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School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University, 2014/2015 Semester 1

DD2000 Introduction to the Histories of Art III

Lecturer: T. K. Sabapathy
Teaching Assistant: Adeleine Daysor

Lecture 3
Imprints of the Buddha and the domains of Buddhism.
I. Temples, icons and narratives in Indonesia.
II. Approaches to Borobudur
T.K. Sabapathy and School of Art, Design and Media, NTU

A Introduction

Some writers suggest that imprints of the Buddha in communities in Southeast

Asia emerged as early as those in India: i.e, approximately in the 3 rd century BC.
However, material remains and data do not substantiate such views which are, therefore,
hypothetical. Evidence dated to the 4th and 5th centuries AD marks the earliest imprints.
Of course such dates do not signal beginnings but the earliest times when we can deal
with tangible resources that are distinctly Buddhist. In this regard we may not be able to
say precisely when/where the beginnings are. Still, by about the 6 th century AD, imprints
of the Buddha appear as consolidated and domains of Buddhism are discernible.

Our study of Buddhist art deals with architecture, painting and sculpture; these
feature (a) buildings for the veneration of the Buddha and related beings, as well as for
the practice and learning of his teaching (b) sculptural and pictorial representations of
the Buddha and related manifestations and (c) objects for the performance of Buddhist
rituals. We have encountered such categories of representations in the first semester
when studying cultures of China, India and Japan; it is important to recall them.

Our study is largely based on country profiles. Even so, we are interested in
developing regionalist perspectives so that countries are linked with one another to form
domains in which Buddhist teaching, concepts and practices, commodities and peoples
circulate, are transmitted and intervene. Even as we are involved in country profiles we
remember that country designations that are used today spring from the 20 th century and
are recent.

For instance, we commence with Indonesia which, in the 5th-15 th centuries AD

(the span of historical time that concerns us) was not known as such. In these centuries
there were a number of ruling families or dynasties, wielding political power, namely: Sri
Vijaya, Shailendra, Singasari, Majapahit and so on. These were kingdoms situated in
present day Sumatra and Java, extending their territorial and political control to other
islands and on to the Malay peninsular. They were patrons of Buddhism (Hinduism and
other belief systems). They facilitated, promoted and provided extensive resources for
the practice and learning of Buddhism. So much so their patronage secured for
Buddhism dynamic centres and renowned bases, centres and bases that were
recognized internationally. In this regard, Southeast Asia was formative in global
Buddhism, significantly shaping its historical development.

Visual representations in Indonesia demonstrate knowledge, command and use

of a wide range of Buddhist imagery. Technically the designers and makers of images
had mastery over stone, clay and metals (and wood, of which virtually nothing survives).
Technical capacity and facility with materials point to possible links with megalithic and
metal cultures that existed earlier and concurrently with new patronage and functions.

We recall the debate that we set up between Rawson and Kerlogue in which the
latter underlines the importance of the local as a primary or foundational base. Roxas-
Lim (in Southeast Asian art and cultures: ideas, forms and societies) draws attention to
the native traditions as forming a base for cultural/artistic formation. The outcomes are
special. She describes them as follows:

The region nurtures a tendency toward cultural accretion, eclecticism, and

syncretism. Addition rather than subtraction is characteristic of cultural

New artistic ideas and practices are accommodated and are used to widen the
scope and range of native traditions. The outcome naturally creates something
new and unique. (pp 17-18)

There are many things in here that need to be looked at closely, untangled and
discussed. We could receive Roxas-Lims remarks as generalizations that spur and
direct our thinking on framing or seeing Southeast Asia as artistically distinct. How may
we do this? Is it important to do so? And so on. These questions point to continuing

Among the most extensive, complex and compelling representations is

Borobudur, which was built in the 9th century AD. Although Borobudur is among the most
renown Buddhist monument in Indonesia and in the world, it is by no means the only
one. Near it or on the way towards visiting it are two built forms, namely: Chandi Mendut
and Chandi Pawon. In seeing them we encounter what remains today.

Chandi Mendut has been restored partially; we are not certain how it might have
been designed and constructed originally; hence the roof as it appears today is
hypothetical. In this chandi are three colossal images consisting of the Buddha who is
flanked by two bodhisattvas, one on each side of him. The ensemble is one of the most
monumental representations of the Buddhist universe. The Buddha marks the centre;
the bodhisattvas signal the spread or out-reach of the teachings of the Buddha (the
dharma). The images demonstrate capacities of sculptors in Java to deal with material
(stone), scale (monumental) and symbolism (representations of the Buddha and
bodhisattvas) with immense, consistent ability, subtlety and imagination. These are
among the great stone sculptures in the art of the world.

Chandi Pawon is without any sculptural images in the interior; they have not
survived. In the interiors of this chandi and in Mendut we see niches set into the walls;
these were intended for sculptural images which are now missing. The exterior walls of
these chandis bear intricate imagery, carved in relief.

There also are images that remain today as isolated and unrelated; we do not
know how they were used and where they might have been placed or situated. Even so,
we are able to appraise the technical competence required for shaping a variety of
material, and mastery developed for transforming materials into significant forms. We
may also apprehend the creative integrity for composing forms and the conceptual scope
for representing intricate schemes involving multiple images. In seeing these
relationships we enter into complex, interweaving patterns of symbolic projections and
significance. In interpreting these aspects, we develop some understanding of the
reception of imagery; that is to say, we begin to consider its use and ways it might have
been seen, even venerated.

Sculptural representations in stone and metal depict forms as icons and as

narratives. Representations of Buddha icons are abundant. Many are presented iN
postures and with mudras that are familiar. There also are images whose gestures and
appearance are distinct; they do not exactly match imagery in India, in which case they
have moved away from Indian imagery that is held up as models or prototypes. The
relationship between Indonesian art (and, for that matter, of Southeast Asia as a region)
and the art of India has been at the heart of art historical studies in the region; it
continues to be of considerable interest until the present.

The Sarnath-Gupta image of the Buddha, for example, may be forwarded as a

model transferred from India to Southeast Asia; a model that is is appealing and deeply
absorbing. Appealing because it presents a satisfyingly wrought icon; it is an ideal and
an idealization that represents the Buddha as a transcendent representation, available
for visual apprehension and veneration. It is refined; it is other-worldly; it emits a
numinous presence. The Sarnath-Gupta image is not merely copied; it is absorbed,
transformed; it gives rise to comparable images in various parts in Southeast Asia. In
these ways new ideals are developed and consolidated; these, in turn, generate other
streams of images. Our study is spurred by thoughts and approaches along these lines.

Narrative representations are extensive and everywhere. The interest in and

preoccupation with pictorial narrative in Southeast Asia is unmatched. Narrative is an
active, dynamic manifestation of human-divine relationships. Pictorial narrative consists
of bodies in action and as relating to other bodies in space and time. Space, time and
bodies are rendered palpably and vividly. Narrative is a significant mode for representing
intricate kinships between domains that make up the universe, for Southeast Asians.
Designers of temples set aside extensive spatial and symbolic provisions for the display
and representation of narrative.

B Designations and glossary of terms in Buddhism and as they relate to

representations in art

There are many. The two dictionaries recommended for reading are useful. Here
we highlight a handful.

Theravada: way of the elders. In Buddhism it is believed to retain ideas closest to the
teaching of the historical Buddha. It emphasizes monastic life, the importance of texts
and of meditation. In Theravada, the Buddha is regarded as an exemplary teacher and
human being; he is not conceived as a supernatural being, not as a deity. In the
Theravada system, images of the Buddha serve as reminders of the teacher and of his
teaching. But over time and with evolving custom/ritual, the image is worshipped.
Theravada is also referred to as Hinayana (disparagingly) and as making up the lesser
vehicle. Today, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia adhere to Theravada Buddhism.

Mahayana: the great vehicle. It is the dominant Buddhist faith/practice in northern Asia,
ancient Indonesia and Cambodia. The Buddha becomes the focus of a magico-religious
system; he radiates omniscient, transcendent powers. The Buddha is accompanied and
surrounded by heavenly, divine beings. The Mahayana practice is renowned for the
representation of the bodhisattva who acts as an intermediary between the Buddha and
devotees. A bodhisattva may assume near-autonomous following; the most enduring
example of such a bodhisattva is Avalokiteshvara (also called Padmapani,
Lokeshavara), or Guanyin in China and Kannon in Japan.

Mandala: circle; map of the cosmos in its process of emanation and re-absorption; a
support for meditation; a geometric projection of the world; ideal city plan, temple plan
pivoting around Mount Meru.

Prajnaparamita: bodhisattva, goddess of transcendent wisdom.

Tara: goddess in Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism.

Shakti: the divine female; female principle of energy.

Tantra: doctrine or rule or theory related to esoteric practices aimed at synthesizing spirit
and matter in Buddhism and Hinduism. Tantrism refers to ritualistic practices, frequently
invoking and involving male/female union.

The following terms appear frequently in discussions of Buddhist art. Familiarize yourself
with them and use them.

Bodhi tree : name given to the tree under which the historic Buddha meditated and
attained enlightenment; sited in Bodh Gaya

Bodhisattva : a being destined to attain Buddhahood but who delays that final
destination in order to help others in their quest for enlightenment;
prominent in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Avalokiteshvara
(alsocalled Padmapani; in China named as Guanyin and as Kannon
inJapan) is among the most popular and revered of the bodhisattvas

Lakshana : auspicious marks of the body of the Buddha; according to tradition

there are thirty-two (32) such marks; among the more frequently
depicted are: the usnisha (the swelling on the top of the head), the urna
(the tuft of hair or raised dot on the forehead between the eyes), the
elongated earlobes, wheels inscribed on the palms of the hands and
soles of the feet

Mudra : hand gestures conveying symbolic meaning; this term may be used to
encompass the disposition and posture of the entire body

Nirvana : beyond existence, form and definition; ultimate goal of the life and
teaching of Buddha

Parinirvana : the final or ultimate release from existence; usually signaling the death
of the

Stupa : a dome shaped mound for containing relics of the Buddha and of those
who are venerated in Buddhism

II Approaches to Borobudur

Borobudur is one of the most impressive monuments ever created by man. It is both a
temple and a complete ex-position of doctrine, designed as a whole, and completed as
designed, with only one major afterthought. It seems to have provided a pattern for the
temple-mountains of Angkor, and it must have been in its own day one of the wonders of
the Asiatic world.
(Rawson, P., The Art of Southeast Asia, p 227)

Constructed over the peak of a natural hill, Borobudur appears like a stone mountain, its
stepped platforms crowned with a bell-shaped stupa. The word stupa originally referred to
the mound that covered a relic or ashes of the Buddha, but later came to denote the
monument built above relics of a religious person. It is not clear whether Borobudur served
such a function. It is not a temple, since it does not have an image of a god to be
worshipped or appeased by the donation of offerings. Borobudur does, however, represent
the Buddha and his teachings, and was clearly intended to be experienced by
(Kerlogue, F., The Arts of Southeast Asia, p 101)

A Introduction

Borobudur has been acclaimed by many and frequently. Rawsons and Kerlogues
perspectives are useful reminders. When we refer to them, we maintain contact with
their texts as touchstones for developing our studies in this module.

There are significant differences as well as convergences in what they say.

Rawson confidently identifies Borobudur as a temple; Kerlogue denies such a
description and provides a valid reason. A temple is constructed to secure a sacred
space/place for housing a representation of a deity, to whom prayer, devotion and sacred
gifts are offered; and from whom blessedness is received, granted or requested. A
temple has an interior space in which an image of a deity resides, and in which devotees
gather to pray and establish contact with a deity. There is no architectural, material and
ritualistic evidence, along these lines, to say that Borobudur is a temple. This aspect is

Rawson and Kerlogue emphasize that Borobudur is a representation of Buddhist

concepts and world-views. Rawson says it is a complete exposition of [Buddhist]
doctrine; in other words, it firmly demonstrates Buddhist systems of belief and practice.
Kerlogue says that however else one might interpret Borobudur, it undoubtedly
represents the Buddha and his teachings. They agree on this matter. And no one
denies this; the literature on Borobudur, which is extensive, is largely devoted to
describing, analyzing and interpreting it in the light of Buddhism; there also is general
agreement that the design and appearance of this monument are unique and

There is one other matter on which Kerlogue and Rawson meet in agreement.
The former sees it like a stone mountain; the latter perceives it as a pattern for the
temple-mountains. Rawson pushes his analogy outwards and suggests that Borobudur
could be conceived as a model for the design and construction of temples in Angkor
(Cambodia). This is interesting as it points to historical and artistic connections between
peoples within the region of Southeast Asia. That is to say, those living within the region
were aware of what was produced by other peoples within the region, and eagerly
adopted and interpreted such productions for their particular interests and purposes. In
signaling there are interconnections within the region, Rawson appears to modify an
opinion he expressed at the very beginning of his study, in which he declared that the
peoples of Southeast Asia owed their culture and civilization to India. The situation is
more complicated than this!

B Design/Mandala

Writers on Borobudur have analyzed its design and geometry, described and
interpreted its sculptural representations, speculated on its use and symbolic destination.
These studies indicate that Borobudur is complex; it has multiple layers of meaning and
its significance is related to a number of overlapping concepts, rather than a single,
dominant concept. We will touch upon some of these; our approach will deal with its (a)
design (b) analogy with a mountain and (c) destination for enlightenment.

Borobudur is made up of terraces stacked one on top of another; they diminish in

size proportionately, giving the effect of levels that become smaller as they ascend.
Staircases are inserted in all four cardinal directions, giving access to the very top.

Terraces are designed as square and circular platforms. The lower terraces are
square and there are five; those at the top are circular and there are three. We
encounter two geometries, two ordering systems, overlain one on the other, namely: the
square and the circle. In its plan we see a square surmounted by a circle. We enter into
Borobudur and experience an arrangement that is dominantly square; when we leave
this sphere we enter into a circular arrangement. The square gives way to a circle,

The arrangement corresponds with ways in which the universe is pictured. Circles
and squares (and triangles) are foundational components for representing the universe
diagrammatically. Such diagrams are known as mandalas. They serve as stimuli and
focal entities for meditation and to enable integrating human thought and existence. In
this sense, Borobudur is perceived and possibly used as a mandala.

C Analogy with a Mountain

Borobudur appears like a mountain; in entering and walking through it, we feel as
though we are climbing a mountain. Rawson and Kerlogue draw attention to this. Its
design consolidates this impact; it is experienced similarly to ascending a mountain.
Mountains are climbed along hewn pathways. Borobudur is entered along carefully
planned passageways. The square platforms are for walking continuously in a linear
direction. The passageways on these platforms are lined with sculptures carved in relief
and set in panels, as well as with sculptures carved in the round. In both these
categories of carving, images of the Buddha are featured prominently; there also are
representations of those seeking to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha. There are
images seen as icons and there are narrative depictions.

When walking along these passageways, one is completely surrounded by

sculpture; one is completely immersed into representations showing events and lives of
the Buddha, and those seeking enlightenment. The movement along these
passageways is gradual, attentive and immersive; the sculptures guide our movement.
When we leave the square platforms and enter the circular sphere, we leave a crowded,
active world and enter a world that appears to be free from images; they are there, but
they are not easily visible. What is more, it is no longer necessary that we see the
images! We have moved from the sphere of form to the sphere of the form-less. This is a
significant move.

At the very top of Borobudur is a stupa, marking the summit of the entire
arrangement. In perceiving it as a summit, we immediately think of a mountain. This is
not accidental but intended. Mountains are featured in many cultures, symbolizing
powerful and potent concepts; they appear in Buddhism as well. The dominant mountain
is called Meru (a.k.a. Mt. M/eru). It marks the centre of the Buddhist cosmos; it is
conceived as an axis connecting the terrestrial with the subterranean and heavenly
realms. Buddhist deities are said to reside on mountain paradises.

Borobudur is a realization of such a mountain. As we walk in it, we traverse

grounds of earthly living (basement platform), then ascend onto the sphere of exalted
form (upper square platforms) and finally emerge into transcendent realms of space and
time (circular platforms). The summit is the destination of this journey.

D Destination for Enlightenment/the Stupa

A stupa marks the summit; it consolidates the destination of Borobudur. There are
numerous stupas represented all over the monument; but the stupa at the very top is the
largest and the most prominent. It commands over the entire arrangement.

At its inception, the stupa was a form that contained within it the remains of the
historic Buddha, symbolizing his nirvana and the realization of nirvana as the destination
of Buddhas teachings. Its use expanded to contain remains of those venerated for
transmitting the teaching of the Buddha (the dharma). Stupas also commemorate sacred
places in the Buddhist world. Although there are variations, its primary function and
meaning is to do with enlightenment or nirvana with signaling the death of the Buddha
and as a goal for all. The stupa on the summit of Borobudur marks precisely such a
destination for those who walk around it, and crystallizes the significance of following
that way enlightenment and nirvana. In this way, all of Borobudur symbolizes a stupa.

E Afterthoughts

John Miksic, in his study of Borobudur, reviews prevailing interpretations,

comments on their usefulness and then offers perspectives that embrace the manifold
dimensions of the monument. Here is a remark that consolidates aspects that we have
highlighted above, thoughtfully and discreetly.

What is clear is that Borobudurs architectural form had multiple associations for the
ancient Javanese, and that it would be impossible to completely disentangle them.
Borobudurs design cannot be reduced to a single element; rather it combines three
principal motifs: mountain, stupa and mandala. Although each has unique connotations,
their symbolism overlapped. Borobudurs designers succeeded brilliantly in linking the
three to create an integrated, coherent monument.
(Miksic, J., Borobudur. Golden Tales of the Buddhas, p 45.)

F Recommended Readings

Chaturachinda,G. et al., Dictionary of South & Southeast Asian Art, Silkworm Books, Bangkok,
2004. N7300.C495.

Frederic,L., The Art of Southeast Asia. Temples and Sculpture, Harry N Abrams, New York,
undated. NA5960.L888.

Kerlogue,F., Arts of Southeast Asia, Thames & Hudson, 2004. NK1052.K39.

Maud Girard-Geslan, Marijke J. Klokke, et al., Art of Southeast Asia, Harry N. Abrams, New York,
1997. N731.A784. pp 335-417.

McArthur, M., Reading Buddhist Art. An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs & Symbols, Thames
& Hudson, 2002. N8193.M16.

Miksic,J., Borobudur. Golden Tales of the Buddhas, Periplus Editions, 1990. NA6026.6Jav.Mi.

Rawson, P., The Art of Southeast Asia, Thames & Hudson, 1967. NB5877.R262.

Roxas-Lim, Aurora, Southeast Asia art and cultures: ideas, forms and societies, Association of
Southeast Asian Nations, Committee on Culture & Information, 2005. N7311.l56

21 August 2014