vietnam by monks and traders. The research are o...

In Indonesia during the time of the Sailendra kings, from the eight to the tenth century AD[1], the great Sailendra monarchs were intensely devoted to the Buddhist faith and were in active touch with the Pala and Chola kings in India.

“It was a colonial development, first of the Gupta and Pallava style, and later of the Pala, from Bengal.”[2]

Dietrich Seckel has also assumed:

“All these methods of contact may well have been used in furthering close links between Indonesia and the Andhra, Gupta and Pala empires.”[3]

This Javanese influence is obvious both at Nalanda and at Nagapattinam, and these Javanese sculptures in their turn point to Indian origins. The Sailendra also connections with the indianized states located on the south-east Asia mainland[4], a policy which reflected their desire to maintain the right to use the sea lanes to China.[5] Plundering raids from Java were allegedly directed after 760 AD against Ligor, Champa and Tongking, extending over a fifteen-year period. The copper-plate grant of Devapala-Deva shows the close relationship between the Sailendra and the Pala empires and in this is mentioned the important monument Borobudur, which is a marvel of architectural and sculptural beauty. The assembled monuments reflect a superior level of social and economic development as well as the remarkable maturity of the Javanese people in the field of artistic conception and execution. As temple burial shrines, they presented in relief sculpture and in symbolic illustrations all aspects of the Indian Mahayana texts, obviously inspired by patterns adapted from Nalanda and Bengal.[6] The Indian themes were combined with traditional Javanese pattern of ancestor worship, as Borobudur also called for royal tombs enshrined on a sacred mountain. The ashes of nine Sailendra rulers previous to Pancapana were deposited at Borobudur.

Borobudur is located on top of a low natural hill and is square in plan, with side 112 meters long. It consists of 9 levels, with most of the 2500 meters of relief carvings and over 400 of the Buddha images, which are carved in the round, within the 4 middle, walled galleries. The 3 circular upper levels contain 72 more statues with a life-size seated Buddha[7], each inside a hollow stupa[8] with the single largest and now empty stupa at the top, are arrayed around the enormous bell-shaped central stupa which is crowned with a pinnacle, although an unfinished image of the Buddha was discovered inside by treasure hunters in the nineteenth century. The total height is 31.5 meters. It included nine terraces, six of them square-cornered and three circular, crowned on the leveled top by a domed stupa more than 100 feet high. The lowest terrace is 111.5 meters square. The square terraces have double producing the effect of change of light and shadow. The four square terraces forming the middle section of the Borobudur contain the majority of relief carvings and they do follow known texts primarily the Lalitavistara[9], portraying events from the Buddha’s birth up to his first sermon in the deer part at Sarnath as well as Jataka tales that illustrate acts of faith in the long journey to Enlightenment.[10] The upper part of the monument comprises three circular terraces with their hollow stupas, whose small openings permit the worshipper only a limited view of the seated, celestial Buddhas inside. At the summit is the largest sealed stupa, which may have originally held an image or in keeping with some modern-day interpretations may have been empty as a symbol of the formlessness of the highest realm. This plan was very commonly met with in the mediaeval period in India.[11] Stone railings were added outside the square terraces. The four galleries make up the “steps” of the pyramid, with each gallery having an outer balustrade wall and an inner wall made up of the sides of the solid monument, with carved reliefs on both the inside of the balustrades and on the inner walls, which include the Jataka reliefs. Starting from the bottom, there is the added foot that covers the earlier base. This base was largely finished, with carved moldings and a series of relief panels, before being covered. Above the foot are four galleries. Access to there and then to the upper circular terraces is from four directional stairways.

The decoration of the monument can be organized into three categories: reliefs, stupas and Buddha images. The reliefs begin on the original base that is today covered. These covered reliefs consist of 160 panels and can be identified as illustrating the results of people’s karma, that is their actions that result in either good or bad situations, usually in a future life; thus the Buddha is not represented in them. The other two categories of decoration, the Buddha images and the stupas, can be considered together as they are organizationally and iconographically linked both decorate the outside of the five balustrades and can be seen from the ground before the monument as well as when walking in the galleries.

The walls of the six lower square terraces, including the hidden foot, are adorned with a total of 1,460 reliefs based on Buddhist scriptures and 1,212 decorative relief panels opening outwards and each containing a life-size seated image of one of the so-called five Dhyani Buddhas and illustrate texts, such as Jataka and Avadana tales, the Mahakarmavibhanga, the Lalitavistrara, the Gandavyuha[12], and the Bhadracari.[13] Niches atop the walls of the galleries contain Buddha images, each niche being topped by three stupas with a single stupa between each niche. These images exhibit different hand positions according to their location on the monument.

These hand positions, or Mudra, symbolize the conquest of illusion, charity, meditation, dispelling of fear, and teaching. The Buddha statues are carved according to the Mahayana concept of the five Dhyani Buddhas.[14]

All the Buddha figures represent Dhyani Buddhas and each can be ascribed to one of the five cardinal points, east, south, north, west, assuming the traditional naming, these Buddha are:

Aksobhya whose gesture is that of touching the earth (Bhumisparsamudra) on the eastern, (Earth-touching gesture).

Ratnasambhava whose gesture expresses bounty (Varadamudra) on the southern, (boon-giving gesture).

Amitabha seated in meditation (Dhyanamudra) on the western, (Meditative gesture).

Amoghasiddhi who imparts protection (Abhayamudra) on the northern, (fear-not gesture).[15]

There are seventy-two stupas on the three circular terraces, which are hollow, and contain images whose hand positions symbolize the Buddha’s first sermon in the deer park at Benares. That is the turning of the wheel gesture and can be identified as a sixth Buddha, Vairocana.[16] Finally, the unfinished Buddha makes the earth-touching gesture.

The four galleries have balustrades on each side. There are ninetytwo Buddhas on each side, with a total of 368 images. The ninety-two earth-touching Buddhas in the eatern balustrade niches could be Aksobhya, although Sakyamuni Buddha is also in my opinion, a possibility. The last balustrade has sixty-four Buddha images, all of which perform the same gesture, that of exposition. The identification of this Buddha is controversial but some scholars identify him as Samantabhadra[17], this is the Buddha form of the Bodhisattvahood. Perhaps Samantabhadra’s own transition from a bodhisattva to a Buddha is implied by the transition from the Bodhisattva form depicted in the reliefs of the fourth gallery to the Samantabhadra Buddha images in Vitarkamudra[18] just in the niches of the top balustrade. At this level the devotee enters out onto the plane of the circular terraces, a world of perfected form. It is seen in terms of the Buddha image and primarily the stupa. The perforated stupa reveal but glimpses of the Buddha inside. The two symbols are become one, with the closed stupa on top filled with the unfinished Buddha image. The stupa must represent the ultimate image of spiritual realization. More than threequarters of the Borobudur’s relief are devoted to episodes from the Gandhavyuha, the story of a young man Sudhana’s search for enlightenment[19], a process similar to the quest undertaken by the Buddha. The Borobudur reliefs portray a range of subjects, from the most panels of everyday human activities to celestial deities of the Mahayana pantheon.[20] The earthly portrayals often involve genre subjects, including household utensils, particulars of dress, architectural details, even sailing vessels that reveal otherwise unknown information such as the use of outriggers on large ships. The panel with the Buddha’s triumph over temptation or Mara, a subject widely known across Asia, embodies the best of both elements: the movement and action of the tempters contrasted with the calm divine serenity of the meditative Buddha.

Borobudur as a manifestation of the Buddha was intended to bring the devotee to the Buddha and the Buddha to devotee. The devotee is like Sudhana, a pilgrim on a quest for spiritual truth. Each individual must begin by working himself or herself up, starting from this world of desire (represented on the monument on a level with the earth but covered and left behind, just as it is actually left behind by the devotee). Then by circumambulating the monument and moving upward, he or she first retraces the steps of Sakyamuni, participates with Sakyamuni in his past lives, then his last earthly life just to the point that Sakyamuni reaches Buddhahood and gives his first sermon.[21]

The manifestation of the Buddha is also shown in the opposite direction, downward from the absolute world of perfected form and spirituality to the world humans. From the hidden and not fully created Buddha in the top stupa to the completed but only partially seen Buddhas in the perforated stupa to fully visible Buddhas of the balustrades, the Buddhas manifest themselves in ever easier to apprehend and more numerous forms for the benefit of the devotee on earth.

If look at the whole of Borobudur we can divide it into three parts, described by some as the three worlds: Kamaloka; the lowest level, the earthly realm, Rupaloka; the celestial world and Arupaloka; the upper terraces representing the world of formlessness. The lowest base of the earthly realm of desire consists of a continuous frieze of reliefs illustrating the law of cause and effect, scenes meant to emphasize the karmic results of one’s behaviour.[22]

If looking Borobudur from the high we can see it as Mandala by its plan and the arrangement of many small stupas with statues inside and nine steps of balustrades done diminish in size one by one to the top, and which presents a cosmic diagram of great complexity.

The combination of many elements that created Borobudur as a Mandala is arrayed in a cosmological harmony, As First A. Wagner had said:

“The great Buddhist monuments in Java are for the most part imbued with Vajrayana ideas, and combine the ancient type of the stupa with that of the Mandala.”[23]

The Borobudur is remarkable for both its scale and its artistic detail. Its sheer scale and the quantity of stone involved is remarkable, but its sculptural scheme, consisting of over five hundred life-sized images of the Buddha and nearly 3 kilometers of relief carvings, make it both structurally and aesthetically astounding. This largest and most complex Buddhist monument has yet to reveal all the sources of it myriad imagery or even its exact purpose.

To many, it is a three-dimensional Mandala, to others it is a mountain and a symbol of a king, king-mountain;

“The mountain-like structure of Borobudur may have been built by Saillendra rulers not only as a monument to their Buddhist faith, but also their dynasty, since the name Sailendra means ‘king of the mountain’.”[24]

The cosmic mountain of Borobudur, developed in square pyramidal form, was Indian in concept and convention but Javanese in choice of pattern and decorative detail. Its hundreds of scenes in relief depict local plants and animals as well as characteristic activities of the people. They also suggest the religious and intellectual standards characteristic of the time and place. The aesthetic and moral appeal of Buddhism was compromised here as elsewhere under the Mahayana system by the persistence of Hindu cult forms. Both found expression in the refinement and delicacy of the Javanese tradition.

The Borobudur constitute indisputably the most important Buddhist monument of the island of Java. We know also that they alone can compete, in the amplitude of their dimensions and the profusion of the bas reliefs with which their walls are covered, with the other gem of far-eastern archaeology, I mean Angkor vat.

In beauty of site it even far surpasses the rival wonder of Cambodia.

“This combination of stupa, mountain, and Mandala was never replicated elsewhere, but its influence is visible in Cambodia and through that intermediary in Thailand and Burma.”[25]

Occupying a detached position in front of a small chain of mountains, which forms a screen on the south, the eminence on which Borobudur stands dominates the vast valley of Progo, all covered with shimmering palm-groves and framed on both sides by the majestic summits of great volcanoes.

The peculiar beauty of Borobudur is derived from the spirit that permeates and ennobles indefinably everything about it. It is the spirit of devotion, the Buddhist Bhakti. Such loving care was lavished on every detail that all sorts of unimportant trifles have been animated by touches of a refined realism and affectionate humor. Furthermore, there is an extraordinary naturalness about the compositions of the reliefs. This freshness and this originality were achieved not through revolutionary changes, producing coinages of new forms, but through a novel application of the classical Buddhist vocabulary that was already of old standing on the Indian mainland. The motifs and patterns of Borobudur are distant yet clear echoes of those of the early chola period and of the stupas of contemporary Ceylon, and the elements of Gupta in style presented in reliefs of Borobudur.[26]

The incredible number of reliefs and the painstaking manner in which all were executed would seem to indicate that a great multitude of skilled sculptors were employed. Conspicuous differences of style can be noted, even in the single sequence of the Buddha’s life.[27] Apparently the head architects portioned out the texts to be illustrated, and the artists who were to execute the panels, though receiving instructions concerning the chief points in the scenes that they were to render, were left entirely free with respect to detail. This would explain the frequent minor departures from the letter of the text. The Javanese sculptors, having their own craft.

Tradition for the representation of the well-known Buddhist episodes, were governed by these when composing and not by the holy Sanskrit text.

The foundation of Borobudur was a steep-sided but round-topped hill of virgin rock. It was ornamented on its slopes by bas-reliefs arranged in concentric series.

This can be divided as follows:

• Hidden foot including 160 panels based on Mahakamavibhanga textual sources

• First gallery on main wall, upper register: 120 panels; Lalitavistara textual sources

• First gallery on main wall, lower register: 120 panels; Jatakas and Avadanas textual sources

• First gallery on balustrade, upper register: 372 panels; Jatakas and Avadanas textual sources

• First gallery on balustrade, lower register: 128 panels; Jatakas and Avadanas textual sources

• Second gallery on main wall: 128 panels; Gandavyuha textual sources

• Second gallery on balustrade: 100 panels; Jataka and Avadanas textual sources

• Third gallery on main wall: 88 panels; Gandavyuha textual sources

• Third gallery on balustrade: 88 panels; Gandavyuha textual sources

• Fourth gallery on main wall: 72 panels; Bhadracari textual sources

• Fourth gallery on balustrade: 84 panels; Gandavyuha textual sources.[28]

Returning now to the organization of the reliefs at Borobudur, we move into the hidden foot with 160 panels of covered reliefs, which illustrated the results of people’s karma, that is their actions that result in either good or bad situations, usually in a future life. This hidden foot was preserved for the guidance of the artists who were to have wrought its unfinished panels. These reliefs indicate what scenes and events were designed for the various portions of the vast circumference. This base wall story was made with stones and earth; for in the course of the construction it became apparent that the base was not going to withstand the prodigious pressure from above. To avoid a greater disaster, a broad retaining embankment was thrown up all around, and as a result, the mass of the stupa assumed a much heavier aspect than was originally intended. The grace of the contours was half spoiled and a precious series of one hundred and sixty nearly finished panels was completely buried from view.

In the first gallery, there are two rows of relief panels on both the inside of the balustrade and on the main wall. The Jataka and Avadana reliefs occupy the balustrade and the lower row on the main wall. The upper wall panels are scenes from the life of the Buddha.[29]

The same gallery of lower panels are:

“Depicting the sins of earthly life and the torture of sinners in the purgatories, the panels not only of the Buddha legend but also of the Buddha’s former lives strictly avoid all cruel and sensational motifs, even where the texts abound in gruesome details; for the pilgrim circumambulating these higher galleries was not to be haunted any longer by disturbing visions of the world.”[30]

In the main wall of the top panel,

“The Bodhisattva is seen descending from the Tusita heaven, according to the version of this episode supplied by the Lalitavistara, when the radiant Buddha to be had received his kingly consecration to the spiritual succession of the universal monarchy of Borobudur, he dwelt, worthy of honor and adored, in the pleasant abode of the Tusita heaven, praised and glorified by a hundred thousand gods.”[31]

There is no definite entrance to this structure. Because the reliefs began from the eastern gates, the east seems to be the main face. Various ornamental designs are seen on all the faces of the edifice. The main designs are lotus, arabesque pattern, geometric pattern, spiral pattern, a garland, full vase, (a symbol of abundance).[32] Additionally are expressed Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, gods, men. The scenes of stories are on the outside walls of the base and on both sides of the corridors. Their contents are Jataka, life of the Buddha, Avadana, and the Avatamsakasutra. The cause and the effects of the deeds were expressed at the bottom on the basis of the Sanskrit text Mahakarmavibhanga.[33]

The Bodhisattva represents at the base reliefs is still in a human form. Having spoken from the lion throne in the sight of all the gods, Nagas, and Yaksas in the vast pavilion, he set forth with the Bodhisattvas, surrounded by one hundred thousand million gods, Nagas, Yaksas, and descended from the beautiful Tusita abode. We miss however, the Nagas and Yaksas text; for the sculptors were not directly acquainted with the Sanskrit biography. Their assignment had been indicated to them by a key word inscribed on the wall where the relief was to go, and having thus been informed what event was to be illustrated, they rendered it according to their local Javanese tradition and when the relief was finished, erased the directing word.

In the particular panel, which is represented in a low relief, the aim was rather picturesque than plastic values-in contrast to the panel immediately beneath it, where the Bodhisattva (Sakyamuni) is seen bestowing his finger ring on the maiden Gopa[34], his bride-elect.[35] The hovering attitude of the gods and the flutter of their banners and streamers give an impression of a swift motion downward through the air, while the bodies are of the subtle substance of vision. These are not solid, earthbound creatures of gross matter, like those in the illustration of the lovely episode of the bestowing of the ring.

Additionally there are the panel shows a pavilion with the Sakyamuni sits on a throne, holding the ring, and Gopa is before him, or the familiar episode of Maya, the Buddha’s mother, proceeding to the Lumbini grove[36]

The contrast of this humanistic, comely art with the fundamental stylistic aims and achievements of India appears very vividly when the Borobudur scene of Sujata presenting the Bodhisattva with the milk-rice is compared with any of the Sanchi reliefs or with the frescoes of Ajanta. In the Javanese panel the figures are set over and against each other and clearly distinguished from space. They do not seem to be emerging, as though precipitated, from an infinite background, but are placed before a backdrop.

The reliefs of the second gallery on both the walls and the balustrades of all the remaining galleries are devoted to illustrations related to the Mahayana text Gandavyuha. The large number of Gandavyuha reliefs alone indicates the importance of this text for Borobudur. The text tells the story of Sudhana[37], a merchant’s son, who undertakes a search for spiritual wisdom. The search involves his interviewing a vast array of people and gods, and the reliefs usually show him seated before these different teachers, frequently Bodhisattvas, talking to them in his pursuit of spiritual understanding. Sudhana ends his quest by interviewing the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra and reaching a region of spiritual attainment of that of a Buddha. Also on the main wall of the second corridor depicts on the Gandavyuha and illustrate the tireless manner in which a candidate must strive for absolute wisdom. According to the legend, the text of the Gandavyuha was revealed nine times, in different places, the first revelation having taken place in the kingdom of Magadha. At the opening of the text the principal figure is the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. He is succeeded by Manjusri, who is the Bodhisattva particularly honored in this sutra. The scene then shifts to the paradise of the devas, where the Buddha Sakyamuni is being welcome to one of Indra’s palaces on mount Meru, and ten Bodhisattvas praise the Buddha’s wisdom. Sakyamuni is next shown in the heaven of Yama, lod of the dead; next, in the Tusita heaven, where his mother Maya resides[38], and after that, in various other celestial realms, where gods confer with him and numerous Bodhisattvas give him praise. Finally, the scenes change to the garden of Jeta, in Sravasti, where the Buddha Sakyamuni promulgated his doctrines while on earth.

The reliefs of the third and the fourth corridors concern Bodhisattvas Maitreya and Samantabhadra. The great vow of Samantabhadra was to attain the paradise of Amitabha.

The Maitreya is identifiable by the stupa on the front of his headdress. He bids the questing candidate return to Manjusri, telling him plainly that only that Bodhisattva can make his knowledge perfect.[39] Yet Manjusri sends him on to the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, who, considering him to be still unready for absolute wisdom, enjoins him to make a pilgrimage to various Buddhist sanctuaries. This will help him acquire the necessary devout state of mind, and when that has been won, he may put himself again under the guidance of Maitreya. In the end, Sudhana is judged worthy to go back to Samantabhadra and receive from him initiation to full and perfect Bodhi as he realized the vow of Samantabhadra and was enlightened in the Dharmadhatu. Samantabhadra Bodhisattva admired the merit of Mahavairocana Buddha. One can attain Mahavairocana Buddha of the vajradhatu by way of Ekayana Buddhism of the Avatamsaka-sutra. Borobudur expresses various phases of Buddhist thought up to the culminate Mahavairocana Buddha of Vajradhatu in the Yoga-Tantras. The whole is a solid expression of the Vajradhatu-Mandala. Surpassing all these domains one culminates in the domain of the supreme Buddha Mahavairocana.

In the fourth gallery the biography illustrated is that of the fifth century philosopher-sage Asanga[40], who is supposed to have received the Yogacara creed directly from Maitreya in the Tusita heaven, whither he had ascended by night. He questioned first Maitreya, next Manjusri, and finally Samantabhadra.

The principal wall of the fourth gallery of Borobudur, which is devoted to history of Asanga’s reception of the new doctrine, prepares the pilgrim-devotee for his graduation from the pedagogical lessons of the narrative reliefs to the lofty, timeless realm of the Dhyani Buddhas[41], who simply sit in the dome-shaped stupas of the circular upper terraces are examples of these immobile Buddhas. They represent to the Buddhist the most subtle comprehensible manifestation of the spirit of the universe and simultaneously disclose to him an image of that perfect attitude which he may hope to attain himself, the attitude of the completely enlightened human spirit.

On the highest terrace, the central and supreme Buddha of meditation is missing.

The detail of reliefs is the great variety. A coronation scene depicted the royal umbrella, the jewelry bearers, the Brahman sprinklers of holy water with their bowls brushes, the palanquins and elephants of state, and horse-mounted attendants and horse-drawn carriages. Palace and temple scenes were richly decorated, including eating and drinking sequences, reception halls furnished with costly couches, thrones and armchairs, down to simple stools and benches. Other scenes pictured depicted the life of the Buddha. These reliefs take the most important place in the decoration of the galleries. The reliefs represent texts that were intended to impress lessons of wisdom on the believer’s mind as he ascended the stupa and so to prepare him for the attainment of the highest insight that the Mahayana brings before his eyes.

The decoration of reliefs according to J. PH. Vogel:

“From an artistic point of view the Borobudur is invaluable on account of its sculptures which are unsurpassed in the East for their profusion and beauty. Both the main walls and the balustrades all along the four passages are covered with continuous rows of sculptured panels. It has been calculated that there are nearly 1500 such panels and that the sculptures of the Borobudur, if placed side by side would extend for three miles. But it is especially owing to their aesthetic value that these sculptures are remarkable. They are, of course not all of equal merit but most of them are far above the average and several are real masterpieces. The artists who produced these wonderful principal personages are graceful and noble. Equal ability is shown in depicting accessories such as buildings and forest scenery, which latter is invariably enlivened by various animals.”[42]

Notwithstanding, these difficulties the work of interpretation has made considerable progress. It is a point of primary importance that the sculptors who decorated the great stupa have closely followed certain sacred Sanskrit texts which no doubt enjoyed great repute in their days. Several of these texts have now been identified. The series of the Buddha legend includes some of the finest specimens of Indo-Javanese sculpture in which the serene spirit of Buddhism is expressed in a marvelous manner. We reproduce two specimens; the one shows the Bodhisattva practicing austerities in the wilderness in the company of the five Brahmanical anchorites, the other represents him crossing the river Nairanjana previous to his enlightenment while divine beings are paying him homage.

The manifestation of the Buddha is also shown in the opposite direction, downward from the absolute world of perfected form and spirituality to the world humans. From the hidden and not fully created Buddha in the top stupa to the completed but only partially seen Buddhas in the perforated stupa to fully visible Buddhas of the balustrades, the Buddhas manifest themselves in ever easier to apprehend and more numerous forms for the benefit of the devotee on earth.

According to aesthetic viewpoint, the reliefs are impressive works and convincing for Buddhist art, this sculpture style was adapted from classical model of the Gupta period but the relief images is not an Indian model but a Javanese model. The Javanese artisans were received the Indian model but they had changed in which to be conformity with Javanese tradition.

As Chikyo Yamamoto had been remarks:

“The reliefs in Indo-Javanese style of the Gupta type express various scenes elegantly and gorgeously founded on experiences in the life of the Javanese. The statue of the Buddha is equally of Gupta lineage. The gentle countenance is probably due to the mild climate of Java. Though the reliefs are fundamentally Indian, they have characteristic of the Javanese.”[43]

The architectural form of the Borobudur is infinitely more favourable to the effect of the whole than of the mausoleum, with aspect of Borobudur, it is not a dome with simple lines, like the most ancient Indian stupas as Sanchi stupa. Neither is it a superposition of quadrangular diminishing terraces, a kind of pyramid in steps, such as the Chinese pilgrim describe the “pagodas” of north-western India. Nor has it the lengthy slenderness of its Burmese or Siamese congeners, which point very high into the air as it were the handle of an enormous bell. The external appearance created by the above architectural composition is extremely complex, and as one approaches it and then ascends one of the staircases in the centre of each of its four sides, one feels as if one had strayed into a forest of stone sculptures. But if viewed from afar, the structure as a whole, including the angular sections of the lower square terraces, presents a simple hemispherical skyline.

If we compare between Borobudur and Angkor vat, at first sight a general impression much less profound than does Angkor vat but more imposing than that. Angkor vat deploys on tiers rising above the plain its three enclosing galleries, intersected by portals, flanked by eight towers and crowned by a ninth: Borobudur encompasses the summit of a hill with the sacred number of its nine terraces, connected at the four cardinal points by staircases and surmounted by a dome. At Angkor vat the eye ranges through the colonnades or follows in the distance the ever narrowing flight of the porticoes; at Borobudur the lower galleries, interrupted by twenty right angles and confined on the exterior by a high parapet, narrowly enclose the visitor in their successive recesses. In Angkor vat whether from the end of the paved approaches it contemplates the clearly defined silhouette of the towers or whether from the top of the central group he dominates the widely spaced plan of the enclosures, the spectator always embraces in its view the grandiose scheme of the design. In Borobudur, from the foot as from the top is a compact mass hillocky in the green plain with niches, little cupolas forming so many pinnacles. If we look at general of Borobudur we can see the lack of architectonic harmony between the six lower square terraces on the one hand and the three upper round terraces and the terminal stupa on the other, but as my idea, the change of architectonic between two hands is to reduce the mass of confusedly bristling of niches, pinnacles.

According to the architectonic viewpoint, the Borobudur is a huge stone stupa in the style of a massive dome, like a hemispherical body and circular or square base of the early stupas. The hemispherical body is suggested by Borobudur’s silhouette; the quadrangular base has developed into the terraced substructure. The base and body are actually made into a whole; the hemispherical body is slipped over the terraced base. Borobudur in short appears to be an accumulation of terraces, terraces that provide a “naked” structure. The suggestion of a hemisphere is created by strewing ornaments all over the horizontal elements, thus changing the “naked” structure into a “clothed” structure, or there is an exterior Borobudur consisting of a hemisphere and an interior Borobudur shaped underneath by an accumulation of terraces. The different from any Indonesian tradition architecture with meaning is commemorative stupa of Buddhism. The makes of the Borobudur intended spiritual perfection to be seen in perfection of form are also seen in the use of geometric shapes. The perforations on the stupas go from diamond on the two lower terraces to squares on the top terrace. The closed stupa is circular. We have diamond to squares to circle, an apparent refinement of perfection in geometric shapes. Likewise, the circular terraces are not exactly circular but are like bulging squares with rounded corners. Only the top terrace is perfectly round with the closed stupa in the center. Thus in geometric forms the makers of Borobudur attempted to show a building toward a perfection and absolute indicated by a perfect circle. Borobudur also had been seen as a Diamond world Mandala. Because Borobudur consists of a domical stupa surrounded by three circular terraces, on each of which are more stupas that are in turn supported by five square terraces, rising one above the other so as to form a stepped, truncated pyramid, with stairways rising to the next upper terraces on each of the four sides. The square terraces are surrounded by ambulatories enclosed by high walls embellished with reliefs and surmounted by niches containing Buddha images.[44] The circular terraces, by contrast, are unenclosed and stand open to the sky. The lowest of the square terraces has a series of reliefs illustrating the operation of the law of cause and effect, the pains of the hells and the pleasures of the heavens that result from different action (karma), according to descriptions given in the Mahakarmavibhangga. The first gallery has two superimposed series of reliefs. The lower row depicts scenes from the Buddha’s previous life taken from the Jatakas and the Avadanas, and scenes from the Buddha’s.

According to Hall. D. G. E, Krom. N. J, Vogel. P. J, The style of the sculptures at Borobudur is closely related to the art of Gupta India, which is not surprising since the Sailendra kings had originally come from India proper before they established their great empire which extended from Java, Sumatra to the Malaya peninsula, yet the carving at Borobudur although deeply indebted to Indian models both in form and iconography show characteristics which are typically Javanese. The material itself is different, a black volcanic stone unlike anything found in India. Then too, the racial type portrayal is Malayan rather than India and the forms themselves are softer and genteeler than those produced by the Gupta, carvers. Borobudur is the most impressive artistic monument of Indonesia. That is the Srivijaya school of art and this school spread everywhere in south east Asia.

Based on historical and geographically, Borobudur was built in Srivijaya’s land and so many Srivijaya’s inscription tell about Borobudur as well as so many archaeologists discovered so many Srivijaya’s art works as M. C. Subhadradis Diskul has presented in his work:

“The Art of Srivijaya has been defined above as the art of Sumatra, since this island was for centuries under the sway of Srivijaya, wherever its capital was located. Statues in Srivijaya style familiar to those found in Thailand are rare in Sumatra. That kind of statue is thought to have been imported from Java during the Sailendra period.”[45]


“The most important example is of course a small monument, Pra borom That at Chaiya, which is one of the most venerated Buddhist shrines in Thailand. It resembles a central Javanese monument as it is a small square structure with porches on the four sides and the superstructure is divided into many tiers, each of which is decorated with models of stupa with the largest one crowning the top.”[46]

The Borobudur is a three-dimensional Mandala in which architecture and sculpture work in harmony; the Borobudur–Mandala guides pilgrims along the stepped path that climbs through the three spiritual realms. The Mandala symbolizes that process through which the soul is liberated from its earthly life in order to attain perfection at the highest stupa: a meditative pilgrim’s way to Nirvana, the state of non existence sought by the Buddhist.

The other Buddhist temples close to Borobudur are Candi Mendut and Candi Pawon. These three temples are located in a straight line in which Mendut and Pawon occupy flat land and Borobudur, the top of hill. A local legend tells us that the three temples were originally connected by a covered passage used for religious processions. Symbolically, the layout of the three temples signifies that Mendut and Pawon represent the two preparatory stages (sambharamarga and Prayogamarga) as part of the life on earth through which man has to pass in his long journey to reach the summit of the world of Buddha.

Candi Mendut which was built in the first-half of the ninth century AD[47] clearly shows the threefold vertical division of many central Javanese monuments: the base, the main body and the top or “roof”. In case of Candi Mendut the base, richly mounlded and decorated, represents the so-called “classical profile” of the central Javanese architecture: a plinth supporting a bell-shaped ogivo, toothed moulding, a hemispherical profiled element, a vertical part in the middle, another ogivo, and the cornice. The flight of steps leading to the entrance of the temple is on the north-west. In contrast with other temples in central Java, Mendut is entered from the north-west.[48] A temple facing the north-west is unusual in the central Java phases. It is believed the north-west orientation is intended to face the sacred place of Buddhism in India.

Candi Mendut is the result of enlargement of the first monument. The first Mendut consisted of a brick base which is now hidden inside the walls of the monument. Re-enlargement of existing monuments is a wellknown feature in Indonesian architecture. Another example is Sewu Buddhist temple in Prambanan area which will be described later. The base of the body of the temple is decorated with ornamental motifs such as a jewel, a conch, etc. between arabesque motifs. Other illustrates some Jataka. The walls are decorated with trees of heaven surrounded by pots of money, jewels and birds with human heads.[49] The northern and the southern wall of the antechamber show, in relief, the figures of a woman and a man, both of them surrounded by numerous children. The woman is identified as Hariti, who was originally a children devouring ogress. After her conversion by the Buddha, she became a protectress of children and a goddess of fertility.[50]

In between Mendut and Borobudur is a small temple, the Candi Pawon. The temple is assumed to be dedicated to Kubera, the god of riches. But there is no statue inside. The decoration of the outer walls has been beautifully done in reliefs depicting the tree of heaven surrounded by pots of money and flanked by Kumara, the celestial musician. Borobudur, Mendut and Pawon are closely related in style and sculptural motifs. It is interesting that the temples are located near the two rivers, the Elo and the Praga, which meet at the south-west of these structures. The meeting of the Praga and the Elo seems to show the resemblance of Ganga-Yamuna meeting at the place called Prayaga. Praga seems to be derived from the Sanskrit term ‘Prayaga’.

Towards the east in the Prambanan area, there are other Buddhist temples, i.e. Kalasan, Sari, Sewu and Plaosan.[51] Candi Kalasan is regarded to be the oldest. An inscription discovered near the temple mention that a Buddhist temple dedicated to the goddess Tara. An archaeological investigation proved that the temple enclosed older constructions. This means that the original Candi was rebuilt or enlarged. From the architectural point of view, the dating of Candi Kalasan should be about the middle of the ninth century. The sanctuary has a square plan with one large and three small chambers. The large one contains an altar to support the main statue. It is believed that the image was a large statue of the female deity, Tara.[52]

The groundplan of Kalasan is composed of a square with rectangles projecting from all sides, a characteristic of the temples of the ninth century. The niches on the outer walls are decorated with the Kalamakara motif[53], but the makara is turned inwards, which is very rare in Indonesian art. Like many other kala-heads of central Javanese style, the part of the head has been changed into leaves and shoots. Another decoration at Kalasan is a vase from which sprouts a rich vegetation of flowers and curly leaves.[54] It is a symbol of plentitude and a well known decoration in early Javanese art. In some other temples the flowers and leaves are shown sprouting out of a conch.

To the east of kalasan, there are two big Buddhist temples: Sewu and Plaosan. The architecture of these temples different in some respects from Buddhist architecture described earlier. Candi Sewu is a complex of temples, comprising a central temple surrounded by 240 minor temples, arranged in four concentric rows of 88, 80, 44 and 28.[55] The name Candi Sewu literally means “1000 temples,” although there were never so many temples. There were four entrances to the complex, and the principle one is towards the east. The main temple of Candi Sewu has a cruciform groundplan in which the central part of the building is surrounded by four cellas separated from the central body of the temple by passageways. Each cella has a roof surrounding the main roof in the form of dagoba. A statue of the highest Buddha should have been placed in the central room but there is no statue in this room. It was suggested that originally the statue was made of bronze. Based upon the remaining pedestal, which is 479 cm x 383 cm and 180 cm high, the height of the statue is supposed to be about 350 cm. in the minor cellas, there should be statues of Dhyani-Buddhas.[56] Like other Buddhist temples in central Java phases, this temple was also decorated with floral and faunal motifs. The so-called “classical profile” was clearly visible at the base of the building.

Another Buddhist temple close to Candi Sewu is Candi Plaosan, which was built in the middle of the ninth century by a princess of the Sailendra dynasty, married to the king of a Saivite dynasty. Candi Plaosan is a complex of monuments comprising a main group and two additional complexes to the north and to the south of the main group.[57] The three parts are called Plaosan lor (north Plaosan), Plaosan Kidul (South Plaosan), and Sanctuary C. the main group of Plaosan lor consists of two square courts, each of them containing a temple of the same type. There courts are surrounded by 58 small temples and 116 stupas arranged in three rows.

Each of the two main temples contains two floors with three rooms on each storey, connected by doorways. On each wall at the four sides, there are windows intended for obtaining light from outside. The top of the temple consists of three storeys, ornamented with small stupas. The interior of the main temple shows the same arrangement as that of the Candi Sari[58], another Buddhist temple not far from the Candi Kalasan. Each room contains three statues. The central figure in each room was presumably a Buddha flanked by his Jina companions.

In A.D. 930 the political, economic, and cultural center of Java moved to the east. The east Java buildings are not such massive constructions as those of the Borobudur and Prambanan complexes; they are small, individual temples built by the rich as a substitute for tax, or by kings to ensure their deification after death. Many are built out of andesite like those in central Java, but many are also constructed of brick, as in the Champa kingdoms of a later age. Most of the temples are Hindu.

Footnotes and references:


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Vol 2, Delhi; 2004, p.117.


Heinrich Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia, Vol 1, Delhi: 2001, p. 134.


Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism, trans by Ann E. Keep, London: 1964, p: 47.


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Vol 2, Delhi; 2004, p.117.


Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism. Trans by Ann E. Keep, London: 1964, p. 64.


McGraw. Hill, South East Asia: Its Historical Development, USA: 1964, p. 75.


McGraw. Hill, Buddhism in Global perspective, Vol 2, Mumbai, Delhi 2003, p. 339.


Called the cage of vajra


The illusionary Display of the Playful Gesture of a Buddha’s Biography.


R.C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Vol 2, Delhi; 2004, p. 235.


Ibid, p. 234.


The gandavyuha belonged originally to the Madhyamika school of the Mahayana, but was later accepted by the yogacara because of the part played in it by samantabhadra)


Heinrich Zimmer, The Art of India Asia, Vol 1, Delhi: 2001, pp. 308-309.


Heinrich Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia, Vol 1, Delhi: 2001, p 311.


Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism, trans by Ann E. Keep, London: 1964, p. 129.


Heinrich Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia, Vol 1, Delhi: 2001, p. 304.


Ibid, p: 308.


Mudra of Vairocana according to the tattvasamgraha is called Bodhyaga Mudra.


Heinrich Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia, Vol 1 Delhi: 2001, p. 301.


Ibid, pp. 306,307,308.


Heinrich Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia, Vol 1, Delhi: 2001, p. 302.


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Vol 2, Delhi: 2004, p. 236.


Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism, trans by Ann E. Keep, London: 1964, p. 47.


Meher McArthur, Reading Buddhist Art, London: 2002, p. 191.


Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Vol 1, ed by Robert. E. Buswell, Jr. USA: Macmillan Reference: 2004, p. 68.


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far Art, Vol 2, Delhi: 2004, p. 234.


Ibid, p. 235.


Based on the document of Timbul Haryono in: Buddhist in Global perspective. Ed by K. Sankarnarayan, vol 2, Mumbai, Delhi: 2003, p. 339


R.C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Vol 2, Delhi; 2004, p. 235.


Heinrich Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia, Delhi: 2001, p. 304.




R.C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Vol 2, Delhi; 2004, p. 238.


Cultural Interface of India with Asia; Religion, Art, and Architecture, ed by A. Pande & P. P. Dhar, Delhi: 2004, p. 192.


The name of the princess who was chosen marry the king Suddhodana’s son.


R.C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Vol 2, Delhi: 2004, p. 236.




B. R. Chatterji, History of Indonesia, Delhi: 1967, p. 4.


J. Fergusson, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, Delhi: 1998, p. 426.


R.C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Vol 2, Delhi; 2004, p.118.


Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism, trans by Ann. E. Keep, London: 1964, p. 131.


Ibid, p. 129.


J. P. Vogel, Buddhist Art in India, Ceylon and Java, str by A. J. Barnouw, Delhi: 1977, p. 96.


Chikyo Yamamoto, Introduction to Buddhist Art, Delhi: 1990, p. 112.


J. Fergusson, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, Delhi: 1998, p. 424.


M. C. Subhadradis Diskul, The Art of Srivijaya, London, New York, Paris: 1980, p. 10


Ibid, p. 40.


M. C. Subhadradis Diskul, The Art of Srivijay, Oxford Unesco: 1980, p. 4.


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of The Far East, Delhi: 2004, p. 187.


J. Fergusson, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, Delhi: 1998, p. 429.


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Delhi: 2004, p. 190.


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Delhi: 2004, p. 208.


Ibid, p. 178.


Ibid, p. 180.


Ibid, p. 179.


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Delhi: 2004, p. 185.


Ibid, p. 183.


Ibid, p. 208.


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Delhi: 2004, p. 182.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: