OF REPRESENTATION IN HINDU-JAVANESE TEMPLE SCULPTURE
|I visited temples located in central Java near the modern city of Yogyakarta. These sites included the Larajonggrang temple complex at Prambanan, the temples on Dieng Plateau, and the Gedung Songo temples in the foothills of the mountain Gunung Ungaran (fig. 2). The structures at Dieng date from the 8th century AD; they are Java's earliest, having been erected before the influx of Buddhism. Although the Buddhists drove Hindu culture eastward, Hindus returned to central Java in the 9th century and co-existed with the newer religion. It was in this period that the Prambanan shrines were built. Of the temples I saw, those at Prambanan were the most impressive, with relatively elaborate reliefs. The body of this essay focuses on this particular group.||
Figure 2 (Click to see larger version)
temple complex at Prambanan consists of an inner courtyard with three
main shrines: the Shiva, which is the largest, the Vishnu, and the
Brahma. Directly opposing these structures lie smaller shrines housing
each god's respective vehicles: Nandi, or bull, for Shiva, Garuda,
or mythical bird, for Vishnu, and Brahma's goose called Hamsa (fig.
5). Ten still smaller shrines surround the perimeter of the courtyard.
Upon approach, the scale of the shrines and their distance is difficult to judge. The structures seem to recede from the observer, even when in close proximity, so they always appear beyond reach, otherworldly. Symmetry typically plays a strong organizational role in Hindu temple architecture, as it does here in the plan of the buildings and in the decorative and narrative reliefs. Because of its symmetrical plan, I had the experience that each side of the temple was the same -- an identical entrance porch leading up to a uniform cell (there are four in the Shiva shrine), and similar image relationships repeated again and again. For the lay person it is easy to lose one's orientation and to believe that one hasn't moved at all. However, the Hindu convention of placing particular images in specific positions with religious implication distinguishes north from south, east from west.
The Hindu temple, the place where humans may approach the world of the gods, is believed to possess the potential for enlightenment. It is considered a model of the universe. Consequently, being in a temple and participating in religious ritual means to partake in the workings of the cosmos. Upon entering the shrine, the devout ascends a set of stairs moving from daylight to the dimly-lit, cave-like inner sanctuary where the main icon of the god is housed. This movement from the starkly-lit and sensually perceived outside world inward to the simple, shadowy cell parallels the path toward enlightenment, a progression from the apparent complexity of phenomena inward to the abstract soul. The temple's sculptural friezes symbolize this progression. The images located on the outer walls are more complex and of greater number. They represent a variety of formal styles, from naturalistic scenes to geometric ornamentation. They also exhibit a variety of kinds of signification including icon, narrative and decorative motif. By contrast, the interior is nearly bare, with few friezes, if any.
The outer walls of the Prambanan temples are wrapped in horizontal bands of distinctly treated reliefs (fig. 6-7). From this view, the narrative panels are hidden behind the balustrade (see below). Located on the base of the main shrines are fauna motifs executed in a naturalistic style. Images of gods in various poses cover the body of the temple along with a stylistic lotus motif in-the-round which tops the balustrade. In between the base motif and the top band, there are bands of geometric and floral ornamentation. The crown of the temple consists of geometric forms that gradually decrease in size as they near the pinnacle. The size shift of this form gives the temple the illusion of being larger than it actually is.
Figure 8 (Click to see larger image)
Figure 9 (Click to see larger image)
range from very simple to detailed and the stone support is treated
in varying degrees from linear bas-relief to deeply recessed surfaces.
Types of representation include the following: abstract, stylistic
floral patterns and abstract geometric patterns which function as
decorative borders around panels and help to define the architectural
body of the temple (fig. 8); narrative panels which derive from religious
text (fig. 9); icons (fig. 10); naturalistic renderings of animals
and vegetation; and creatures of fantasy, e.g. vegative borders often
metamorphose into demonic masks (fig. 11).
Figure 10 (Click to see larger image)
Figure 11 (Click to see larger image)
Perhaps the multiplicity of types of imagery and their formal treatment is indicative of the character of Hinduism, where the divine is believed to have infinite manifestations and multiple approaches to the gods are not only tolerated but expected. Yet despite its appearance, unity underlies pluralism. In the following passage, Alain Danielou addresses Hinduism's diverse expression of a common principle: In the Hindu cosmological theory symbolism is conceived as the
expression of a reality, as a search for particular points where different worlds meet and where the relation between entities belonging to different orders of things may become apparent. According to the Hindu view, all the aspects of the manifest world spring from similar principles-- have, we might say, a common ancestry. There is of necessity some sort of equivalence between sounds, forms, numbers, colors, ideas, as there is also between the abstractions of the subtle and tanscendent worlds on one side and the forms of the perceptible universe on the other. The Shiva shrine is the largest in the Prambanan group (fig. 12). The temple is entered by climbing a steep set of stairs on the east side. A platform, midway up the staircase, encircles the temple's body. Here, on the inside of the balustrade, are the Ramayana panels, the most notable reliefs in Hindu-Javanese art. The imagery on these panels is adapted from a Javanese version of the Indian epic The Ramayana. In brief, this is the tale of the god Vishnu's incarnation as Prince Rama. When his wife Sita is abducted by the demon -giant Ravana, Rama and his brother-in-law attempt to rescue her. The majority of the story describes these adventures.
Figure 12 (Click for larger image)
Figure 14 (Click for larger image)
The problem of time is inextricable from the question of representation in works of art which deal with portraying the eternal. Diverse visual clues must have been developed and utilized to signify the contrast between timelessness and time. Generally, the eternal world of the gods is shown as frontal, stylized iconographic forms. The transitory, relative human world is represented by narrative panels depicting time sequences (such as Prambanan's Ramayana panels). Although they represent a different sense of time, these two extreme forms exist within the same structure as if to illuminate several planes of reality simultaneously. In the book The Hindu Temple, George Michell writes:
Mythology juxtaposes relative time sequences and cosmic eras as the keys to the inner mechanics of the universe. This overlapping of cycles of time and repetition of cosmic eras finds visual expression in the forms of the temple, where architectural and sculptural motifs repeatedly appear in different sizes in different parts of the building. The finial placed at the summit of the temple symbolizes the absolute and timeless principle beyond repetition and relativity, and is intended as a reminder of the ultimate goal of the journey that man embarks upon.
Hinduism's spiritual and philosophical tenets helped give a particular form to its art. As a model of the cosmos, the temple provides a means to establish a connection with the gods; it opens a pathway toward enlightenment. The sculptural reliefs were created to aid in this spiritual ideal, their forms determined in part by this religious conception. The experience of time, and the idea of timelessness, are also central to the development of diverse forms of signification as it is necessary to distinguish one sense of time from the other. I suspect that the notion of unity underlying diversity permits a general tolerance of plurality in visual representation in Javanese-Hindu temple sculpture, thus allowing for various forms to co-exist on the same architectural surface.
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Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India. Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1964, rpt. 1991.
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Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Jipto, Moert and Bambang Prasetyo. The Siwa Temple of Prambanan. Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Penerbit Kanisius, 1992.
Jipto, Moert, et al. The Ramayana Reliefs of Prambanan. Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Penerbit Kanisius, 1991.
Michell, George. The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meaning and Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
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