Monday, March 28, 2016

Bagan: The Golden Landscape of Buddha

Bagan is one of a series of travel blogs, entitled, Monumental 
Splendours, which records my personal journeys into Hindu-Buddhist temple art in Southeast Asia, especially in Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma. The other blogs in this series are about Angkor, Champa, and Borobudur. 

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.

Bagan 2013READ MORE

Bagan: The Golden Land of the Buddha


Ananda Pahto Temple (built c. 1090-1105)

The Ananda Pahto, or Phaya, was the first of Bagan's great temples, and remains one of the finest, most beautiful and perhaps most photographed, of all of Bagan's architectural complexes. It is a symmetrical masterpiece of Mon architectural style and, with some North Indian influence, reflects the transition from the Early to the Middle period of Bagan architecture. Located just to the east of the old city walls, its square-based beehive-like 'sikhara' crown and 'hti' umbrella, gilded to mark the temple's 900th anniversary in 1990, and expansive whitewashed temple structure dominate the surrounding countryside. Paul Strachan, one of the foremost experts on the architecture of Bagan, has suggested that "none can rival the Ananda as an experience that enriches." Heavily damaged in the devastating earthquake of 1975, it has been carefully restored. Read More at: 



Thambula Wall Painting
Ananda Temple-one of the four main Buddha images

Thambula Wall Painting
Wall Painting inside an unnamed small temple near Payathonzu

Wall Painting inside an unnamed small temple near Payathonzu

Birth of Buddha, Ananda Temple
The landscape of temple-dotted Bagan

Interpreting Angkor: Art and Empire in the Hindu-Buddhist World

Art and Empire in the Hindu-Buddhist World

                                                                      The monuments left by the Khmer empire offer one of the most striking examples of how art reflects politics and how politics shapes art.It does so in two ways, first by legitimising of the political authority of the sovereign, and second by reflecting the drive for imperial power through war and peace-making.The Angkor Thom and Bayan are the places to look for a snapshot of the intimate linkage between art and politics in classical Southeast Asia.Although a religious monument like much of Angkor’s heritage, Bayan is also a thoroughly secular and political statement of life in the Angkor period. It has gone through different phases of Hindu-Buddhist art.One signpost is the alternation between Hinduism and Buddhism, as legitimisation strategies of the rulers after periods of rise and decline of the Khmer empire. For example, Jayavarman VII built the monument to reflect his Mahayan Buddhist beliefs as the ruling ideology of Angkor. His embrace of Buddhism in what had been a staunch Hindu ruling class might have been partly due to disillusionment with Hinduism, including Shaivism, in failing to protect the empire from defeat in the hands of the rival Champa. But his successors, who struggled with the burden of empire that Jayavarman built, the greatest in Angkor history, turned to Hinduism as their fortunes declined. Hence Budhist images on the walls of Angkor were defaced and replaced with Hindu deities. These defacements can be seen quite clearly today.The bas reliefs of Bayon are full of secular depictions of daily life in Angkor, capturing its multicultural makeup, the social life of the inhabitants and the political role of the ruling elite, including the powerful Brahmin clergy. READ MORE

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Into Africa: Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

(Click here for videos of animals)

A Taste of the Silk Road: Dunhuang

In Search of Shiva: The Glory of Ancient Champa

In Search of Shiva

The Glory of Ancient Champa

In the Hindu trinity, Shiva is known as the God of destruction, who resides in Mount Kailash in the Himalays, now in the Chinese Tibetan territory. But there was a time when Shiva reigned supreme as the God of protection in ancient Champa, an enterprising trading nation located on the south eastern coast of what is known today as Vietnam. Champa owed its prosperity to its location on the maritime Silk Road that stretched from China to India. But the political beliefs and organisation of its rulers came from India, with Lord Shiva as the official deity of its rulers. Successive Kings of Champa not only sought protection for their kingdom from Lord Shiva, they also claimed personal legitimacy by closely identifying with the deity.

A visit to the Cham Towers that dot the landscape of southern coastal areas of Vietnam (Danang, Binh Dinh, Nha Trang and Phan Rang), and the museums housing Champa artefacts (the most important being the Cham sculpture museum in Danang) attest to this. The main site of Cham civilisation, My Son, is in central Vietnam, which I had visited previously. This time, I was in search of Shiva in the towers of the South, which were built mostly in the last five hundred years of Champa’s tenure as an independent entity.

Champa, which existed roughly from 2nd century to 15th century as an independent kingdom on the southern coast of what is today known as Vietnam. In 1471, it suffered a decisive defeat in the hands of the Dai Viet, a powerful and more numerous ethnic group to the north, was absorbed into Vietnam.

Champa was an Indianised kingdom, but not an Indian colony. Indian traders visited Champa in large numbers, brining with them Indian religion and Hindu Brahmans found profitable employment in the courts of Champa rulers. But the Chams were an Austranesian race, who arrived in the area from the sea and spoke a Malay-Polynesian dialect. They were thus different from the Austroasiatic peoples in the neighbourhood: the Vietnamese, Khmers or the Tais, who descended from southern and south-western China.

But the religion and politics of Champa was heavily influenced by India. Champa art shows heavy Indian influence, along with Javanese and Khmer aspects. The court language of Champa was Sanskrit, as numerous inscriptions left by the Champa Kings attest. The people of Champa borrowed heavily not just the classical language of India, but also its religion, art and most important, system of law and government.

The rulers of Champa were ardent Shivaites. At times Buddhism found patronage in Champa, this could be seen in the relics of the monastery at Dong Duong. But Hinduism was clearly dominant. Other Hindu deities such as Visnnu and Brahma were worshipped in Champa temples, and Champa rulers took names such as Harivarmana, Jaya Indravarmana, Vikrantavermana, etc. Indravarmana was a popular name, as Indra, the king of gods, was, like Shiva, a powerful source of protection. One early king of Champa moved the capital from Simhapura (modern Tra Kieu), to Indrapura (modern Dong Duong). But it was Shiva who was the presiding deity of Cham rulers. And in ancient Champa, Shiva known not as the destroyer, but as the protector. Evidence of the Shiva’s influence survives in the relics of numerous tower-temples which were built by the rulers of Champa to pay homage to Shiva and to defy themselves as Shiva’s political heirs.

The first ruler of Champa to have assumed a Sanskrit name was King Bhadravarman, who built a temple in My Son dedicated to Bhadresvara, a name of Shiva. His successor, who rebuilt the temple after it was destroyed by a Javanese raid, posthumously assumed the name of Sambhuvarman, another name of Shiva. The names were suggestive: Bhadreswara means ‘protector’ while Sambhu connotes ‘powerful’.

The Cham towers, made of brick, are not as grandiose as the temple complexes of Angkor or Pagan. But they have a distinctive beauty and represent a high point of artistic achievement. The towers were political-religious shrines which served as temple-Mausoleums of its rulers. This is where the kings of Champa assumed their deification as a portion of Shiva. The outer walls of many of these towers are decorated with images of dancing Shiva, and their sanctums houses a lingam.

The staging point of my search was the picture-perfect costal town of Nha Trang (left), whose ancient name was Kauthara. 
The first Cham Tower I visited was Po Nagar (left), in the beautiful coastal town of Nha Trang. Set in picturesque environs with the waters of Nha Trang Bay to the east and mountains of Western Vietnam as the perfect backdrop, this is one of the most well-preserved Cham towers in Vietnam today. The tower is named after Goddess Yang Ino Po Nagar, a Cham female deity identified with the Hindu Goddess Bhagawati.. Apart from a image of the Goddess in the main sanctum, the smaller shrine has a lingam, its base surrounded by a lotus motif and set in a yoni. On top of the main entrance gate is the mystical image of a dancing Shiva. A building next to the tower contains images of Ganesa, Hanuman, and Shiva, we all early 20th century photographs of the tower taken by French archaeologists.

To visit the other Cham towers in the vicinity, one has to go either north towards Binh Dinh province or south towards Phan Rang (old name Panduranga). I decided to head South, as this is where some of the last towers built by Champa kings are located. They are interesting example of how art imitates real life. As the fortunes of Champa kings declined due to relentless conflicts with the Dai Viet to the north and the Khmers to the South. Khmers sacked capital Vijaya in 1190, while the Dai Viet dealt the final blow to a decaying Champa kingdom by capturing its capital Vijaya in 1471). From 11th century onwards, Cham Towers became more sparsely decorated. They were built on hills (unlike My Son plains where most of the early towers were located) to make them appear more imposing. The human figures appearing on these late towers wear expressions of worry and anxiety and sometimes a savage look.

The only exception to this is the Hoi Lai Cham Tower, which was built in the 9th century when the Cham capital had moved temporarily to the South to Panduranga (it moved back north to My Son again a few years later, but then to the south central area of Vijaya (Bin Dinh) at the beginning of the 11th century). The Hoi Lai towers are known for their ornate d├ęcor, and are regarded as a distinctive period of Cham art (there are towers of the Hoi Lai school in My Son and Dong Duong). But this original Hoi Lai towers in the south are in a bad state of disrepair, with the middle tower having collapsed entirely. The other two are in the process of being restored by the Vietnamese government, although many images from the tower, like other relics, have been taken to museums in Danag and Saigon.

The first of late constructions I visited was the Po Kloong Garai tower (left) on the main road from Phan Rang to Dalat.

Here too, the synthesis between king and Shiva comes alive. A bust of King Kloong Garai adorns the main shrine.

The bust of the king is attached to a lingam (Mukhalinga, left) which is placed within a yoni. Shiva images adorn the outer wall stories of the tower. The walls of the tower are devoid of intricate motifs, as found in earlier Cham monuments. But a good deal of restoration work has been done to the towers, the result is an impressive monuments whether seen from a distance or from near the complex.

The third tower I visited was Po Rome (left), one of the last towers to be built, before the total collapse of Cham polity.
Here, the highlight is a stone relief of King Po Rome (left), displaying eight arms, six of which holds objects symbolising his divinity. At the entrance to sanctum is a Nandi, as in Po Kloong Garai. Once again, the physical, not to mention spiritual, identification with Shiva is unmistakable. A smaller shrine adjacent to the tower contains a statue of the Queen in a kneeling position (below). Besides it is the king’s kut, or funeral epitaph (below) in stone. The kut conveys man’s unity with the earth. By the 15th-16th century when the tower was built, the concept of divine kingship under Shiva’s patronage has lost its political appeal, and pre-Hindu practices, such as erecting stone epitaphs, had returned.

The cult of Shiva helped the kingdom of a relatively small number migrant people from a seafaring and trading culture survived for more than a thousand years and produced distinctive and magnificent monuments. It allowed Champa rulers to secure legitimacy before their own subjects. Indian ideas and methods, such as the law of Manu, helped organise their kingdoms more efficiently and durably.

Did the cult of Shiva mask the vulnerability of Champa as a small nation of seafarers without the manpower to fend off the designs of its larger and far more populous neighbours, - Khmers to the West and Dai Viet to the north? The lack of a large and sustainable population and geopolitical strains caused by constant conflicts with its rulers of Cambodia and Dai Viet ultimately led to the fall of Champa.Chams today are an ethnic minority in Vietnam numering about 140,000. On the road to Po Rome, we visited a Cham village (left), their life and manner reminds one of ethnic Malays. Like the latter, many Chams converted to Islam, although one group practice both Hinduism and Islam.

Amitav Acharya
(September 2006)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

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 a Chakravartin), 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 greatgreat Javanese 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