The Creative South: Buddhist and Hindu Art in Mediaeval Maritime Asia, Volume 2

Patrick Vanden Berghe

At the end of my review of the first volume of The Creative South, I expressed the wish for the second volume to be published soon.1 My impatience was not tested for long, as within a month this second edition was neatly delivered on my desk.

In The Creative South, editors Andrea Acri and Peter Sharrock bring together researchers that studied the history of the medieval Asian littoral regions and are willing to think out of the box by using an interdisciplinary focus. The aim of the two volumes is to ‘reconsider() the creative contributions of the littoral and insular regions of Maritime Asia’ making clear that these regions were more than passive receptors of ideas, icons, and objects. This second part focuses on Odisha and Java.

Nine studies deal with a range of topics, from Buddhist Mandalas to the biggest Buddhist temple of its time named Borobudur, from the social context in which Central Javanese temples were built to new ideas about the well-known Prambanan temple. The reader of this volume is presented with some original points of view, the result of extensive, multi-facetted research by both old and new scholars in this field.

In this review, I would like to highlight some of the articles that stand out and shed new light on previous research.

In his captivating style, the late Roy E. Jordaan (1947-2019) draws our attention to a story from the Ramayana that has often been neglected, but that has found some resonance in, amongst others, Old-Malay Hikayats and post-Valmiki Jain versions of the Ramayana. In some scenes present in the inner balustrades of the Prambanan temple complex, Jordaan sees proof that Sita was considered to be Ravana’s daughter, a matter that is highly contested by other scholars and cultures, as Sita and Ravana are complete opponents. This matter appears to be of high relevance for the interpretation of one of the reliefs, wherin Ravana’s corpse is shown surrounded by some women. The number, and thus, the identification) of these women has never been explained in a satisfactory way. Sita’s presence at the funeral of her worst enemy and abductor, an assumption made by Jordaan, can only mean that she felt it necessary.  The reason for this is then clear: Sita had a biological bond with Ravana. This interpretation is supported by other reliefs that indicate some kind of intimacy between Sita and Ravana’s queen consort, Mandodari. The identification of Sita in some reliefs has implications for the interpretation of other bas-reliefs. All of this finally leads to the final and most pregnant question: which version of the Ramayana was taken as the origin for the reliefs on the three main temples at Prambanan? This question, however,  is not solved at the end of this article.

Roy Jordaan’s article was published posthumously and was submitted only a week before his passing away. This may be the reason why some smaller textual mistakes have not been corrected.


Prambanan revisited

Prambanan is also at the heart of the next article, in which Jeffrey Sundberg draws further on Roy Jordaan’s belief that this Saiva temple complex served as a site for the reception of rainwater, and its subsequent process of turning this rain in consecrated water. This process involves the intermediation of the main tower which stood out as a huge linga, a model of which was also found in the Shiva temple where there was once a Shiva statue mounted on a yoni. In old times, the inner courtyard of the temple complex was flooded (in reality, one had to wait for the monsoon rains) in order to create a large holy water basin. Examples of this now forgotten practice can also be found in Cambodia (the Khal Spean riverine site) and India (the Ruwanweli Stupa). One element to sustain this thesis is Sundberg’s conviction that the finials high above the main temples represent lingas, the flutings on them representing the Descent of the Ganges. There is even a hint of the upsplash of the water at the base of the finials, imitating again the Ganges when it flows into the ocean.

While it is a fascinating read, this article is not easy to understand, as it requires a lot of foreknowledge. There is a heavy load of scientific terms and the footnotes take up a significant section of the  lengthy volume. Moreover, one or two paragraphs do not explain their title. It seems that this contribution could have profited from some editing, but as is noted at the beginning, the author refused editorial recommendations.

The last contribution to be reviewed here is also the last piece in Volume Two. It shows how recent archeological field survey may add or correct previous knowledge. Hadi Sidomulyo headed several field trips on East-Javanese Mount Penanggungan, a sacred mountain for Hindus, especially at the time of Majapahit (13th-mid 16th century). The field research, which spanned over a period of six years (2012-2018), uncovered many new artefacts, from terraced monuments to stone workshops. In some instances, natural disasters bolstered the findings, like when a big fire in 2015 re-uncovered a carriageway, believed to be a ‘processional path’ circumnavigating the mountain from foot to top. This path’s existence had been known to scholars up to the 1940’s, but due to neglect, the overgrowth of vegetation, and the fact it was obsolete as a place of worship, made it a victim of collective amnesia.. By using new GPS data, the exact location of this path could be recorded and its function can now be assessed. In parallel, a network of carriageways also appeared. Judging by the way in which these tracks run, one can imagine that they were in constant use and had a function extending far beyond mere ritual. Taken as a whole, this substantial body of new data demands a re-examination of popular assumptions on the function and appeal of Mount Penanggungan. While older researchers connected this mountain to a renaissance of ancient pre-Hindu beliefs, it may turn out that Mt. Penanggungan’s ritual and religious meaning preceded the Majapahit era.

It should not be doubted that this volume offers a lot for those interested in the history of medieval insular Asia, especially Southeast Asia and the Archipelago. Looking at both volumes together, it must be stressed that one or two articles were a little disappointing – the one on the ‘social context of the temples of Kalasan and Prambanan’ seems to better belong in a general study book on Java. Furthermore, for this second volume, the same remark as stated for Volume One can be included: the index lacks some important entries, making it difficult to perform quick searches at times. Then again, I would not mind if ever a third volume in this series is published!