The Elusive Kingdom of Holing

Chinese archives indicate that there was a kingdom called Holing which paid tribute to the Middle Kingdom between the sixth and eighth centuries. It also featured in the travel writings of the Chinese monk generally known as I-Tsing (other translations of his name also exist), who visited Holing in the second half of the seventh century and studied at Buddhist monasteries of renown within this kingdom. But while we know that Holing existed, we do not know where it was, and like so much in the early history of South-East Asia, it is clouded in obscurity.

Some sources indicate the likely location of Holing as being in West Java, but this causes difficulties as we know that at least one early Indonesian kingdom called Tarumanagara was located there. Borders may have been porous and ill-defined in South-East Asia, but it certainly wasn’t possible for two kingdoms to be in the same spot at the same time. This has led some historians to speculate that Holing was situated along what is now the North Coast of Central Java. You will also hear that the keraton (palace) of this kingdom of Holing was pehaps located on the coast somewhere between the modern cities of Semarang and Jepara, but this is specualtive: no trace of the keraton of Holing has been found. A few ancient stones do at least indicate that Semarang was a port during this period

One thing in favour of the idea that it was located in the north of Central Java was the fact that the province’s two oldest temple complexes are found in this part of the province: the temples of the Dieng Plateau and Gedung Songo (nine temples), which are found high on a hilltop above the Dutch-era hill station of Ambarawa. These temples are small and simple compared to the later constructions of the Mataram kingdom, and there are also some differences in the style of decoration between these and the other Mataram shrines. Could they have been the creations of this early Holing kingdom?

The information is contradictory on this point. There is one source from West Java which says that Gedung Songo was built by the Holing monarch, Queen Sima. This story claims that the nine Hindu temples, said to represent the nine passions, were built at the express instructions of Sima herself. It is an appealing story linking a semi-legendary queen to an extant temple complex, but it is unreliable and contentious and many sources indicate that the surviving structures at Gedung Songo and the Dieng Plateau were actually eighth or even ninth century constructions, making it more likely that they were built by the kings of Mataram than a queen of Holing. But it is possible that these scared sites of the early Holing kingdom continued to be revered in the following Mataram period, especially as there may have been familial links between the two dynasties. We know also that the Angkor Empire in Cambodia maintained and renovated some of the shrines from the pre-Angkorian kingdom of Chenla, so something similar may have happened here. We can also consider the fact that many of the temples of Central Java were renovated or extended in antiquity. But much remains speculative and Holing remains an elusive kingdom, even by the standards of early Indonesia.



Queen Sima of Holing

n 674-675 A.D. the [Javanese] people…took as their ruler a woman of the name Sima. Her rule was most excellent. Even things dropped on the road were not taken up. The Prince of the Arabs (Tazi), hearing of this, sent a bag with gold to be laid down within her frontiers; the people who passed that road avoided it in walking, and it remained there for three years. Once the heir apparent stepped over that gold and Queen Sima became so incensed that she wanted to kill him. Her ministers interceded and the queen said: “Your fault lies in your feet, therefore it will be sufficient to cut them off.” The ministers interceded again, and so she only had his toes cut off, in order to give an example to the whole nation. When the prince of Tazi heard of this, he became afraid and dared not attack her.

A Source from the Sunda people of West Java:

A long time ago there was a Kalinga Kingdom at Keling City, Jepara in North-Central Java that had a queen by the name of Simha (Sanskrit for the “Lion”). She was very famous throughout the land because she was known to be very fair and wise. She always taught the people of the kingdom to be honest, sincere, pious and persevering, as well as to believe and always pray to the Supreme Being (Sang Hyang Widi Wasesa). One night, the queen received a dream that inspired her, together with her subjects and soldiers, to migrate eastwards for the purpose of building a house of worship. The new temple would bring them closer to Hyang Tunggal — the singular God whose sons Hyang Manikmaya and Hyang Ismaya symbolize the forces of light and darkness amongst the Javanese. For this purpose the queen called upon the assistance of the ascetics (Resi) Kihajar Selakantara and Kihajar Watangrana.

After a few days of walking they came to a place near the top of Suralaya Mountain where the air was fresh and where the hills offered a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Kihajar Watangrana began to construct the temple at that very place. When the other Resi learned of this, he felt injured because Kihajar Watangrana had not consulted with him first. He also wanted the temple to be built closer to the top of the Suralaya Mountain. Because of their difference of opinion, the two Resi fought until the Kihajar Selakantara emerged as the winner. Kihajar Watangrana and his soldiers fled to the top of the mountain, where the Resi caused additional temples to be built in that place.

When Kihajar Selakantara heard about the other temples he became very angry and tried to bring their construction to a halt. During the ensuing war between the two factions, the troops of both parties depleted their water stocks and began to suffer from thirst. The disagreement ended with the arrival of the beautiful Endang Puspasari, who became the servant of Kihajar Selakantara. Distraught over failing to gain the girl’s affections, Kihajar Watangrana decided to leave. Kihajar Selakantara continued his climb to the top of Suralaya, so that he could complete his task according to Queen Sima’s wishes. On his way to the top he smelled a fragrance like flowers, which inspired him to pray to Sang Hyang Widi Wasesa at that very place. He then realized that this was the very place for building the temple for Queen Simha. For this reason it is called Ndarum (Gondo arom), the fragrant smell like flowers, even today.

The very next day, they began to construct the temple with the assistance of the gods. During the process of erecting the temple, they learned that if human beings wished to obtain the peaceful life, they would need to gain control over the nine passions, which gain influence over human character by entering nine orifices or “gates” within the human body. This is the meaning behind the construction of the Nine Temples. It is the bridge for praying or performing sujud (bowing from a kneeling position so that forehead touches the floor) before Sang Hyang Tunggal. Kihajar Selakantara also sent a message to Kihajar Watangrana that ordered him to stay around the last temple (i.e., the ninth temple) together with his soldiers. After Kihajar Selakantara appeared before Queen Simha, Kihajar Watangrana went to meditate in the ninth temple and stayed there until his body had finished.

Dvaravati in Ratchaburi Province

The province of Ratchaburi is very little-discussed in traveller’s circles, despite its close proximity to the capital. The one well-known attraction in this province is the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, which is a regular stop on all the tour group itineraries but which most independent travellers scoff at as a bit of tourist circus. One gets the impression that even visitors to Damnoen Saduak are brought in for a couple of hours to take some happy snaps and then are sped off elsewhere. No one really seems to linger here. Yet for the rare traveller whose interests include tracking down the elusive Dvaravati kingdom, this little province to the south-west of Bangkok can make an interesting addition to your itinerary.

The main town is located about 80 kms from Bangkok but it is off the main highway heading south, so you are unlikely to stop by here unintentionally. Set on the Mae Klong River, it is a typical Thai provincial town in most respects. Still, it is the first place you should stop if you want to track down something of the area’s Dvaravati heritage. There is a small branch of the National Museum in town, and while the 150 baht for foreigner fee smarts a little (Thais pay a fraction of this price), you should probably just cough it up. It has a decent display of Dvaravati terracotta art, sculpture and statuary, marking this area out as one of the artistic centres of the Mon-Dvaravati culture.

A Dvaravati-era carving in low relief

The other place to check out if you are in town is Khu Bua Archaeological Site, which is situated about six kilometres out of town. This must once have been a major Dvaravati settlement, as the outside walls of the site measure 800 metres by two kilometres, though little remain of them now. The best preserved ruin within is the brick foundation of Wat Khlong, inset with decorative niches. This is one of few examples of Dvaravati architecture surviving anywhere in the country. There is also a small site museum at Khu Bua which you can look around- keep an eye out for the cakra wheels- the Buddhist wheel of law which is a hallmark of the Dvaravati culture.

The third and final place you should see on a circuit of Dvaravati-themed sites are the rock carvings at Khao Ngu, a limestone outcrop about eight kilometres outside town. These are the last remaining traces of a former community of forest monks who once sought spiritual enlightment away from the major urban settlements on the lowlands. You could easily make a tour of all three sites in a single day.

Atop Phnom Chisor

Set a few kilometres off the main Phnom Penh-Takeo road, past a gaudy modern wat, is Phnom Chisor, a 132-metre tall hill set in the northernmost part of Takeo Province.  Our tuk-tuk driver pulled up at the foot of the hill and pointed the way upwards. From there we could see the staircase stretching up out of sight towards the crest of the hill, scrubby undergrowth closing in on either side.

“How long is this staircase?” asked Cameron doubtfully.

“Not too sure. I think there are a few hundred steps ahead of us though. It doesn’t look as steep as Wat Banan, the one near Battambang.”

While Phnom Chisor was no mountain, none of us were fit and the ascent left both of us puffing and panting. At one point not halfway up we passed a European woman who was coming down; she said she hadn’t made it to the top but her husband had continued on without her and was still up there.

After some fifteen minutes, we made it to the top. We were a bit surprised to find a small modern wat on the peak, painted with colorful, naive murals in a folk style. But this wasn’t what we had come for. Our real destination was just over the brow of the hill- an Angkorian temple dating to the first half of the eleventh century: Prasat Phnom Chisor. We spent the next hour or so picking over this wonderful ruin.

Unlike the main shrines of Angkor itself, this temple had not gone extensive restoration, and signs of decay were everywhere. Lichens spread on the stonework, weeds grew up between the cracks and trailer-vines snaked among jumble piles of masonry. There were some impressive pieces of art lying about without any cover whatsoever: statuary, panels of bas reliefs and some beautiful lintels. But for all the damage and neglect, the basic plan was still evident.

The temple was set within a walled compound made of large blocks of laterite (sometimes mixed with cinder blocks for support). These heavy old walls had stone window frames inset in them with stone bars in the windows which were made in imitation of turned wood. Within was a long, rectangular shrine which was now covered with a makeshift roof of corrugated iron (the original roof had fallen victim to an American bomb in the Indochina war). A number of smaller subsidiary temples were set around it. Some of these temples had exquisite lintels set over the doors, mostly featuring Lord Vishnu in various stories from Hindu mythology: Vishnu on his mount, the winged Garuda; Vishnu lifting a mountain; and Vishnu standing on a kala, some kind of demon. Clearly, this was a Vishnuite shrine, and a beautiful statue of the Hindu deity was also found within, surrounded by sticks of burning incense and votive candles.

I recalled that Vishnu had been the main diety of Funan, the earliest of Cambodia’s kingdoms and the first one to show Indian artistic influence. Had a trace of Vishnu worship lingered in the Takeo region since the days of Funan? Had the Angkor king who built this shrine, Suryavarman I, been honoring a time-old tradition of Vishnu worship in these parts? It seemed likely that the cult of Vishnu had lingered on here, at  the edge of the Mekong Delta, from the days of Funan well into the Angkor era, half a millennium later.

After looking over the ruins, we went out to enjoy the views. From the hilltop, we had panoramic views to the south, looking out over the floodplains of Takeo. The whole landscape were largely covered in water and the rice-paddies looked like so many panes of clear glass set in a vast interlocking mosaic. These panoramic views made Phnom Chisor a great place to contemplate empire-building, something which Suryavarman I had probably done a lot of in pushing Angkor’s borders every deeper in current Thailand. Why had he built this shrine here I wondered? Was it intended to cement his hold on the nearby Mekong Delta region, which was where Khmer civilization had first sprung up in the Funan period? The kings of Angkor were probably aware of their ancient lineage stretching back to the kings of Chenla and Funan- was he emphasisizing his links with the old Funan heartland in this watery part of Cambodia? How important had the fertile lands of the delta been in Angkor’s empire? These were questions without clear answers, but I suspect that the kings of Angkor knew something of the Funanese heritage of this part of their empire.

Views over Takeo province from Phnom Chisor
Views over Takeo province from Phnom Chisor

The Colossal Buddha Of Si Thep

The colossal Buddha of Si Thep
The colossal Buddha of Si Thep

Si Thep is an archaeological site in the  Pa Sok River Valley in the modern Thai province of Phetchabun. It is a fascinating site for those interested in the succession of historical kingdoms in Thailand as it is unique in containing earlier remains from the Dvaravati kingdom, when Central Thailand was controlled by ethnic Mon groups, and later prasat (temples) from the Khmer period when the Angkorian kings extended control over much of modern Thailand. Despite its historical importance, the site has a very low tourist profile- a fact which I am trying to remedy with this blog.

Apart the temples, Si Thep has been a particularly rich source of statues, dharma wheels, boundary markers and other Dvaravati moveable art objects. Surely one of the most remarkable is the colossal 2.23 metre tall Buddha figure, fashioned from sandstone, which is thought to be an example of the Shakyamuni Buddha– a type which bears considerable semblance to the Maitreya Buddha, which was also popular in this era. The statue has a cavity between the eyes where a precious gem would once have sat and though both arms are broken off, it is assumed they would once have been in the vitarkamudra posture, which was popular during the Dvaravati period. This remarkable and colossal Buddha is now found in a museum in the United States.

Tarumanagara (7.3) Temples Made of Rice Husks

On the road out to the temples, there were a couple of police roadblocks. Apparently Jakarta taxis were not allowed to come out this far, so the driver had to give a small bribe to the police-officer to continue on his way. When we reached the second roadblock, the driver got out of paying a bribe by letting the officer know that he had already paid one just a few minutes earlier. Rather than causing any sort of embarrassment, this was received as a very good reason to not have to pay again: there is a strange kind of etiquette around the bribing of officialdom in Indonesia which can be difficult for foreigners penetrate. Just as there is huge ‘black’ economy beneath the formal one in Indonesia, there is also a code of conduct for the giving of bribes and the greasing of administrative wheels which exists in the background of the formal law-book.

     With this bribe paid, we proceeded out of town into the lush rice paddies of the Citarum River basin. While the flat landscape was far from scenic, it was different enough from other parts of the island to be of some interest. The main difference was in the comparative paucity of villages, which gave the sense of being in an inland sea of green rice-shoots. In Central and Eastern Java there are rice-paddies everywhere too, but the massive population pressure on Java means that there are always human settlements crowding on all sides. There must have been people about- there were five million of them, apparently- but their villages were not built all along the main road. This meant that mostly we saw shaggy-haired rice-paddies of a deep green, with innumerable canals and drainage ditches running through them, controlling the flows of the prodigious volumes of water.

    When we finally arrived at the archaeological site, it too was surrounded by rice paddies. Like everywhere else we had passed on the way from Karawang, the site was low-lying, consisting of the rich alluvium deposited by the Citarum River. Cameron asked me how far away the coast would have been, and I said I wasn’t sure but thought it couldn’t have been too far: Java wasn’t all that wide at its furthest extent and we had been travelling consistently north all the way from the main road. In fact, I later read that this sight had once been very near the ocean, located near the confluence of the river and the sea. But the constant sedimentation at the river mouth over the centuries had left it now more than five kilometres inland from the Java Sea.

       As we had expected, the site did not offer much in the way of things to see. Unlike the better known temple sites of Java, there was no statuary, no bas reliefs and nothing especially eye-grabbing in the way of architecture either. What was on offer was the base of a former temple set down a path in the middle of a rice paddy; as we walked about looking at the ruin, a rice-farmer was tending his crop not one-hundred metres away. This was the main temple at the site, Candi Jiwa: the one I had seen in the newspaper article. It had a large square base with each side being nineteen metres in length, which must have been largely below ground before it was excavated, as a shallow trench now surrounded it on all sides. This square, brick base was just under five metres high but most of the top of it seemed to be missing, giving it a rather squat, block-like appearance. Unlike the stone temples of Central and East Java, this structure had been made of mud-bricks, giving it a rather drab appearance. On top of the ‘block’, the structure appeared to undulate inwards, but most of this part had crumbled away. This undulation, combined with the fact that there was no staircase leading upwards, suggested to me that this was once a Buddhist stupa, and it would once have had a rounded hemisphere on top.  I was to learn later that clay amulets- perhaps Buddhist votive tablets- had been found in the area. This was something of a surprise, as most accounts of Tarumanagara emphasize that it was Java’s earliest Hindu kingdom. Apart from the puzzle of its original function, there was another unusual feature of this temple which I mentioned to Cameron. It appeared that bricks of this temple included a unique material: rice husks. Candi Jiwa was different from all other temples we had seen in that it was built partly from rice! It seemed that rice cultivation had been part of the culture in the Citarum River basin since the days of the earliest kingdoms.

      All in all, the stupa was not a beautiful structure, especially compared to temples further to the east, but it was here that the ‘kingdom’ approach to early South-East Asian temples came into its own. The site was far more interesting if you could forget about the country called Indonesia, or even the island of Java with the world-famous Borobudur near its centre, and realize that Candi Jiwa was the product of a distinct state which had led its own historical development, until finally collapsing some thirteen centuries before. Candi Jiwa may have been built as early as the fifth or sixth century, when the Roman Empire had just fallen to the barbarians and when the Islamic religion was still two hundred years from being born. To do it justice, you had to forget about what came later in Java and realize that this was a separate and much earlier episode of history, dating from the period when Indian religion and political systems were only just started to penetrate the region. Rather than comparing it the glorious monuments of Central Java’s Classical Age, it was better to see it as a first bold step in the integration of ancient Indonesia into world religion and global commerce.

        Donald requested that we take his photo for his Facebook page, which we did obligingly. In a typical move for an Indonesian youth, he stuck up two fingers in a V gesture whose meaning remained obscure to us. From there we followed a narrow path through the rice fields to a second temple, which was currently undergoing restoration. This temple, Cando Blandongan, temple was shorter than the first one, though it had a newly restored staircase leading up to an upper terrace, which somewhat expanded our notion of the variety of forms which Tarumanagara temples had taken. It was possible to imagine a statue of Vishnu being enshrined here and the residents of Tarumanagara coming to make puja to the sacred image. This structure also offered a little more in the way or ornamentation than Candi Jiwa as the brickwork along the base had been laid in a simple decorative manner. A large protective shed with a corrugated-iron roof had been constructed over this structure and restorations were ongoing at the time of our visit, with a few local workers standing about with wheelbarrows and shovels.

   From here we proceeded to another large protective shed on the far edge of the site. When we got there we saw that this had been built to protect a large excavation pit. We couldn’t go inside but we saw from the edge of the pit that it contained another large temple base and some other mounds- known locally as unsur- which were being professionally excavated. Here were more brick temples, presumably held together with rice husks too. There was a guard on duty and Donald spoke to him briefly, looking for information about the site. The most interesting thing he offered was that there were more temple bases at Cibuaya (literally Crocodile River), about twenty minutes’ drive away. I mentioned to Cameron that I had read that both Batujaya and Cibuaya had been the subject of intensive archaeological research since the 1990s, with more than a dozen digs being done. Judging from the ongoing work in that pit, it appeared that the work was still ongoing, and the area promised more interesting finds in the years ahead.

         After we had explored these two ruins, we wandered back towards the car-park and the small site museum which was located there. Donald had tasked the taxi-driver with finding someone who held the key while we looked around at the temples. It was only a single-room museum, contained in what looked like a small version of an ordinary villa. It may have been small, but it offered us some fascinating new insights into what we had just seen. It offered displays on the Buni Culture, a prehistoric trading and culture zone along the North Coast of Java and Bali, which had shared both a similar style of plain pottery wares and the practise of ceremonial burial with metal artefacts. We learned that Batujaya had been an early settlement site for the Buni culture and that at a later point, Indian pottery fragments had started to turn up on the architectural record too.

    In other words, this settlement had started out as a trading port which had engaged in maritime commerce with other settlements on the North Coast of Java, but at some point, Indian traders had discovered this indigenous economic zone and started offering new wares into the local market. At this point the Buni settlements had received an international economic stimulus from India. By the following century the local rulers had adopted Hinduism and the making of statues of Vishnu and the building of Hindu and Buddhist temples had commenced. The local rulers had started adding the –varman suffix onto their names, showing that they had evolved from local chieftains into Hindu kings invested with an aura of supernatural prowess. The most famous of these was called Purnavarman. Ruling in the fifth century he had left a series of prasasti, inscribed standing stones, in the area from Karawang to current Jakarta, and his keraton may have been the most important in Java at the time. Modest as they were then, the ruins we had seen were testaments to a major new phase in Indonesian history, and Batujaya was an important part of the evolution of larger kingdoms in Java. We felt that the trip was worth it for finally explaining why West Java might have had a different history to the rest of the island, and yet questions remained. Most crucially we wanted to know what had happened to Tarumanagara. Why had it disappeared so completely from the memory of Java, leaving no apparent successor in its place?

      It was not till much later that we came upon possible answers in our reading. While it is still something of an open matter, we do know that in 669 the Chinese court refused to receive any more envoys from Tarumanagara. This rebuke may have been due to the fact that by the late seventh century powerful new maritimes empires were arising in the Indonesian archipelago, centred on Sumatra. With Srivijaya already renowned in China as a centre of Buddhist learning and an entrepot for jungle products, the Citarum River based civilization may have been fast fading in economic importance. In his wonderful book on early South-East Asia, Pierre Manguin goes even further and suggests that Srivijaya may have finished off Tarumanagara in a military expedition around the year 686. The Kota Kapur inscription from the island of Bangka off the coast of Sumatra records that the Srivijayan king Jayanasa send a naval expedition of 20,000 men to Java at this time and defeated his enemies there. While the name of the kingdom is not mentioned, Manguin suggests that it was probably Tarumanagara and the reason for the expedition was that Srivijaya wanted to secure control of the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, thereby sealing off the alternative route between India and China which allowed some trade to bypass the Melaka Strait.  It may be that the story of the rise of Indonesia’s greatest early kingdom, Srivijaya, was intricately tied up with the eclipse of all its main rivals.

One of Tarumanagara’s Vishnuite shrines

Prasat Phum Pon

The main brick tower at Phum Pon
The main brick tower at Phum Pon

Prasat Phum Pon (sometimes known as Prasat Phumpon) is a little-known but rather important temple site. These brick shrines are far from the largest or most impressive Khmer temples in Thailand but they are the oldest.

If you want to see magnificent Khmer temples, you had better head to Phimai near the city of Nakhon Ratchasima or to Phanom Rung in the countryside outside the small country town or Buriram. These temples offer magnificent Khmer architecture dating back almost a millennium. Both these temples easily rate among the finest extant Khmer temples anywhere and the most impressive ancient monuments in the kingdom of Thailand. Set in the province of Surin, which still has 26% of the population who speak Khmer despite decades-long attempts to assimilate the ethnic Khmer into mainstream Thai society, Prasat Phum Pon is a much more humble affair altogether; but it does serve as a reminder of the long links of this part of modern Thailand with the Khmer kingdoms to the south of the Dongkrek Mountains.

What makes Prasat Phum Pon such a rarity is that it is a Chenla temple. We are unaware of any other Khmer temple in Thailand which is attributable to the Chenla kingdom, a pre-Angkorian Khmer state whose capitals were centred in the present Cambodian province of Kampong Thom. All the other Khmer shrines in Thailand date from the world-famous Angkor Empire, which reached into Northern Thailand at the height of its power. This comparatively humble shrine shows characteristic Chenla style architecture from the seventh century, with orange brickwork, a sparsely carved exterior and a pyramidial roof. Encouragingly, a Khmer language school has now been established at the site to help promote the use of the long-suppressed language amongst Surin’s sizable ethnically Khmer minority.