Wat Nakhon Kosa: The Layers of Ancient Lopburi

If you want to understand the complex and multi-layered history of Thailand, one of the most illuminating cities is Lopburi. Throughout the early history of Thailand, the small city was often a crossroads of culture, and its numerous monuments show a variety of influences ‒ Dvaravati, Khmer and Thai being the most important. Wat Nakhon Kosa is neither the largest nor the most impressive of Lopburi’s monuments, indeed it is rather unprepossessing. But it is one at which the multiple layers of Lopburi’s history are most dramatically juxtaposed. Here, in close proximity, we find a Dvaravati chedi (11th century or earlier), a small Khmer-era prang with some stucco decoration and a 16th century Ayutthaya-era vihaan. Three civilizations rub shoulders in a single complex, showing how cultural influences cross-fertilized in the ancient city of Lopburi.

The Dvaravati-era is largely a ruin, though the base is well-preserved in this corner

The oldest of the monuments at Wat Nakhon Kosa is an especially rare treasure: a Mon-Dvaravati chedi which may well date from the first millennium AD. There are very few extant monuments from the whole Dvaravati culture, so for this reason alone, the chedi is valuable heritage. For the most part, it looks like a rather shapeless block of red bricks, but in one corner (pictured) the chedi is still comparatively intact, and we can see the brickwork of the base clearly. It slants inward and then outward, giving it a simple but elegant appearance. It supports a narrow ledge which runs around the edge of the monument. This was where devotees had once circumambulated around the central hump of the chedi, thereby earning Buddhist merit. It gives us a rare hint of the religious life of the denizens of Dvaravati-era Lopburi.

Stucco ornamentation on the walls of the Khmer-era prang

Of the three monuments on the small site, easily the best-preserved is the Khmer-era prang. It is a small, red-brick tower which was once coated in pale, white stucco. The traces of remaining stucco reveal some delicate decorative work. It is markedly different from the stucco work we would find in Cambodia itself, showing the absorption of local influences. The Dvaravati civilization had specialized in stucco decoration and it seems that Khmer prangs in the city had absorbed this aspect of Mon-Dvaravati culture. This process is clearest in the niches which house standing Buddha figures, a common feature in Mon monuments, especially in the city of Lamphun. There is a clearly Mon influence in the Buddha niches on the prang.

The standing Buddha niche

The third monument on the site is a vihaan from the late 16th century. By this time the city of Lopburi had been absorbed by Ayutthaya, becoming a satellite city of the great Thai kingdom. However, it is interesting that the Dvaravati chedi and the Khmer prang were now re-purposed as part of a Thai wat. Thai religious culture proved to be very syncretic, especially when meeting other Hindu-Buddhist cultures. During the Ayutthaya kingdom, we would often see Mon-style chedis and Khmer-style prangs incorporated into Thai temple complexes. Part of the richness of Ayutthaya-era architecture was due to its judicious absorption of the built heritage of earlier South-East Asian civilizations. Lopburi was one of the crossroads of culture where this process was particularly pronounced.

Wat Maha That: The Finest Wat in Yasothon

Even by Isaan standards, Yasothon is a rarely visited province of Thailand. In all honesty, it is not one of the Northeast’s most engaging provinces, but that isn’t to say that there is nothing to see here. From my perspective, the provinces greatest assets are its Lao-style chedis and its Buddhist manuscript libraries. At Wat Maha That, located in the provincial capital, we find both in a single temple complex. That makes it arguably the single best wat to see while in Yasothon province.

The chedi (or thaat) has an elegant, tapered design typical of Laotian chedis

One of the two main sights at the wat is its tall, slender chedi. In Laos and Isaan, they are often known as thaat (or sometimes that), using a regional dialect of standard Thai. This is one of the finest examples of a Lao-style chedi I have seen in Northeastern Thailand, offering a dramatically elegant shape which seems to shoot up like a rocket. There are many delightful features such as an elaborate base, standing Buddhas in niches in the middle section and a gold umbrella atop its finial. We also liked the red and gold ironwork fence which surrounds the structure. It dates from the 18th century, a period when this part of Isaan was ruled from Laos not Bangkok.

The Rattanakosin-style Buddhist library is one of Yasothon’s treasures

The second important monument at Wat Maha That is a beautiful Buddhist manuscript library (ho trai) set on pillars above a pond. This is one of the finest examples of a manuscript library in Isaan (Northeastern Thailand) and it is now protected as a national monument. Unusually for an older building from Isaan, it has a Rattanakosin design, with red, green and gold roof tiles and a soaring ridge and rich use of roof ornamentation. It also has naga-shaped eave brackets which are attractive and well-proportioned. Another intriguing feature is a kala (demon) head above the entrance (see picture below) and the veranda which runs around the edge of the library, letting in just a little light. The library is usually left open for curious visitors.

A colourful kala (demon) head above the entrance of the library

The Royal Graveyard of King Sidabutar

One of the most impressive natural sights in Indonesia is Lake Toba, the world’s largest crater lake. Apart from spectacular vistas, groves of pine trees and mountain mist, the area is home to the Toba Batak, one of three main groups of the Batak ethnic group. They have rich weaving traditions which may be of interest to textile enthusiasts. Alternately, you might be more interested in their vernacular architecture, which includes magnificent timber houses, various megaliths and stone tombs. One of the best places to see Batak tombs is in the village of Tomok, which has a beautiful hilltop graveyard.

Before you enter the innermost courtyard of the royal cemetery, it is worth looking at the large group of humanoid figures which is gathered in a sort of public square below the uppermost terrace. These figures, now thickly encrusted in lichen, have small bodies and large heads, somewhat like a miniature version of the statues on Easter Island. They are one of the largest and best-preserved collections of statuary anywhere in the region, though it is hard to find any specific information on these statues. At a guess, they might have been some sort of guardian figure originally.

A large group of humanoid statues alongside the royal graveyard

This graveyard commemorates King Sidabatur, who remains a revered ancestor in this part of the world. His reign is said to date to the second half of the sixteenth century. According to legend, he was the first man to set foot on the Pulau Samosir, the huge lake island which is found inside the Lake Toba. He is also claimed to have mystical powers which were embodied in his long, thick hair. A belief in the mystical powers of long hair in men is a common belief amongst the different ethnic groups of Lake Toba. It is further claimed that King Sidabatur carved his own tomb before his death. It can still be seen today. It looks rather like a Sphinx with a long, mask-like face at one end. At the time of our visit, there were betel leaves left on top of it as offerings. The king is still honored in these parts, with elements of ancestor worship co-existing with Christianity.

The tomb of King Sidabatur is still an object of veneration today

The graveyard also contains many other tombs, including that of other members of the royal family and valued members of his entourage. His loyal bodyguard is one of the people who is entombed in the complex. Another is Anteng Melila Senega, a woman who the king is said to have loved for many years, without her returning his affections. The most interesting of the tombs are generally those with a ‘sphinx-like’ appearance. There has even been conjecture that there might be a direct influence from Egypt, as the Batak traded as long ago as the 3rd century BC with ancient Egypt. Camphor from the island of Sumatra was used in mummification rituals during the New Kingdom. The Batak, a highland people, would take camphor down to the West Coast port of Barus, which was visited by Indian and Middle Eastern traders.

Stone megaliths jostle with Christian-style tombs

Whatever the origin of their design and form, the tombs are certainly arresting pieces of sculpture. They are a testimonial to an ancient megalithic culture, variants of which flowered in all the fertile highland regions of Sumatra. Though the style of each region is markedly different, megaliths can also be found in the Pasemah Highlands of South Sumatra, the Kerinci Valley from the middle part of the island, in the beautiful Minang highlands, and even on the offshore island of Nias. The Toba Batak megaliths and tombs in Tomok compare favorably with the best megalithic art from the island. They are one of the best historical offerings from North Sumatra, and should be seen by any culturally focused traveller who is visiting the Lake Toba area.

The Astonishing Village of Hilisamaetano

During the 1990s, the remote island of Nias became well-known on the surfing circuit. It also started attracting backpackers who were interested in its extraordinary hilltop villages, with their remarkable collections of traditional houses and megaliths. Its isolation meant that mass tourism remained a long way off, but Nias drew a steady trickle of curious travellers. Further development of tourist infrastructure and services seemed inevitable.

These hopes were dashed by the earthquake of March 28, 2005, which killed at least 915 people and devastated the island’s towns and villages. For the next decade, the most common foreigners on Nias were neither surfers nor backpackers but relief agency workers trying to rebuild the shattered island. During this time, numerous bridges had to be rebuilt and travel around Nias became painstaking. Few travellers were willing to brave the difficult conditions on the island. The reports we heard of misfortune and hardship were enough to keep us away. However, in early 2019, we finally made it to Nias to see its remaining villages. Over the next few months I intend to post multiple posts on Niassan villages, starting with the often-overlooked village of Hilisamaetano.

Traditional houses with laundry on the roofs

The ‘showcase’ village of South Nias seems to be Bawomataluo, which will be featured in a later post. However, if you’ve gone all the way to Nias, you might as well see more than one village. While Bawomataluo is deservedly the most famous, preserving the best range of ancient houses and megaliths, Hilisamaetano is also no slouch. With more than 100 traditional houses surviving, as well as numerous other antiquities, it repays leisurely exploration. It is also very much a living village; its cobblestone main street is thronged with people doing laundry, drying rice, chatting with friends, chewing betel and flying kites. If you want to see a workaday village with a rich architectural legacy, you won’t do better than Hilisamaetano.

Stone megaliths can still be on the main square

For the historically minded tourist, the village offers some vestiges of its megalithic past. There are stone slabs, tables and carvings outside many of the houses, some of the modern reproductions and others antiquities in various states of repair. The village also has the obligatory jumping stone (batu lompat), which young men were once expected to leap in displays of acrobatic prowess. The best of its stone antiquities is probably a ceremonial staircase at the far end of the village. It also includes a small canon as part of the display. While earthquake damage is plainly evident on the staircase, it still retains a hint of its former glory.

The ornamental staircase with a small cannon and stone adornments

Nearby is a modern version of a chief’s house (omo hada) with a narrow, soaring roof. The original was completely destroyed, probably either in an earthquake or a fire. In fact, there are only five remaining examples of omo hada on the entire island. As a general rule, these chiefly houses were not rebuilt after they were destroyed. As far as I know, this modern reproduction is a one-off in Nias.

The chief’s house in Hilisamaetano, South Nias- a modern reproduction

The Tomb Complex of Sunan Bayat Ki Ageng Pandanaran

The Yogyakarta area is perhaps the best-established part of Java in terms of international tourism. Nonetheless, it is still possible to find interesting places in the region which hardly ever see a foreign tourist. One of the best examples is the Tomb Complex of Sunan Bayat Ki Ageng Pandanaran. In an area famous for its Hindu and Buddhist temples, it provides an interesting contrast: here you find an outstanding example of early Islamic architecture in Java and it’s within easy day-tripping distance from Yogyakarta.

The tomb complex has a series of ancient gopuras

I have no idea how you’d go about getting out here by public transportation. While there would certainly be some sort of conveyance heading out that way, you may have to change between several angkutans (mini-vans), and it may be challenging without basic Indonesian competency. The alternative would be to hire a car and driver for the day from Yogyakarta. We managed to get one for Rp 550.000 after a bit of shopping around, which included stops at several different sites in Klaten Regency. You could easily add the sugar museum in Klaten as well as Candi Merak, a beautiful Hindu temple, as well as any of the numerous antiquities in the area around Candi Prambanan.

The gateways resemble those from Hindu puras in Bali

The drive out to this tomb complex is around 35 kilometers and after the halfway mark, it took us deep into the Javanese countryside. Returning to this area for the first time in years, I was impressed by the pastoral charm of the area. You will find gaggles of geese roaming about, old villages with sloping, red-tiled roofs and emerald rice paddies backed by forested hills. The area around the tomb itself has some of the finest scenery on offer. The area is quite hilly (the tomb itself is situated on a hilltop) and there are groves of trees even near the larger villages.

The gateways feature geometric and floral motifs

Once you’ve reached the car park, you find a scene which is reminiscent of all of Java’s Islamic pilgrimage sites. There are vendors selling skullcaps, prayer-mats, Saudi Arabian dates and histories of the lives of Muslim saints. Both the people who work in the shops and those who are visiting the site tend to wear conservative Muslim dress. That said, we were made to feel welcome as Western tourists; people seemed surprised but pleased to see us there.

We were soon told that pilgrims had two choices in visiting the hillside tomb complex. You could either walk the whole way up the long flight of the stairs or you could hire ojeks (motorcycle taxis) which would take you right to the top. We opted for the latter, deciding to return to the bottom via the staircase. The trip up to the top turned up to by quite steep, taking us winding hillside roads with remnant forest on the hillsides. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by how attractive the countryside was. Within a few minutes we had reached the top of the hill. The outer walls of the tomb complex were directly ahead.

The tomb complex dates from the late fifteenth century, making it one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture from Java. While there are slightly older complexes in Gresik and Demak, these are both on the North Coast, where Islam is presumed to have first entered the island. The tomb complex of Sunan Bayat Ki Ageng Pandanaran is the oldest one I am aware of from the Yogyakarta area, or indeed anywhere this far from the North Coast. It attests to the speed to which Islam spread from the sultanates of the coastal regions into the Javanese heartland.

Richly ornamented gopuras are the highlight of the complex

Like many other complexes from the early days of the Islamic period, it shows a transitional style which still incorporates numerous Hindu elements. In particular, it features a series of courtyards divided by elaborate gopuras (ornamental gateways). These brings to mind the layout of Balinese puras (temples) right to the present day. They also recall the design of keratons (palaces) from the Hindu sultanates of the island. The motifs on the gates, such as diamond-shaped lozenges, also draw on Hindu-Buddhism. The diamond was sometimes used as a Buddhist meditational device. Therefore, you see a syncretic approach familiar Hindu elements were being repurposed for the new faith.

After the final gopura, there is the main tomb. Sunan Bayat was a member of the Javanese royal family who was an early adherent of Islam and helped to spread the religion among other members of Javanese royalty. Inside the tomb complex you can find elaborate genealogies which will lay out his relationships with hundreds of other nobles. The tomb itself is accessed via a low doorway and it is flocked by devout pilgrims most of the time, so it is important to keep a low profile here. Obviously, modest clothing is a must. The sound of prayer fills the area as you approach the tomb and its wooden enclosure.

On the way back out of the complex, you will notice a small timber mosque. It is a small, squarish structure with a pyramidal tiled roof. It is an example of the four-pillared style of mosque which was popular in Javanese villages until the modern era. This one is distinguished by being one of the earliest extant examples. According to the signboard out front, it dates from 1490. From there, you can descend via the staircase back the car park.

The original timber mosque on the hilltop

Candi Merak Revisited

In January 2019, I revisited Candi Merak on a driving trip around Klaten regency . This 12-metre high Hindu temple from the kingdom of Mataram Kuno is possibly one of the oldest temples in the Yogyakarta-Klaten area, dating from either the ninth or tenth century. It has many archaic features such as kudu heads, which are associated with the earliest phase of temple-building in Java. While it is clearly a Hindu temple, it incorporates some features more commonly found on Buddhist temples, such as a torus base. This suggests that during the heyday of Mataram Kuno, Hindu architecture began to borrow motifs and features from Buddhist shrines, with Candi Merak being one of the earliest examples. Overall, the focus of this post will mostly be highlighting some of the sculptural highlights from this transitional temple.

The western wall features a Ganesha niche

The first photo shows the western side of the temple. In this shot you can see the torus-styled base, which had previously been associated with Buddhist temples in Central Java. The highlight of the western wall is a Ganesha niche. While the carving of the elephant-headed god is damaged, with part of his trunk missing, it would be impossible to confuse the identity of the deity. It is also worth noting the lotus pedestal on which the god is sitting: another borrowing from the Buddhist religion. The niche is flanked by two wall carvings of other Hindu deities.

The goddess Durga slaying the demon buffalo

The northern wall features a similar niche, this time featuring the goddess Durga in her ferocious aspect. The depiction on the goddess here is especially impressive. The four-armed deity is shown with a wide-hipped, full-figured form, her body covered with a thin, diaphanous robe. She appears to wear elaborate ornaments in the form of heavy, metallic anklets and decorative arm-bands. Unfortunately, her head has been lost to looters. The goddess is standing on top of a bull, showing her in the incarnation of the slayer of the bull demon. This beautiful carving is one of the highlights of a visit to Candi Merak.

A beautiful bas-relief on the side of the main staircase

While many previous articles have described the makhara ornaments on the staircase at Candi Merak, much less attention has been given to the delightful bas-relief on the side of the staircase. It is centred around a depiction of the cosmic tree, which is shown here with garlands hanging from its lowermost branches. On the left hand side, there is a well-preserved depiction of a water jug, which is possibly a symbol of fertility and life. On the right-hand side, there is a standing deity represented with robes and heavy jewelry.

There are kudu heads in horseshoe niches on the roof of the temple

The final feature worth inspecting in detail is the roof of the temple. It has a pyramidal shape, consisting of three levels, each one more narrow than the last. The most interesting feature here is the present of small kudu heads inside horseshoe-shaped niches. This design recalls the iconoclastic temple of Candi Bima at Dieng. In later years, this motif was to fall out of popularity in Java. Intriguingly, the presence of kudu heads on Candi Merak suggests some degree of cultural exchange or continuity between the Dieng Plateau temples and the earliest Hindu shrines of Mataram Kuno. In incorporating elements from both the Shivaite temples of Dieng and also those from the neighboring Buddhist temples of the Prambanan Plain, Candi Merak created an interesting hybrid which repays careful examination.

Candi Bima: The Temple of the Kudu Heads

For the third and final post in a series of the lesser-known temples of the Dieng Plateau, I am going to focus on Candi Bima, which is certainly the most unorthodox of the district’s temples. Both in terms of its design and decoration, it varies sharply from the other temples in the vicinity, raising some interesting questions about the early history of Hinduism in Java.

The form of Candi Bima is very different from the temples of the nearby Arjuna Complex. Rather than the tiered, pyramidal roofs of Candi Arjuna and Candi Srikandi, we have a curvilinear form which seems to shoot upwards from the temple body. It brings to mind the temples or Odisha (formerly Orissa) in Eastern India rather than those from Southern India. In other words, Candi Bima references an architectural tradition which was quite distinct from that of the other candis on the plateau. It seems probable that cultural or trading links existed between the peoples of ancient Orissa and Java but this remains speculative. What can be more safely said is that Candi Bima represents a style of architecture which found an early toehold in Java but ultimately lost out in popularity to the pyramidal style of Candi Arjuna. This makes it something of a cul-de-sac in the development of the Javanese temple.

Candi Bima has a towering superstructure with rich ornamentation

Its separateness from other Dieng temples is reflected not only in the curvilinear form of the roof but also in its rich and varied decoration. Like other temples on the Dieng Plateau, it sports kala heads over its niches, but in other aspects it diverges quite markedly. Above the kala niches there are two bands of decorative detail- the lowermost one shows draped cloth and the uppermost one shows a row of dentils. Both of these features are most unusual in the Javanese architectural tradition. However, it is the decoration on the roof which its the temple’s remarkable feature.

The first thing you are likely to notice in looking at the roof is the heads which peer down from the roof, each of them contained in horseshoe arches. These heads represent the Hindu divinity Shiva and are known as kudu heads. For the traveler who is accustomed to Shiva being represented only in the form of linga, this can come as a surprise. While kudu heads are also present on some temples in the Yogyakarta such as Candi Ijo and Candi Merak, Candi Bima is the sole repository of them at Dieng. Yet there are a number of other unusual details on the roof.

The roof of Candi Bima features rich and varied decorative details

One of the more striking is the presence of amalakas on the roof. These are a kind of ribbed capital, two fine examples of which survive on the western side of the temple. Just below them can be seen a couple of pots known as kalasa. These pots symbolize the abundance of the universe. They are worth comparing with the khumba pots which adorn boundary stones from North-Eastern Thailand during the same period. A final detail worth noting here is the preponderance of lotus petal motifs which can be found both in bands and around the edges of kudu arches. While the lotus blossom is more typically associated with Buddhism, in Southeast Asia the use of hybrid imagery is quite common.

The main entrance features a kala head and floral motifs

In conclusion, Candi Bima is one of the most unique and idiosyncratic of early Javanese temples. Its elongated silhouette calls to mind the temples of Odissa rather than the pyramidal rooflines of early South India. Furthermore, it boasts a wealth of unusual decorative details- most notably a collection of kudu heads- which sets it apart from neighbouring temples. It represents a distinct chapter in early Javanese temple art which hints at the varied cultural links which informed its Hindu architecture.