Dvaravati Terracotta Head

While the most prized and expensive examples of ancient South-East Asian art were made of stone and bronze, they were other materials used in the manufacture of statuary. Another material that was sometimes used was terracotta, and the Dvaravati civilization of Thailand excelled in the production of terracotta art objects. It is thought that they were often used to decorate the outer walls of temples and stupas in Dvaravati cities. These kinds of finds are numerous at Dvaravati archaeological sites and can be seen in the provincial museums of the former Dvaravati cultural zone. The museums of Bangkok, Nakhon Sawan, Ratchaburi and Nakhon Pathom all have fine examples.

The example below is typical of Mon-Dvaravati terracotta art. It shows a Mon-style Buddha head, covered with large curls. It has a broad nose and full lips, features that are often found in Mon Buddhas. There is a small hole in the centre of the forehead, which would once have been fitted with a precious jewel. Obviously, it has been removed by a treasure-hunter at some point. Unlike the more celebrated Mon bronzes, Mon terracottas can sell in the low hundreds of dollars. The influence of statues like this on the art of the great Thai kingdoms is very easy to spot, even for the newcomer.

A Mon terracotta head

Gunung Slamet: A Holy Peak of Mataram?

Java is an island of lofty peaks, and one of the tallest is Gunung Slamet, which rises 3428 metres above sea level in the westernmost part of Central Java province. This active volcano dominates the horizon across a wide area of Central Java and can be seen from Tegal, Purwokerto and Banyumas regencies in particular. It is best enjoyed from Baturaden, which is a small Dutch-era hill station on the slopes of Gunung Slamet, though another alternative is at Guci in Tegal regency; this area also boasts hot springs and some montane forest.

The area is most attractive to nature lovers and mountain climbers today, but it had another, little-discussed role in history. It seems that during the time of the Old Mataram kingdom, Gunung Slamet was viewed as a holy peak. This makes a lot of sense as mountains played a symbolic role in the Hindu world and the abode of the gods was known as Mount Meru. Temples were  viewed as a symbolic representation of Mount Meru. As easily the highest peak in the kingdom, Gunung Slamet was very likely to be viewed as a sacred peak by the ancients. Recent archaeological work tends to bear this presumption out.

While there are no extant temple ruins associated with Gunung Slamet, seven different temple foundations have been found in the area around the mountain. This represents the greatest concentration of temple sites in the western part of the Mataram kingdom. Clearly, the area around Gunung Slamet represented some kind of ceremonial centre. Perhaps the best known of these is Candi Kesuben and Candi Bumijawa, which date to the ninth and tenth centuries. These sanctuaries were built from andesite and exhibit yoni and lingga and other relics associated with the cult of Shiva. This little-visited part of Java may have been an important religious centre some 11 centuries ago.

Gunung Slamet- a holy peak of Mataram?
Gunung Slamet- a holy peak of Mataram?

Candi Kalasan: The Prototype for Prambanan

Candi Kalasan is located just fifty metres south of the main Yogyakarta-Solo road about three kilometres before Candi Prambanan, the magnificent Hindu temple complex which is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While Prambanan justifiably gets a lot of attention, Candi Kalasan is rather ignored and most tourists just speed straight past it on the way to better known sites. This is a shame as Candi Kalasan is actually half a century older than Prambanan; the original temple was built in 778, though it was probably enlarged  in the ninth century. Take into account the age of this temple, its proximity to Prambanan and the similarities in appearance between the two sites and it becomes clear that this was probably a prototype for a more massive style of Javanese architecture which was perfected at Prambanan.

Candi Kalasan is on a much larger scale than the earlier temples of Gedung Songo and Dieng Plateau, rising to a height of 34 metres. Its four inner rooms were built large enough to contain massive pieces of sculpture; it is believed that that a four-metre tall bronze statue of the Buddhist goddess Tara was once seated on a throne inside the main room. Sadly, it has long since been looted, but it is obvious that the temple was conceived on a grand scale. Of the statues have mostly been stolen, some of the exterior art remains and it is very impressive.

There are some very impressive kala-makara arches (see the photo below) with a kala head over the door and two makaras (a kind of sea-monster) on either side of the entranceway. The walls also depict Tara and other Buddhist dieties. The roof is in the form of a massive dagoba. Built by the Sanjaya Dynasty, who ruled Central Java between the eighth and tenth centuries, it is one of the main indications of the artistic genius of the Old Mataram kingdom. This temple marks the point where the Mataram kingdom stopped building small, box-like shrines and began to build vast, splendid sanctuaries designed to create a sense of awe.

A kala-makara arch with ferns growing out of the stonework

Sat Mahal Pasada and Wat Kukut

One of the lesser known influences on the art of South-East Asia has been Sri Lanka. But the links between Thailand and Sri Lanka, in particular, are quite strong. Both countries, for example, practice Theravada Buddhism, showing long monastic links between the two countries. Even today the visitor to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka will see travelling pilgrim monks from Thailand. The large bell-shaped stupas which we associate with Ayutthaya in Thailand can also be found in all the ancient royal cities of Sri Lanka. But perhaps the most intriguing link we have found between the two countries is the way that the stupa in the grounds of Wat Kukut in Lamphun (a town that was the final Mon capital of Thailand) so closely resembles the Mahal Pasada, a semi-ruined tower-stupa in the royal capital of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. Clearly, there had been Mon monks in Polonnaruwa, the capital of medieval Sri Lanka, who took architectural knowledge back to their capital in Lamphun. The two photos below will show the obvious similarities- both are tiered, brick towers with stucco standing Buddhas placed in niches. There are some differences too, however. For example, the stupa in Sri Lanka has a narrow ambulatory- an area for walking around.

Sat Mahal Prasada from Sri Lanka
Wat Kukut from Lamphun, Northern Thailand

Candi Sari: A Buddhist Monastery, Actually

One of the first Indonesian words that any visitor to the Yogyakarta area should learn is candi, which translates loosely as temple, though the match isn’t exact. Contemporary Chinese temples are known as vihara or kelenteng; the word candi is reserved for the ancient temples and ruins which scatter the countryside of Central and East Java. In reality, any stone ruins from this period are called candi whether they actually functioned as temples or not. Hence, while most of the candi of Java were once Hindu temples, some of them were actually Buddhist stupas, palace compounds, ornamental gateways, pavilions and resting houses. As Java converted to Islam progressively over the past six centuries, the original usage of these buildings as been forgotten and they have all been labelled as candi.

Falling into this ‘non temple’ category of Javanese candi is Candi Sari, which was actually a monastery for  Candi Kalasan, which sits a mere hundred and fifty metres away. (Unfortunately, the two sites are now separated by the main road between Yogyakarta and Solo, so all sense of a single religious complex has now been lost). The word sari is Sanskrit for sleep, which preserves a hint of the original use of this building. It was a place where monks from Candi Kalasan slept. (The word for sleep in the Sunda language of West Java is still sare to this day). This building is, thus, as two-storey stone monastery, though the wooden floor and ladder separating the two levels has long since rotted away, creating a dark, cavernous interior. The roof of the building is topped by ornaments in the form of bell-shaped stupas, reinforcing the Buddhist identity of this structure. Arresting images of Tara, a Buddhist goddess, cover the outer walls, enhancing the appeal of this place for fans of Asian art.

For those doing day trips around the Yogyakarta area, these two temples provide a quiet and restful contrast to the more popular sites. You will probably have Candi Sare to yourself. It is a remarkable testimony to the mixed religious heritage of old Mataram.

The magnificent facade of Candi Sari

Candi Ngempon: Old Mataram’s Rich Heritage

The last few years have seen a flurry of temple reconstructions in Central Java, greatly expanding the range of ancient temple complexes which are available to travellers. At this point the guidebooks have yet to catch up; you won’t find even the more impressive temple reconstructions like Candi Ijo or Candi Merak in the Lonely Planet guidebook, let alone a minor site like Candi Ngempon. At present the only detailed information about it is in Indonesian, so this post tries to fill that gap.

Candi Ngempon is in Ngempon village (the Ng- village names are a decidedly Javanese phenomenon), which is found in the hills of the regency of Semarang, the capital city of Central Java province. In February 2013 the Indonesian newspaper Republika Online ran a story that a landslide struck a settlement just two hundred metres away from the candi (temple). It was on the perimeter wall of the candi complex which prevented the landslide from entering the sanctuary. As Republika put it, Candi Ngempon was almost buried again: the temple was first excavated in 1952. What Republika does not make clear is the roots of Java’s landslide problem in rampant deforestation; the trees bind the soil together on Java’s steep hillsides. Many landslide disasters have followed the felling of forests above villages in recent years.

In 1952 the temple was first uncovered by a farmer called Kasuri who was hoeing in his fields. Over the following years more and more andesite building blocks were uncovered and eventually the whole area was excavated. Ten Hindu statues were found, depicting Rara Jonggrang, Ganesha and other mythological beings. Four temples have recently been restored; like their nearby cousins at Gedong Songo and Candi Pringapus, they have a square base, numerous niches for statuary and a three-tiered roof. Thus they belong to the ‘Northern Style’ of Central Javanese candis, which was probably developed before the capital shifted south towards the Yogyakarta region.

The four main temples, surrounded by scattered blocks