I : Airlangga and Garuda
by Rose Gan
Back in the good old days when we could all still visit museums, the Lost Kingdoms exhibition at Muzium Negara offered us a fascinating journey around the early civilisations of South East Asia and Indo-China. I was stopped in my tracks by a series of stones from Indonesia, personally very dear to my heart. It felt very much like a surprise visit from old friends.
The Museum Nasional Indonesia (MNI) is a vast repository for collections gathered from across the Indonesian archipelago since the earliest days of the V.O.C. Raffles himself once housed the ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ in his own residence in Batavia; some of current exhibits were originally part of his personal collections. The present museum building (opened in 1868) is a graceful Graeco-Roman structure at the very heart of Jakarta. Two new modern buildings have since been added. The Museum is a cornucopia of delights, so vast that it is impossible to take in its riches in one visit; each huge hall alone hosts enough to fill an entire morning.
When I was guiding there, one section became my go-to place, sometimes simply as a getaway from the madding crowds of Central Jakarta, where traffic is so dense at any time of day that it is usually at a noisy standstill. In the Stone Courtyard, a serene peristyle garden surrounded by a shady portico, one could sit in silence, surrounded by hundreds of silent stones, a perfect place for contemplation. The sculptures, of many different types and styles, are randomly arranged higgle-piggle on different levels, some obscured behind others, some set above eye-level, and some only visible on one’s knees. Stones of astonishing importance are often relegated to hidden corners and easily missed, or jumbled in with broken roof ornamentation and water spouts. Commemorative statues, guardians, mythical beasts, gods, kings, and queens, countless lingga and yoni, obelisks and containers, peripih and prasasti: the list goes on and on. And at the centre of the peristyle lawn, a herd of Nandis lie contentedly chewing their cud.
Many of the significant pieces have been relocated to the modern wings next door, now set on raised plinths or behind glass, perfectly lit from above and with detailed vitrine notes, given their proper pride of place. But I still feel privileged to remember when they were almost forgotten, their loveliness buried away without any information to mark them. Then it was almost impossible for a visitor without a guide to understand their importance. This fired my curiosity and set me off on an obsession to learn more about them. The Lost Kingdoms exhibition brought my favourite pieces back to me in a wholly unexpected setting.
These stones fall into two main groups: Arca (statues) and Prasasti (inscribed stones). The former are more instantly appealing because of their undoubted aesthetic attraction and the stories that the figures and motifs describe. The Prasasti, however, are difficult to interpret: they are plainer and more obscure. Both conceal a wealth of information that unlocks many early events in the history of the archipelago that might otherwise be lost for ever. This series of blog posts aims to shed a little light on the perplexing subject should we be able to peek again inside the exhibition any time soon!
Airlangga and Garuda
This dramatic piece is arguably the highlight of the exhibition. Described as on loan from MNI, it is in fact currently at the Museum in Trowulan, the site of the great Majapahit capital. It was originally located at Belahan on nearby Mount Penanggungan where two famous bathing places from the 11th century were devoted to Airlangga, one of the most revered kings of East Java, who died in 1049. Such sites were erected as memorials to the ascension of a human ruler into his deified existence, and were often erected some years after the actual death. Mount Penanggungan is an idyllic place, cool, lush, green, and silent. A mystical aura of tranquillity and age-old knowledge hangs heavy in its forests, where devotees have worshipped since time immemorial.
Set amongst this scene, these ritual bathing places, an essential feature in the religious practices of the Hindu-Buddhist era, are astonishing stone constructions at one with the mountain itself. They contain niches for statuary and pools fed by water spouts in the shape of mythical beasts. This statue once held centre stage in such a grotto, where now only two female statues remain, at the base of the structure. Their naked breasts form twin spouts to feed the pool below.
Airlangga was the son of King Udayana of Bali and Princess Mahendradatta, the daughter of the great East Javanese ruler, Dharmawangsa Teguh. In 1016 during a palace coup, King Dharmawangsa and his entire family were killed; Prince Airlangga escaped, taking refuge with a group of hermit monks. Some years later, he returned and defeated the local princes, becoming the ruler of East Java, and establishing a new dynasty based at Kediri. During his long and peaceful reign, East Java enjoyed a flowering of art, learning, commerce and good governance.
This memorial depicts Airlangga as a young man in the prime of life, sitting on a lotus throne in a Hindu lalitasana posture: his left leg in half lotus and his right hanging down, to represent kingship. Airlangga’s hands form the Buddhist dhyanamudra, the gesture of meditation, also reflected in his serene countenance and lowered eyes. He is dressed as befits a king, replete with golden jewellery and clad in a long ornate sarong. It was customary in commemorative statuary for the face to be expressionless; this is not meant to be portraiture but implies spiritual awakening.
The effigy, however, is about so much more than Airlangga’s human existence. On close observation, we become witnesses to his deification and ascension to immortality, illustrated in terms of allegory. Airlangga is Vishnu, the Preserver, one of the three deities of the Trimurti that holds the universe in balance. In his upper right hand, he spins the cakra (wheel), representing the power over life and death. In his upper left is the sankha (conch shell) a musical instrument that wards off demonic forces and signifies the creation of the universe. These motifs are particularly associated with Vishnu, whose cult was strong in Bali; Airlangga was known for his devotion to him. This Vishnu bears many divine symbols: the jatamakuta crown, reserved for deities, along with the caste cord and multiple arms.
The most dynamic aspect of the assembly, however, is the figure of Garuda, in his most fierce anthropomorphic manifestation, more deity than bird, an interesting counterpoint to the tranquil stillness of the god. Vishnu’s right foot rests on Garuda’s shoulder, signifying his authority, but Garuda is more than a mere vahana (vehicle) for the deity. This representation vividly depicts an episode from Garuda’s backstory, that of his great battle with his traditional enemies, the nagas, one of whom can be seen coiled around the base of the sculpture, vicious head raised in attack.
The Legend of Garuda
Garuda was born from an egg, a human boy with wings. His mother Vinata had been enslaved by her sister, Kadru, the mother of all serpents. Later the nagas promised Garuda that if he stole amrita, they would free his beloved mother from servitude. This seemed an impossible task. The elixir (amrita) was in the hands of the gods. They guarded it jealously for it was the source of their immortality and protected inside a great ring of fire where fierce rotating blades slaughtered anyone who tried to enter. Beyond were two giant poisonous snakes. Garuda was equal to the challenge. First, he defeated a host of gods, driving them in all directions. Next, he channelled water from the Great Ocean to extinguish the fire. Shrinking himself, he managed to evade the blades to reach the serpents, whom he destroyed. Holding the amrita in his mouth without swallowing, Garuda took to the air with the intention of delivering it to the nagas. On the way, however, he met Vishnu who promised him immortality if Garuda would become his mount. In return he would help Garuda in his quest to save his mother. Then he met Indra, the god of the sky, who promised to allow him to devour the nagas if he returned the amrita. So, Garuda flew to the kingdom of the nagas, placed the precious amrita on the ground and thus liberated Vinata. Then he informed the snakes that before consuming the elixir, they must ritually cleanse. This allowed time for Indra to sweep down and recover the amrita. Garuda then battled the nagas, ultimately devouring them. From that day forward, Garuda became the implacable enemy of snakes, as well as the ally of the gods and the mount of Vishnu.
This legend is packed with allegory. Garuda’s attributes may be inspired by the Indian short-toed eagle which lives entirely on a diet of snakes. This made him protector against poison, or the devourer of evil. In early animist Indonesia, birds and nagas had always been worshipped as ancient spirits of the forest. In the Hindu-Buddhist period, this battle between sky and earth became a central theme of the duel between opposing cosmic forces. By the Majapahit period in East Java, Garuda underwent a further metamorphosis until his human characteristics disappeared, and he became a giant bird. He even acquired a phoenix-like appearance, adopted from Chinese influence, just as the naga later took on a dragon-like perspective.
It should be noted that although this statue is generally believed to represent Airlangga, this is largely conjecture and has been challenged by some historians. Another theory believes that Belahan was constructed in the century before Airlangga. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Vishnu and Garuda are depicted here and that the statue is in memory of a significant king of the region.
Kinney, Ann R. with Klokke, Marijke J, Kieven, Lydia (2003) Worshipping Siva and Buddha: The Temple Art of East Java, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
Reichle, Natasha (2007), Violence and Serenity: Late Buddhist Sculpture from Indonesia, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
Resink, Th. A. (1968) Belahan or A Myth Dispelled. Indonesia 6 pp.2-37.
Gan, Rose, ed. (2011) Museum Nasional Training Materials, 3rd edition: Vol 4. Stones and Bronzes, MNI Jakarta.