Every Stone Tells a Story – 2

II : Prajnaparamita

by Rose Gan

The Statue

Many experts – and museum visitors – believe Prajnaparamita to be the finest of all East Javanese statues. It is of the highest craftsmanship with a sublime simplicity that elevates it amongst many other fine works of the period. Sculpted from pale rose andesite that gives the piece a warm glow, the goddess sits on a double lotus cushion set on a minimally decorated square plinth. The backrest is elegantly wrought but plainly adorned, bordered by a narrow column in a wave motif that continues around the arched top piece, transforming into a leafy effect at shoulder-height. Outlining her head is a halo-like oval, its plainness accentuating the bare symmetric features of the face. Prajnaparamita sits yogini-like in the padmasana posture, her hands in a dharmacakramuda gesture (the wheel of life) as befits her role as Mother of the Universe.

The figure bears all the expected attributes of a deity: the piled tresses of the jatamakuta crown surrounded by an ornate diadem; the lotus flower entwined around her left arm that holds up the tiny volume of the Sutra; the caste cord of pearls that wraps deftly around her body; and the rich necklaces and earrings that frame her face, their opulence in stark contrast to the heavenly bliss of her expression. She may be dressed as a queen but her countenance reveals the tranquillity of a god: the eyes are lowered, the visage is still and detached from the world, immortal.

The Prajnaparamita is a remarkable piece of art. The delicacy of its sculpture is breath-taking. The caste cord hangs with artless naturalism, spilling over the edge of the lotus cushion on her right side. The detail on the batik sarong is astonishing; it is intricately patterned in a traditional ceplok design displaying the jelamprang motif, itself with sacred origins connected to the worship of Siva. The sarong is so skilfully re-created that it has the texture and sensuous drape of real cloth, in counterpoint to the serene stillness of the visage. The effect of the whole has the power of a Madonna and, given the subject matter, is a perfect example of reverence in art that stands equal to any medieval work in the Christian tradition.

Prajnaparamita in Buddhism

Prajnaparamita is the living embodiment of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, referenced by the book placed atop the lotus blossom at her left shoulder. The Sutras are the three sacred scriptures of Buddhism: the Lotus, the Heart and the Diamond Sutras. The Prajnaparamita is the extended version of the Heart and Diamond Sutras (which are merely summaries of the original), and is the earliest version of the Mahayana scriptures.

The Prajnaparamita image is thus the deification of this Book of Perfect Wisdom in the form of a serene goddess whose virtues include generosity, morality, proper conduct, patience, tolerance, honesty and kindness. In Tantric Mahayana Buddhism, she is the greatest female deity, the sakti (consort) of the Highest Buddha, Vajradhara, who is the Dharmakaya, the supreme essence of all Buddhas, from whom they originate and to where they will eventually return. Just as the universe is personified in the Buddha, so perfect knowledge and wisdom are deified as his consort. From Vajradhara springs the 5 Dhyana Buddhas of the Tantric Vajrayana Pantheon (In Sanskrit: vajra means diamond or thunderbolt). Vajradhara is always dark blue in colour and is usually illustrated in a cross-legged position embracing a vajra (sacred thunderbolt) and a bell in hands held against his heart.

The History

Yet, as in all these statues, there is so much more to decipher than the obvious. Beneath the sacred lies another story, immortalised in the Majapahit Pararaton (the Book of Kings), a fascinating blend of myth and history. Prajnaparamita commemorates the passage into immortality of a famous queen of East Java. The statue is commonly believed to be the memorial stone of Queen Ken Dedes, reputedly the most beautiful woman of her day, even now regarded in Java as the epitome of womanhood, just as Helen of Troy and Cleopatra are in the West. To be accorded the tremendous honour of becoming one with the highest female deity suggests that Ken Dedes was known in life for more than just her beauty.  The high regard in which she is remembered, even today, indicates her wisdom, kindness and impeccable conduct.

On his death in 1049, Airlangga divided his kingdom between his sons, Janggala and Panjula, in territory centred around Kediri in East Java. In retrospect it was perhaps the wrong decision, surprising for such a wise king as Airlangga, but he had few options. To have chosen between his sons would have resulted in civil war; the boys, born of different mothers, were sworn enemies. Airlangga’s strategy ultimately failed because the two men were constantly at war attempting to wrest sole power. The glorious kingdom built by their father was to suffer unrest and decline over the following century and a half, with only one distinguished king of Kediri, Jayabhaya (1135-1157) The final ruler of this dynasty, King Kertajaya, was particularly hated for both his cruelty and his lack of reverence to Vishnu, traditionally the favoured god in the region. In 1222, a commoner called Ken Agrok from Singhasari led a successful rebellion against King Kertajaya, cornering the royal family in a temple. The king killed himself and his family self-immolated, a shocking end to the line of Airlangga, leaving Ken Agrok to become the first king of a new dynasty, the Singhasari (also Singasari/Singosari).

Ken Agrok (or Ken Arok) is one of the more colourful, if bloodthirsty, characters of Javanese stories, a favourite of film makers and novelists alike. Although an historic character, it is nigh impossible to extricate him from the realms of mythology.  His backstory is far from honourable. It is said that as a young man he dabbled in black magic and wizardry to raise himself from his humble origins (Ken was an honorific Javanese title). Although he was supposed to have turned from his worldly ways after spending some time with a Brahmin monk, his career is replete in examples of bad behaviour. One such story relates to his wife, Ken Dedes.

This beautiful young girl, the daughter of a Buddhist holy man, Mpu Purwa, became the obsession of the governor of a nearby province, one Raja Tunggul Ametung. He kidnapped her and forced her to marry him, an act for which Mpu Purwa cursed him, saying that he would not live long for what he had done to his daughter. Sometime later, after she had born a child, Ken Agrok saw Ken Dedes as she was being carried through the streets. A gust of wind blew her sarong open; he saw her naked legs and thighs and- so the story goes- glanced the place above, which to his surprise was lit in a golden light. Convinced that Ken Dedes was touched by divinity and that any child she bore would one day be a great ruler, he decided to claim her for himself. Ken Agrok killed Tunggul Ametung and took Ken Dedes as his wife.

There is no record of what this serene beauty thought of this turn of events or of the fact that for the second time she had been carried off by a brutal man against her will. Ken Dedes would, however, go on to become the first queen of Singhasari, and her children would indeed one day rule after her. It is believed she is the ancestor of the first Majapahit kings.

As often happens in legends, fate did not quite transpire as Ken Agrok had wished. Rather than one of his own children, it was Ken Dedes’ first child, Anusapati, son of her original husband Tunggul Ametung, who succeeded as the second king of Singhasari.  Anusapati revenged the murder of his father and the capture of his mother by assassinating Ken Agrok in 1228, only six years into his reign. If this statue (dated around 1300 CE) is Ken Dedes’ memorial stone, then it suggests she lived on for many years. Even if it was erected decades after her death, she must still have enjoyed a long life, and witnessed the reigns of several of her descendants. So perhaps Ken Dedes had the last word after all.

There are numerous other images of Prajnaparamita in East Java, as well as copies of the statue, although none are as accomplished as the original. This prevalence indicates the importance of the deity in the worship of the time. That the image has lived on even into the modern Islamic era is tribute to how powerfully she represents Java’s sense of history and culture. While it is never certain if the traditions that associate such a statue with an actual king or queen are accurate, given the equal status still accorded in Java to Queen Ken Dedes, there is little reason to reject the traditional viewpoint. Ken Dedes is even fondly referred to as ‘Ibu Batik’ (Mother of Batik) from the sarong that she wears in this statue.

The Prajnaparamita is reputed to have been found in Candi Singhasari (Malang, East Java), possibly in a side temple, still known as Cungkup Putri (The Dome of the Princess), located some distance from the main complex. In many ways this possible identification strengthens the connection between the statue and Ken Dedes. The statue was returned to Indonesia from Holland in 1978, quite fittingly during the state visit of Queen Juliana. The Museum Nasional Jakarta has two versions: the original housed in the Old Wing (Gedung Gajah), and a replica on show in the Treasure Room of the new Gedung Arca. It may be worth pointing out that the one on display at Muzium Negara may be the replica. 

Bibliography

  1. 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.
  2. Reichle, Natasha (2007), Violence and Serenity: Late Buddhist Sculpture from Indonesia, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
  3. Gan, Rose, ed. (2011) Museum Nasional Training Materials, 3rd edition:  Vol 1. History, Vol 4. Stones and Bronzes, Vol 7. Textiles; MNI Jakarta.
  4. Anshori, Dr. Yusak, Kusrianto Adi, eds. (2011) Keeksotisan Batik Jawa Timur: Memahami Motif dan Keunikannya, Kompas Gramedia, Jakarta.

Image References

  1. Prajnaparamita statue. Image taken by Rose Gan
  2. Prajnaparamita statue detail of face. Image taken by Rose Gan
  3. Prajnaparamita statue detail of batik sarong. Image taken by Rose Gan
  4. Diagram of jelamprang motif from sarong. Image taken from Keeksotisan Batik Jawa Timur: Memahami Motif dan Keunikannya
  5. Image of jelamprang ceplok pattern on batik: www.duniabelajaranak.id/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/batik-jlamprang3.jpg
  6. Prajnaparamita Sutra detail from Los Angeles County Museum of Art (pinterest): www.learnreligions.com/the-prajnaparamita-sutras-450029
  7. A 19th century Thangka (Tibetan scroll painting) depicting Vajradhaya. Image taken by Sylvain1972 May 2006: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thangka_of_Vajradhara.jpg
  8. Ken Arok and Ken Dedes from Indonesian TV series (still taken from youtube)
  9. Ken Dedes in Indonesian modern art: indonesianmosaicstoneartpainting.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/kendedes-indonesianmosaicstoneartpainting-wordpress-com-62877-5978-5888.jpg?w=1394&h=2048
  10. Modern Prajnaparamita/ Ken Dedes statue. Candi Singhasari, East Java, Indonesia. Image taken by Gombang: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b9/Ken_Dedes_as_Boddhisattva.JPG/900px-Ken_Dedes_as_Boddhisattva.JPG

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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