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.

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.

The entrance to Candi Bima features a kala head and floral motifs


Candi Gatotkaca: One of Java’s Oldest Temples

Candi Gatotkaca is not one of the better-known temples of the Dieng Plateau, let alone Java. At the time of writing, it had not even been added as an attraction on the ‘Sights’ section of Tripadvisor. In some ways, this seems odd. After all, it is positioned right at the entrance gate to the well-known Arjuna Complex. Furthermore, it is set right across the road from the Museum Kailasa, which is the main museum on the Dieng Plateau. Yet somehow the tourists walking between these two attractions seem to give Candi Gatotkaca short shrift, almost as if it wasn’t there. However, due to its great age and its membership of a second, ‘hidden’ temple complex at Dieng Plateau, Candi Gatotkaca is more interesting than it might appear on casual inspection.

A kala-makhara arch on the outer walls

In terms of its decoration, Candi Gatotkaca can seem rather austere. It has much less carving than the other temples on the plateau. In terms of exterior ornamentation, the main thing of note is the use of kala-makhara  arches. You will find some excellent examples above the niches on the outer walls. There may once have been one of these arches over the main entrance as well, but it was not possible to include it in the reconstruction. Apart from that, the other feature which is likely to capture your interest is the large, well-preserved yoni which is found inside the temple. This is perhaps the finest example of yoni which is still in situ at Dieng, though there was no sign of the linga.

With regards to the form, it is said to be a mixture of the two main temple plans found on the Dieng Plateau: the square plan and the cruciform plan. It has a fairly simple cella platform, with a short staircase extending out from the main entrance. The roof has an interesting brickwork yet most of the superstructure is missing. This gives it something of an artificially square and stumpy appearance. Its original roof would probably have been tiered like Candi Arjuna. While you are inside the temple, it is also worth checking out the step-corbelled ceiling, which is another common feature of the Dieng temples.

The front view of Candi Gatotkaca, the traces of other structures in the foreground

Apart from this, there are a couple of other facts about Candi Gatotkaca which might enhance its interest for the visitor. Firstly, it is usually classified as one of the oldest temples in all of Java. For instance, in a recent book by Samba Ditta and David Beynon, they suggested a dating for the temple of somewhere between 650 and 750 AD. This makes it one of the oldest Hindu temples in all of Java, dating from the original penetration of the religion into the island. At this point, the architecture of the Javanese temple was still in its infancy and the shrines were comparatively simple compared to the later glories of the Mataram kingdom.

A second point which is worth knowing is there were once two complexes of ancient temples in the vicinity of Candi Gatotkaca. Today, the Arjuna Complex is in reasonably good repair and has been a well-known sight since the days of the Dutch East Indies. Yet right alongside there was another complex, which included six temples. However, until about a decade ago Candi Gatotkaca was the only one of these temples which amounted to more than a pile of rubble. At that time, Candi Setyaki was reconstructed, becoming the second of this second group to re-emerge in something approaching its original form. In the coming years the other four temples- Candi Nakula, Candi Sadewa, Candi Petruk and Candi Gareng- might also see the attentions of restorers. Until then, they will remain piles of bricks in the Dieng mist.

The temple is set in a sunken garden, with a lush hillside in the background

Candi Setyaki: Kalas and Makharas

This is the first of a trio of posts which will focus on lesser-known temples of the Dieng Plateau: Candi Setyaki, Candi Gatotkaca and Candi Bima. Located on the edge of the main Arjuna Complex, Candi Setyaki includes many of the same motifs and architectural features of its nearby cousins. However, with its wealth of stone-carving motifs, Setyaki is a particularly appealing example and is surely worth making the short detour to see.

Like most of the Dieng temples, Candi Setyaki was probably built during either the 8th or 9th centuries, making it one of the oldest Hindu shrines in the Indonesian archipelago. Like most of the Dieng temples, Setyaki is small and box-like compared to those on the Prambanan Plain, but things become more interesting once you start paying attention to small sculptural details. For instance, Setyaki has a frieze of unusual figures around the base, some of which are still crisply carved. The frieze features a woman in a squatting position who is dangling a pair of bells from thick chains. Her weighty ear-rings and necklace suggests she is of high birth.

An unusual motif from the base of Candi Setyaki

Less unusual but also beautifully rendered are the kala-makhara arches which can be found over the main entrance and also the niches on the body of the temple. The kalas at Dieng are mostly jawless, featuring only the upper row of teeth. They are also noteworthy for their giant, bulging eyes which evoke the demonic nature of these beings. The example shown below is surrounded by a rich background of swirling foliage which gives a more abstract effect. Unfortunately, the statuary which would once have filled the niche has long since been lost.

A kala head can be seen over a niche in the body of the temple

Another kind of monster which is encountered at Candi Setyaki is the makhara, a kind of stylized sea-monster which is often found in the company of kalas. There is a particularly good example at Candi Setyaki, which is set at the base of the main entrance. It would originally have been one of a pair but its right-hand side counterpart is now missing. Nevertheless, its graceful shape and gaping mouth, which contains a smaller, lion-like monster, make it a memorable piece of statuary.

The stone makhara on the steps of the Hindu shrine

Candi Setyaki is not a complete structure. The roof of the temple is missing. However, there are still hundreds of unplaced stones which are being stored in the immediate vicinity, so further restorations seem possible. It is also clear that Setyaki also had several candi perwara or satellite temples. The base of one of these is in reasonable condition but the rest are completely ruinous. In terms of the main temple, it is estimated that 70% of the stones are original and the rest are modern replacements. Due to its sculptural detail, it is worth seeing even in its partially ruined state.

The main entrance of the temple is framed by a kala-makhara arch

The Lost Kingdom of Sankhapura

While the great kingdoms of ancient South-East Asia from Angkor to Bagan have been the focus of an ever increasing number of books and studies in recent years, there are still many smaller polities which remain little more than footnotes in the history of the region. One of the most elusive of these kingdoms is Sankhapura; its historical record consists of a single inscription. However, there is also an intriguing archaeological record of a localized kingdom along the lowermost reaches of the Chi River, which offers an independent testimony to its existence.

During the 1980s, an ancient inscription was found at Wat Ban Song Puay, a village wat in the province of Yasothon. It records the existence of a King Paravarasena who ruled from his capital of Sankhapura. Based on stylistic evidence, the inscription comes from either the 7th or 8th century, making Sankhapura one of the earliest recorded kingdoms of Isaan. This dating means that it was probably a small regional polity which was nominally under the control of the Khmer kingdom of Chenla. Perhaps its autonomy was lost altogether when the expansionist kingdom of Angkor began to exercise more direct control over Isaan in the tenth century. 

With only a single inscription to go by, the historical sources are of limited illumination. There it is useful to look at the archaeological record. As soon as you do so, it becomes clear that Yasothon is more interesting historically than it is usually given credit for. A mere kilometer south of Ban Song Puay, the village where the Paravarasena inscription was found, is the archaeological site of Dong Muay Toey. Though its surviving vestiges are modest, consisting mostly of the foundations of stone buildings, they do attest to the existence of a political centre in the region during the 8th century. It has been assumed that this was once the centre of the small kingdom of Sankhapura.

This fine example of a Lower Chi River bai sema can be viewed in Ubon Ratchatani

Perhaps even more intriguing are the numerous sites around the province which have turned up bai sema, a form of boundary marker, which have a design unique to this region. They show a stupa-khumba motif, which incorporate a water pot and a Buddhist stupa, often topped by an elaborate finial. The leading expert on these stones, Stephen Murphy, has published an extensive study of about their iconography and distribution. He has found that the stones are very homogeneous and suggests that they may all have been the product of a couple of workshops. Perhaps these workshops received the patronage of the local rulers in Paravarasena’s line. It is very tempting to think that they represent a unique cultural product of a localized kingdom. Perhaps their distribution throughout Yasothon and Amnat Charoen provinces in Thailand is linked to their territory of the former polity of Sankhapura. 

Ho Trai in Isaan

To get the most out of a visit to a Thai wat, it is useful to know the names of the basic temple buildings and their functions. While most well-known temples are famous for their vihaans, ubosots or chedis, this list by no means  exhausts the range of structures which you can find at a Thai temple. One of the lesser-celebrated examples of Thai religious architecture is the ho trai or Buddhist scripture library. In two recent posts, I have highlighted some fine examples from Northern Thailand: two in Chiang Mai and two in nearby Lamphun. However, this kind of building is by no means limited to the North. In our travels around Thailand’s arid Northeast (often known as ‘Isaan’), we encountered two very beautiful examples as well. One in Ubon Ratchathani is quite well-known. But the second example in Yasothon remains seldom visited by tourists. There are doubtless many other fine examples which await the adventurous traveller.

The town of Ubon Ratchathani is a regional centre with most amenities but it is seldom viewed as a tourist destination in its own right. Nevertheless, there are a few sights in the city and its environs, with a wooden ho trai being one of the most compelling. This old scripture library can be found on the grounds of Wat Thung Si Muang about half a kilometre from the Mun River near the centre of town. It is undoubtedly one of the architectural treasures of Isaan.

The ho trai is said to be a mixture of the Laotian, Burmese and Thai architectural traditions, which is perhaps part of why it has such an unusual look. Dating from the 1820s, it is perched elegantly on wooden stilts above a rectangular lotus-pond. While the pond has undoubted aesthetic appeal, its primary function was to deter termites and other vermin from climbing into the library and nibbling away at precious manuscripts. Accessed by a wooden bridge, the library itself is a masterpiece of wooden construction. Perhaps its greatest feature is its elaborate six-tiered roof, which is said to be Burmese in inspiration. Also of note is the exquisite floral woodcarving on the outer walls and the naga-shaped eave brackets which decorate the exterior.

For visitors to Lower Isaan, another example of a fine ho trai can be found in nearby Yasothon province. Yasothon is a rarely visited province, even by Isaan standards, and you could easily visit this part of the country without seeing another foreigner. However, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see. One of its minor gems is the ho trai on the grounds of Wat Sra Trinurak, about twenty-five kilometres from the provincial capital. Dating back over a century, it is a fine example of Burmese-style architecture. This ten-metre high structure has a four-tiered roof, an intricately carved front door and an unusual porch, partially enclosed by wooden slats. It was registered as a national monument in 1990 and thoroughly restored.


Ho Trai in Lamphun

One of the lesser-sung buildings in the tradition of religious architecture in Thailand is the ho trai or Buddhist scripture library. The best place to see one on a trip to the ancient town of Lamphun is undoubtedly at Phra That Hariphunchai, which is the premier temple in town. There is much to enjoy at the wat including some extremely rare chedis from the Haripunchai kingdom, but it also worth sparing some attention for its library. This one is very much in the Lanna architectural tradition, bearing a close resemblance to the famous cousin at Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai.

The ho trai of Wat Phrathat Haripunchai

It rests on a tall and narrow three-metre high stone base, which is painted barn-red.  This height would have not only have protected it from flooding but also the predations of insects. It is also notable for its naga guardians perched at the top of the slender staircase. The upper portion of the library is an elegantly proportioned teak structure with elaborate woodcarving and the Thai roof ornaments known as chafoh. The ones on the ho trai are of the garuda-shaped variety. Even in a temple overflowing with venerable structures, this one is an eye-catching beauty, an excellent example of old Lanna charm.

The gables of the ho trai at Wat Mahawan Woramahwihan

By way of contrast, it is worth comparing the solid, stone-based ho trai at Wat Phra That Haripunchai with the one at nearby Wat Mahawan Woramahawihan. Dating from the 1940s, it is not of any great antiquity but it is an attractive example of a rustic, wooden scripture library. It is a two-storey structure with timber balustrades, a multi-tiered roof and elaborate wood-carving on its gables. The wooden panels over the windows are elaborately carved dharmacakras and attendant deers, a reference to the episode of the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath. Overall, the structure has of a more humble, village-styled feel than its counterpart at Wat Phrathat Haripunchai. It is surrounded by a wooden belltower and a small shrine, which appear to be of a similar vintage. It is a good example of a more vernacular style of ho trai.

Ho Trai in Chiang Mai

The ho trai is the library of a Buddhist scripture library in Thailand. It is always included as part of a larger ensemble of buildings in a Buddhist monastery. Its primary function is to store the sacred books or palm-leaf manuscripts of the monastery. In the past, they were often built on stilts above ponds, as this would help to protect the manuscripts from rats, insects and other vermin.

In Northern Thailand- the territory of the former kingdom of Lanna- ho trai on stilts are less common than they seem to be in Central Thailand. Here the most common form of ho trai is a narrow two-storey structure with a brick and mortar base and a wooden superstructure. While they are rarely the focus of much attention in travel writing, some of them are aesthetically impressive buildings which a history or architecture buff might get some enjoyment from. On a recent trip to Chiang Mai and Lamphun, we encountered a number of historic ho trai. This article will cover a couple of notable examples from Chiang Mai and a later article will focus on the examples we encountered in Lamphun, just to the south.

The rear view of the ho trai at Wat Phra Singh

If you were only going to see one ho trai on a trip to Northern Thailand, the obvious choice would be the one on the grounds of Wat Phra Singh. A fine example of Lanna architecture, the library dates back to the fourteenth century, making it one of the oldest monuments in Chiang Mai. It is built on a high stone base, which would have put its sacred manuscripts safe above the periodic flooding of the Ping River. Apart from its functionality, the base of the monument is a thing of considerable beauty, with beautiful, stucco figurines of devata, a kind of heavenly being. The devata on this ho trai are female, with elegant proportions and the elaborate head-dresses and garments associated with royalty. The ones on the corner of the base are performing the wai, the prayer-like Thai greeting, which is performed with palms pressed together. The base is also noteworthy for its long, narrow staircase which is flanked by a pair of guardian figures. The upper story is made from timber, with a multi-tiered, Lanna-style roof. This upper section is decorated with glass mosaics and gold lacquerwork, which greatly adds to its charm.

The front of the ho trai at Wat Chiang Man

For a point of contrast, you could also check out the simpler ho trai on the grounds of Wat Chiang Man, which is sometimes referred to as Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. This ho trai is set over a pond, which would help to deter termites and other unwanted pests. The wooden structure reflects in the waters of the pond below, not only protecting its treasures but enhancing the aesthetics of the scene. The structure itself has a simple fretwork balcony but a subdued elegance is achieved through the foliate gold lacquerwork which adorns the front of the building. The roof, in the Lanna style, features steeply upturned chofah decorations. It appears this structure is much more recent than the one at Wat Phra Singh, but it still offers a modicum of old Lanna charm.