Muara Jambi was ‘discovered’ by an English captain called S.C.Crooke in the 1820s and partially excavated by the Dutch in the 1930s. Yet in 2003, it looked as if it was hacked out of the jungle the week before. The great majority of the site has still yet to be cleared and there are said to be numerous unexcavated mounds scattered through the vegetation along the edge of the Batang Hari River. By one report the total site covered twelve square kilometres and contains seventy-two temples and archaeological mounds. By most measurements, this makes it the most extensive archaeological site in the country and one of the largest in the whole of South-East Asia. However, for the casual visitor the main sights are concentrated in the immediate vicinity of the caretaker’s cottage and a visit to Muara Jambi need not prove a time-consuming affair. We set off at once for the first temple compound, Candi Gumpung, keeping an eye out for snakes!
For us, the most impressive temple at the site was the first one we visited: Candi Gumpung (Gumpung Temple). Like most of the main sanctuaries at Muara Jambi, it was enclosed by a brick perimeter wall; with a breadth and width of about 150 metres, this wall enclosed a large compound, which was covered at the time of our visit by grass lawns. The temple itself, like almost all the remains at Muara Jambi, was built from red bricks. Roughly square in shape, it measured approximately 18 metres along each side and rose to a height of about three metres. Apart from the bright red colour of the brickwork, the temple was rather plain, giving it a markedly different appearance from the ornately worked appearance of most ancient Javanese temples. This may have been a function of the available building materials. Unlike the temple-builders of Central Java, who had large quantities of volcanic rock at their disposal, there are no volcanoes in the swampy Sumatran lowlands. Therefore, the temple-builders at Muara Jambi had been forced to build their temples from bricks, which accounted for their divergent appearances. It had also meant that the Muara Jambi temples were constructed on a much more modest scale.
Nonetheless, some attempt had been made to distinguish the eastern wall of the temple. On that side was a gateway which penetrated into the interior of the temple; this had been the only way in to inner sanctum, where a holy image had almost certainly been enshrined. On either side of this entrance were two vertical bands of bricks, which had been fashioned to resemble columns. Apart from these false columns, there was a shallow staircase which jutted out from the body of the temple. Sitting on the foot of these steps is the only piece of statuary remaining at the temple- the head of a makhara, a kind of sea-demon. Though in terms of decorative detail, it couldn’t compare to even the most minor of Javanese temples, this was the most photogenic façade at Muara Jambi.
That left the question of whether it was a Hindu or Buddhist temple- a question which we promptly answered. Evidently, Candi Gumpung was a Buddhist temple, a fact which we deduced from the numerous, small, brick stupas that were lined up beneath a nearby tree. Furthermore, we soon read that archaeologists had found Buddhist mantras inscribed on artefacts found within the temple. The Buddhist identity of the temple was further reinforced by the fact that it was here that archaeologists had discovered a beautiful statue of Prajaparamita, the Buddhist goddess of knowledge. We read that this statue was still housed on site at a small museum and immediately started to look forward to seeing it. The suggested dates for the temples of Muara Jambi vary widely between sources, but it was thought that it had been first built during the ninth century and then renovated or restored during the eleventh or twelfth centuries. These were dates that we were to ponder at much length later. But first we kept moving, not wanting to keep the taxi driver waiting all day.
Located in front of Candi Gumpung was a large, man-made pool. According to our booklet, the pool measured one hundred by one hundred and twenty metres and was usually at a depth of two to three metres. We rapidly concluded that the rulers of Muara Jambi had had a large supply of human labour at their disposal; digging such a pool would have required quite an army of workers. We also recalled the association of pools with royal dynasties throughout Southeast-Asia; at Angkor in Cambodia there are a number of massive reservoirs. We had also seen a huge, man-made reservoir at Trowulan in East Java, which was the site of the capital of the great Majapahit Empire. The name of this pool was Kolam Telagorajo, which means the King’s Pond in Melayu, a title which reinforced the royal connections of the pond.
From we there proceeded to the other largely intact temple at the site: Candi Tinggi (the tall temple). With a height of seven metres, it may be the tallest structure at the site, but in another sense the name seems a misnomer; Candi Tinggi is in fact much wider than it is tall. Like many other Hindu-Buddhist monuments in Indonesia, this temple made use of terraces, which would have provided a platform for important religious ceremonies. It is the main terrace of the temple which explains its considerable width, and it is also these projections to the sides which give it a cruciform shape. Its tallest point is in the middle. Here you find a narrow, walled space, which would presumably have enshrined some sacred image. Similarly to Candi Gumpung, it was approached by a long staircase which jutted far out to the front of the temple. There was little decoration to speak of, but the brickwork itself was beautiful, having a kind of striped look.
By the time we had reached Candi Tinggi we had become a tourist attraction in our right. Two village youths had come across to see the foreigners. They followed us about, answering the odd question, and strumming a chord or two on the acoustic guitar they had brought along. They wore the flip-flops, tight jeans and brightly coloured T-shirts that are the unofficial uniform for young men in Indonesia. We made several attempts to talk to them, but they answered the questions as briefly as possible and then sank bank into silence, interspersed with the odd burst of sound from the guitar. This was not due to any lack of friendliness of their part. Indeed, they had approached us and followed us around the site, signaling just the opposite. It is just that the ‘art of conversation’ as we understand it seems to have no place in the culture of ordinary Indonesians. What they really seemed to want to do was watch us.
Their eyes took in our appearance, our clothes and followed every movement we made. We were the subject of occasional whispered comments between them, but for the most part they didn’t talk to each other either. They had no commentary to add about the temples, but they knew which paths to follow to the lesser ruins. They pointed out the way and watched us as we wandered about the remains, a cheerful enough presence for all their silence and staring. The next ruin they directed us to was Candi Kembar Batu, a ruin which was only mentioned in passing in both the guidebooks we were carrying. Nor was there any information about it in any of the essays I had read. But thankfully, once we had made the 250 metre walk across from Candi Tinggi, there was a signboard which gave some basic information.