Journeys into Hindu-Buddhist Temple Art in Southeast Asia

Diffusion, Legitimation, and Domination

Amitav Acharya

Monumental Splendours is a series of photo blogs about Hindu-Buddhist temple art in Southeast Asia. These blogs record personal journeys into selected sites in Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma.

The primary purpose of these journeys is to enjoy and revel in the magnificent Hindu-Buddhist temples and their ruins in Southeast Asia. The selection of the sites is a highly personal choice; it’s not meant to convey any ordering of the temple art in terms of their relative historical or cultural importance.

Monumental Splendours examines three main effects of Indian religious-political ideas and art forms (broadly defined) transmitted to Southeast Asia which helped to define the classical geopolitics of the region. The “diffusion” effect has to be understood in terms of "localisation", a concept proposed by Wolters, and "local genius", proposed by Quaritch Wales. The "legitimation" effect builds on van Leur's "idea of the local initiative" which stresses the functions of Indian religious ideas in legitimizing Southeast Asian kingship and statehood. Champa provides good examples of the legitimation effect involving royal lingas. A more uncertain effect of Indian ideas and art forms is “domination”. That Indian art forms and ideas were brought to Southeast Asia by peaceful means is not doubted, and there is considerable evidence to support the thesis that the internal legitimation of rulers might have been their major effect. But did they also fuel the expansionist ambition of Southeast Asian rulers, as represented in the "chakravartin" concept, through warfare? What role did the transmitted Indian ideas and art forms play in creating the “moral order of the mandalas”, in which the ritualistic, symbolic and transient forms of warfare were supposed to have been more important that “conquest” and colonisation?

Almost all of these blogs are written on-site, based on first-hand observations and impressions of the monuments. These impressions are supplemented by background readings from specialists, but also by drawing on the publications of the temple sites and museums around the world housing their artefacts.

Monumental Splendours is meant for the traveller with a passion for Southeast Asia’s past. The author counts himself as one, having lived in the region for nearly 12 years and having been a frequent traveller in the region for the past 20. But these blogs are not a conventional travel guide. They explore a specific angle: the relationship between art and living with a heavy emphasis on politics, including domestic rule and foreign relations of classical Southeast Asian states. As such, they provide a new window on Southeast Asian magnificent temple heritage. Above all, they are meant to inspire fellow travellers to do their own travel blogs and thereby promote further awareness and understanding of Southeast Asia’s monumental splendours.

Borobudur - Buddhist Heaven

Borobudur - Buddhist Heaven

(More photos on Borobudur later in this page)

Built by the Sailendra dynasty in central Java over a period of 80 years in the 9th century AD, Borobudur was "built to resemble a microcosm of the universe and its purpose was to provide a visual image of the teachings of the Buddha and show, in a practical manner, the steps through life that each person must follow to achieve enlightenment. The pilgrim to this shrine would first have been led around the base and shown the friezes, which illustrate the consequences of living in the World of Desire. In this realm ruled by Greed, Envy, and Ignorance, man is a slave to earthly desires and suffers from the illusions that are caused by these unfulfilled yearnings, a state regarded as hell by Buddhists. After completing this circuit, the pilgrim was then led in a clockwise fashion through five levels in a gradual ascension of the pyramid. Here he was shown how to conquer desire and attachment by viewing 1300 panelled friezes that illustrate the life of the Buddha and his previous incarnations. These levels were called the World of Form and correspond to the earthly realm in Buddhist symbology. The passages of both of these realms followed the square shape of the pyramid but above these two lay the World of Formlessness where the right-angled, heavily decorated passages gave way to a round unadorned summit where meditating Buddhas and saints sit in supreme bliss contemplating a view of exquisite beauty. In the centre a bell shaped tower, or stupa, points to heaven, a blissful realm beyond form and concept, known as Nirvana."  Tim Alderson,

It was my third  visit to Borobudur.

9 July: land in Yogya by Air Asia from Singapore, straight to Manohara Hotel on the compound of Borobudur. On the way, visited Mendut and Pawan temples, which are also Buddhist and are on a straight line to Borobudur itself.

Afternoon in Borobudur: matching descriptions from Julie Gifford’s excellent, Buddhist Practice and Visual Culture,  to the reliefs of Borobudur. Focusing on Lalitavaswara, a sutra on the life of the historical Buddha. Highlights: Prince Siddhartha leaving the palace in the night as guards and women of his harem sleep, cutting off his hair.
Evening: marvelous sunset at the monument, and walk back to Manohara Hotel, which is actually a government run guesthouse. Wonderful view of Borobudur from the hotel area and a five minute walk.
10 July: wake up at 4am and start for the monument at 4.30 to see the sunrise. Costs 180,000 (23 US dollars) Rupiah, but worth it. A bit of cloud obscures Mt Merapi, and delays our sighting of the sun, but when it comes out, the view is gorgeous. I did this last in 2005, January (?), with Sally, without knowing that our son, Arun, was conceived already (he was born on 5 Oct 2005). 

Art, religion and politics-Maitreya as Chakravartin

This time, the monument was closed off from the 6th floor onwards (meaning no access to the last three terraces with the latticed stupas with Buddhas inside), as volcano dust was being cleared from the terraces. But watching the sunrise from 4th and 3rd levels was spectacular enough.

After sunrise, stayed on to study more reliefs, especially the Gandhavyuha, a sutra about Sudhana who is seeking enlightenment and visits various Boddhisatyos and finally the future Buddha Maitreya. Highlights: Sudhana entering Maitreya’s abode, Kutagara, descriptions (apparently mirroring the text of the sutra word by word) of decorations at Kutagara, the various ‘world presence’ and positions of Maitreya (as Indra, Yama, Brahma and as aChakravartin), Maitreya’s past life (including his sacrifices of his wife, son, body parts, and jewels of Chakravartin), him giving away medicine to the poor, helping ghosts in hell and rescuing slaves. Also recognized reliefs that show Sakyamunia and Maitreya in heaven, coronation of Maitreya. Two important symbols of the pure land (Amitabha’s abode in heaven): (1) lotus ponds with children, gandharas, and nagas (emerging from the lotus signifies their entry into the pure land), and (2) the Magic Tree (producing musical instruments, clothes and incense burners). Left Monohara at 1pm for Jogja. 

Carvings at the base of Borobudur

Cosmic Buddhas of the Ten Directions (Buddha Dasadiga)
Sudhana and Maitreya
Sudhana Near Maitreya's Kutagara

Selections of reliefs on Lalitavistara - Buddha's leaving home to attaining Nirvana

Selections from Gandavyuha

"The Gandavyūha, a sacred text of Mahāyāna Buddhism, is an allegorical tale of the pilgrimage of a youth named Sudhana, who visits fifty-three spiritual mentors to receive their instruction in the Conduct of the Bodhisattva. His miraculous journey on the path towards Enlightenment inspired the sculptors of Borobudur (9th century C.E.) to illustrate the tale in 460 bas-reliefs on the higher galleries of this greatgreatJavanese monument. 


Maitreya shows the way to Sudhana to enter Kutagara

Sudhana at the entrance of Kutagara

Sudhana sees magnificent garlands inside Kutagara
Lotuses inside Kutagara



Buddhist Practice and Visual Culture : The Visual Rhetoric of Borobudur. by Julie Gifford (Routledge 2011)


Symbol of Chakravartin 

The Ship: one of the most famous reliefs at Borobudur

11th July

Accompany Surin Pitsuwan (ASEAN Secy-Gen) to Borobudur again, but on the way, we stop at a river where the lava from the last Merapi eruption can be seen vividly. We collect lava stones and take photos.Next stop is a Pondok (Islamic boarding school). To my utter surprise, one of the two people receiving us, recognizes my name. when Surin introduces me as Amitav, he says, are you Amitav Acharya, the professor? Our puzzle in answered when he reveals that he was also a professor in Jakarta and a members of the Indonesian Human Rights groups who set up a Center for Human Security. He wrote to me for an article on human security to be translated into Indonesian, because my writings gave an Asian perspective, where as most available writings on the subject gave western perspectives. I now remembered. Instead of writing s new article, I send him some existing writings of mine and asked him to translate these.
After introduction and some snacks of Murtabak squares, we go to meet the students. A lovely scene. Students from grade 6 to grade 9 sitting on the floor, boys on one side and girls on another, separated by a dividing structure, they all are facing us, we also sat down in front of them, but in prayer carpets.
We take pictures with students, kneeling down in front of of them but facing the same direction as them.
Surin gives an inspiring speech as to how he too grew up and recounted his life history. He begun his studies in a Pondok in Southern Thailand, built by the grandfather and managed by his father and mother. His message, a student from a pondok, like them, can too go to Harvard and become the ASEAN Secretary-General.

 We then go to Borobudur again, just in time to see the sunset. And then back to Jogja. On the way, stop at local roadside crafts shops, where I pick up a Ganesha for 300,000 rupiah, made from stone from the Merapi eruption.

12th July: After my presentation to the conference, I take off to Solo, renting a taxi for the half day. But just too late to see the inside of the Kraton, Solo’s main attraction, Instead take a rickshaw ride around the palace and take pictures of the very interesting buildings, bith inside and outside the palace compound.

Returning to Jogja, we passed by just in time to see the Prambanan temples at dusk. What a marvelous sight! Standing from where they hold the Ramayana Ballet in summer, you get a holistic view of the complex, quite a different perspective of the complex than actually what you get from inside the complex, which I had visited in 2005. You get a sense of how large the complex is, a worthy rival to Borobudur itself (the Sanjayas who built it might have thought so, to rival Shailendra-built Borobudur)
On way back, stop at the lovely Saptohoedojo gallery, a batik center, restaurant, art gallery, all combined into one lovely and richly decorated complex patronized by the sultans and presidents of Indonesia as well as the Dalai Lama. Had a lovely meal of local specialty soup, sitting squat on a pedestal like dining seating next to a lotus pond. Worth the visit.
Back to the Hotel by 7pm: take a swim in my ‘private’ pool touching my ground floor room balcony.
13th July: Air Asia to Singapore at 7.25am.

Prambanan Temple

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