Indonesia, Buddhist Art in

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The oldest Buddhist objects in Indonesia date from around the seventh century c.e. The major early focus of Buddhist activity in the archipelago lay in southeast Sumatra, where the kingdom of Śrīvijaya was centered. By the late seventh century this kingdom had attained an important position in conducting trade between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Yijing (635–713), who traveled to India in ships belonging to the ruler of this kingdom in 672 c.e., described Buddhism as flourishing in Śrīvijaya's capital, with a large monastery where he learned Sanskrit.

A large granite standing Buddha image has been found at Seguntang Hill, on the fringe of the city. Such stylistic elements as emphasis on the folds of his robe are reminiscent of art from the Amaravat area in India, but it is more likely that the earliest Indonesian Buddhist art was influenced by Sri Lanka, where this style lasted longer than in southern India. Two other important bronze Buddha images found much farther east, at Sikendeng on Sulawesi and Kota Bangun on east Borneo, share these same features. They date from approximately the same period and demonstrate the extent to which Buddhism had already spread. Bronze images from the eighth century indicate that Buddhism made its presence felt as far east as Lombok during this period.

The corpus of art directly associated with Sumatra during this period is scanty, but combined with statuary found in politically and culturally allied areas of the Malay Peninsula around the Isthmus of Kra and Kedah, images of Avalokiteśvara enable us to draw the inference that a generalized cult of this bodhisattva was common in this region. A bronze of the bodhisattva Tārā and an Avalokiteśvara presumably from this period have also been found in Lombok.

By the late eighth century, MahĀyĀna Buddhist imagery also began to appear in central Java. Between about 780 and 850 c.e., this region produced unsurpassed works of sculpture and architecture. Some images bear indications of continued connections with centers of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and south India, such as Negapatam, while by the late ninth century connections with the monastery at Nālandā in what is now Bangladesh are also visible.

Among the important complexes of Buddhist architecture constructed in central Java, the best known is the great site of Borobudur. Few free-standing stŪpa were built; instead most Javanese structures consisted of temples with chambers for statuary. The main image at Kalasan, erected around 780 c.e., was a large Tārā (now lost). Around 800 c.e. a major revolution in Javanese Buddhism marked by intense interest in maṆḌalas resulted in the reconstruction of all major sites. At Sewu, an earlier complex was altered to create a cruciform building with enclosed circumambulation pathway. A group of over two hundred stone structures formed a huge three-dimensional maṇṇala. Major deities worshipped there may have included the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī and the buddha Vairocana.

At Plaosan Lor, several types of structures were built in the early ninth century c.e. The two principal remaining buildings consist of approximately identical two-storied edifices with rectangular floor plans, each divided into three rooms. Against the east wall of each edifice, facing west, was a low stone bench upon which nine images were placed, three in each cella. The central images, probably of bronze, have all disappeared. They were flanked by other figures of stone that still remain. Among the bodhisattvas tentatively identified are Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, Maitreya, and Kṣitigarbha.

Mañjuśrī was an important figure in the Javanese Buddhist pantheon. Among the most beautiful surviving images is a silver Mañjuśrī from the village of Ngemplak. Another popular subject was Jambhala, god of wealth. Other important artistic expressions from this culture include vajra (thunderbolts) and ghaṇṭā (bells), sometimes combined into a single object. These may have been associated with the cult of Mahavairocana Sarvavid, who became important around the second half of the ninth century.

Central Javanese civilization suffered a catastrophic decline in the early tenth century. What caused the decline is not clear, but complex art was no longer produced there. It took more than three hundred years before a new wave of Buddhist art arose in Java, by which time the center of activity had shifted toward the east.

During this gap in the Javanese record, the Sumatran kingdom of Śrśvijaya also came to an end. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, two other important complexes of Buddhist art arose on that island. One complex, at an isolated hinterland site known as Muara Takus, consists mainly of a stupa of unusual elongated shape, made of brick, together with several other foundations of now-ruined structures. No statuary has been reported from Muara Takus, but pieces of inscribed gold foil attest to the site's esoteric affiliation.

The other important site, Padang Lawas, in the hinterland of North Sumatra, consists of numerous brick complexes scattered over a wide area. Statuary and inscriptions from Padang Lawas indicate affinities with KĀlacakra Buddhism: a shattered Heruka image and inscriptions describing the ecstasy of the initiates occasioned by the aroma of burning corpses, and the demonic laughter that they are inspired to emit.

Buddhism continued to be practiced in Sumatra into the fourteenth century. A huge Bhairava image over four meters tall, found at Padang Reco in West Sumatra, depicts an initiate with sacrificial skull bowl and knife, standing on a corpse resting on a pile of skulls.

A major Buddhist center named Jago was erected around 1280 c.e. in an east Javanese kingdom named Singasari. The walls of the sanctuary base were embellished with reliefs of mixed Hindu and Buddhist character. Its interior was equipped with an elaborate system for lustrating statues. These include some of the most beautiful images ever created in Java, including a beautiful Sudanakumāra and an impressively ugly Hayagr va. The main statue was probably an Amoghapaśa, of which several copies were made. One of these copies was found in Sumatra, probably sent there as a token of Singasari's conquest of Malayu, the Sumatran successor to Śrīvijaya.

Another triumph of Javanese Buddhist art was created either in the last years of Singasari, or in the early phase of its successor kingdom, Majapahit. This image, of Prajñāpāramitā, was found at the site of Singasari's capital. Similar statues were also carved around the same time, one of which was also found at Malayu's capital, Muara Jambi. Inscriptions show that a Majapahit queen personally identified with this deity.

See also:Cave Sanctuaries; Folk Religion, Southeast Asia; Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula; Monastic Architecture; Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in


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John N. Miksic