Calm, cool -- like the moon

Early in the 16th century Portuguese navigators, the first Europeans to brave Southeast Asian waters, were particularly impressed by the Javanese, whom they considered the most civilized of all the peoples they had newly encountered. They noted with surprise and pleasure that these islanders were not pirates -- in the circumstances no doubt an especially welcome trait. Over the centuries many have agreed with the Portuguese: the Javanese seem generally to have pleased their visitors, though few of these could have realized that they were in the presence of an amazingly artistic people. They excelled in two widely differing forms: they executed great works in stone, while also creating the delicate, brilliant and humorous puppets of their shadow theater.

The world still marvels at the wonders of Borobudur, a rival to Angkor Wat as a monument, and delights in the little dramatic wuyangm figures of the heroic dramas, with their long profiles and curled locks. The latter, from the rich treasury of Javanese classical and epic literature, reveal the romantic and chivalrous elements in the country; the former testifies to their religious enthusiasms. Together they indicate an elasticity of mind and interpretation attendant on a wide imagination.

During the first half of the Christian era, the spice islands were a crossroads both for trade and for the propagation of religion. The merchants came chiefly from India, even from such distant points as Gugerat, far in the northwest. Chinese and Arab traders came too, to purchase luxuries that would be sold in their lands and in Africa. The exports included sandalwood, cardamom aromatics and exotic birds such as the five-colored parakeet and the kalavinka. (This reputed Buddhistic symbol "is able to sing while it is in the egg. Its voice is harmonious and courtly. One listens without satiety." It sings of "the great truths about the nature of suffering and the impermanence of the physical world.")

The missioners, both Brahmanical and Buddhistic, were very active, lured on by the apparent receptivity of the people, but in the end their efforts were only partially successful. Because of the susceptibility of their hearers, what came about was a synthesis of the two religious. From being a disseminator of Indian ideas and culture, Indo- Javanese civilizaton developed a distinct national entity, mingling both faiths, stamping the result with their own imprint.Finally, in the 14th century the advent of Muslims put an end to any metaphysical uncertainties in a manner the world has come to recognize -- when the Portuguese arrived the country was Islamic.

To the purist the vacillation of the populace between Buddhism and Hinduism was sometimes disquieting. Fa-hsien, the famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who went to India in the fifth century, going overland from China, in order to study that faith and bring back to his own land sacred relics and writings, was one of these. He returned by sea, via Ceylon. Generally a tolerant visitor, he writes: "And so they [that is, the ship's company] went on for more than ninety days until they reached a country named Java, where heresies and Brahmanism were flourishing, while the Faith of the Buddha was in a very unsatisfactory condition."

This 10th-century image of Chandra, the moon god and a deity rarely encountered in the teeming Indian pantheon, was made during the Central Javanese period. The little crescent (now broken) behind the head denotes "boys of supernatural descent," and those who worshipped him longed for physical beauty and the power of mental concentration. (Is there perhaps an affinity here with the Greek myth of Endymion, the beautiful youth beloved of the moon?) In the Javanese context there are also Buddhistic implications of pose and gesture -- Chandra is seated on a lotus, his legs crossed and the soles of his feet turned upward, while the hands and arms are in ritualistic positions (one hand is broken off). It is a good example of the intermixture of the imagery of the two religions in the country.

As is natural in the tropics, the night and moonlight are felt a blessing after the burning heat of the day -- hence Chandra is described as "one having cool rays," and he wears a jacket, a distinguishing feature. He was also held a guardian of the northeast: he denoted "the place of primeval waters," was "the dispenser of life," "master of the stars" and a symbol of the world beyond the earth, of immortality, where the ancestors live. In spite of these ringing characteristics, however, he was not often fashioned, so that this fine piece is the more valued.

The black tuff stone, rough and uneven, cannot detract from the innate elegance of this quiet and handsome figure. Except for the massive earrings, resting on the short necklace, it is unadorned -- the jacket is the significant addition. The simplicity of design and workmanship is deceptive. The work betokens great mastery of the sculptor's art, for here, with great skill, are suggested serenity, calmness, coolness, beauty, all the qualities of Chandra.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK