Buddhist Art in Java

An essay on ‘Buddhist Art in Java’ by A. Foucher.

translated by L.A. Thomas and F.W. Thomas as Chapter VIII of
‘The Beginnings of Buddhist Art’

re-edited with photographs by
Ānandajoti Bhikkhu

A classic essay by Prof. Foucher identifying the main Avadāna reliefs at Borobudur, with photographs.



use j/k or left/right arrow
to navigate through the photos below

2. Māndhātrāvadāna, the Traditions about Māndhātar

II. South-Western Corner. We should be tempted to apply it without further delay to the bas-reliefs which we encounter immediately after having passed the point where the southern staircase crosses the first gallery of the stūpa. [225] Thanks once again to the Divyāvadāna, XVII. Ed. Cowell and Neil, pp. 210-228. – Cf. a Pāli version in the Jātaka, no. 258 (ed., II, p. 310; trans., II, p. 216), another Tibetan version in the Kanjur (Schiefner, Textes traduits du Kandjour in Melanges Asiatic de St. Peterburg, pp. 44° sqq., or Tibetan tales, pp. 1-20), and a third Sanskrit version in the Bodhisattvāvadānakalpalatā, no. 4 (Bibl. Indica, New Series, no. 750, pp. 123-153). we shall there recognize with absolute certainty the biography of the famous king Māndhātar, as familiar to the Brahmanic legend as to the Buddhist. But it is only from the eighth bas-relief, counting from the southern entrance, that the text again comes into line with the monument, to march side by side with it thenceforward as far as the twentieth. What does this mean? Are we to suppose that the first seven pictures relate to another story? The analogy of the south-eastern corner seems to supply stronger reasons for supposing that the first twenty bas-reliefs of the south-western corner were likewise dedicated to a single legend, that is to the Māndhātrāvadāna: only the sculptor must have commenced at a much earlier point than the compiler. The first goes back, it seems, as far as the incidents which preceded the birth of the hero, whilst the second, in an exordium obviously shortened and drawn up in telegraphic style, gives a rapid resume of his first youth, and proceeds to expatiate at large on the exploits of his reign. Until we have fuller information, everything leads us to believe that the story of Māndhātar commenced at the corner of the southern staircase and not right in the middle of one of the faces of this twenty-cornered gallery, and that it terminated, like that of Sudhana, at the fourth angle after the staircase.

When we had arrived at this point in our hypothesis, the reading of the Bodhisattvāvadānakalpalatā came to confirm it in a most unexpected manner. The abridged and colourless [226] version of the Pali Jātaka no. 258 had been of no assistance whatever. Neither had we been helped by the Tibetan text of the Kanjur in the translation of Schiefner, which, in fact, follows with great fidelity the Divyāvadāna, that is the version of the Mūla-Sarvāstivādins. Kshemendra does the same, but for once, in the midst of his insipid concetti, he has, at the beginning, preserved for us one topical detail (st. 8-10):

“One day Upoṣadha, anxious to assure the protection of the anchorites by the destruction of the demons, mounted on horseback, and began to go through the hermitages.
There certain ṛṣis of royal race were holding a vessel ready for a sacrifice celebrated with a view to obtaining a son: very hot with the fatigue of the long journey, the king drank the contents at one draught.
No one was there to prevent him; and, because he had swallowed the contents of the enchanted vessel, the monarch, on returning to his capital, found that he had conceived... ”

All the versions agree in telling us that there came on the head of king Upoṣadha an enormous tumour, very soft to touch and in nowise painful. When it had matured, there issued from it a fine boy, for the charge of whose nurture the 60,000 women of the royal harem disputed. To the wonderful circumstances of his birth he owes his double name of Mūrdhaja and Māndhātar or even, by confusion of these two, Mūrdhātar. But what is of special importance to us is that the Kashmir poet furnishes us with the only link which was missing in the interpretation of the bas-reliefs. Cf. nearly the same story in Mahābhārata, Droṇaparvan, LXII.

[227] [Nothing prevents] us from seeing in Panel 31 and 32 the rich alms which King Upoṣadha himself bestows and causes to be bestowed with a view to obtaining a son.

The reason for the expedition represented in Panel 33 is no longer hidden from us: it is that undertaken by the king (who in this case travelled in a litter) for the protection of the anchorites.

Panel 34 takes us straight to a hermitage of the rishis; and we believe that we can see there the magic vessel to which Upoṣadha owed in such an unusual manner the fulfilment of his desires.

In any case, it is in the following picture, Panel 35, that the child so much desired is at last seen [standing on his mother’s knees in the palace].

Again, Panel 36 and 37 are probably there simply as padding, and they represent, the first [Panel 36] the horoscope of the future cakravartin or sovereign monarch of the world...

Panel 37 ...the second the donation intended to recompense the astrologer. These last incidents, like that of the alms, are very commonplace; it is easily intelligible that the compiler of the Divyāvadāna should have dispensed with a further repetition of them. On the other hand, the sculptors of Borobudur never fail to emphasize, as hints to visiting pilgrims, these edifying scenes of virtue in practice. But let us proceed: we are now on firm ground, supported by both a written and a figured form of the tradition in mutual accord.

[Panel 38] Having become a royal prince, Māndhātar goes to see the country. We do, indeed, perceive the young prince [left of the pillar] at the moment when, starting on his journey, he respectfully takes leave of his father [seated with his queen].

[Panel 39] During his absence the latter dies. Among the marvels susceptible of representation which are adjuncts of his coronation the text signalizes the sudden appearance of the seven jewels of the cakravartin. This is why we see depicted here among the surroundings of the prince, who [228] has become king, a disc [behind him], a jewel [center left?], a horse, an elephant [together far left], a woman [in front of him], a general, and a minister [??].

[Panel 40] The Divyāvadāna tells us, immediately after, that not far from Vaiśālī there is a charming wood, in which reside five hundred ṛṣis. Now extraneous noises are the scourge of pious meditations. A surly anchorite, annoyed by the noise of certain cranes, breaks their wings by a curse. King Māndhātar, angered in his turn by this hardness of heart, requests the hermits to depart from his dominions. The bas-relief also shows us birds placed on the ground between the king, who is standing in conversation with a stooping courtier, and two ṛṣis, recognizable by their big chignons and their rosaries, who are fleeing by the route of the air.

[Panel 41] Māndhātar, continuing his tour, decides not to have the fields of his kingdom any more cultivated; for the corn will rain down from heaven. The peasants do, in fact, gather up before his eyes bunches of ears of rice, which have fallen from the clouds: we expressly say bunches, and not sheaves, because in Java the rice is not cut, but gathered by hand.

[Panel 42] In the same way Māndhātar decides that his subjects will no longer need to cultivate cotton, or to spin, or to weave. Immediately there fall from the clouds pieces of woven material, which the people have only to catch in their flight and to fold up for subsequent use.

[Panel 43] Somewhat vexed, because his subjects attribute partly to themselves the merit of all these miracles, Māndhātar causes for seven days a shower of gold, but only within his own palace. This explains why, beside the king and his ministers, we see here only women, engaged in collecting the treasures pouring from jars set amid the clouds.

[229] [Panel 44] Finally king Māndhātar, preceded by the seven jewels of the cakravartin and followed by his army, sets out for the conquest of the universe: the feet of none of the persons touch the ground.

[Panel 45] Here the text, in order better to depict the insatiable greed of the human heart, enters upon a series of repetitions impossible to reproduce on stone. King Māndhātar has for a herald (purojava) a Yakṣa, or genius, who at each fresh conquest informs him of what still remains for him to conquer. On the monument we are in the presence, once for all, of this periodical council meeting; for the rest, the sculptor has given to the Yakṣa the ordinary appearance of a Brahmanic minister.

[Panel 46] On the following panel he conducts Māndhātar at a swoop to the summit of his prodigious fortune. Two kings, exactly alike and both with haloes, are seated in a palace side by side on seats of equal height, in the midst of their court. Without the slightest doubt the moment chosen is that when Śakra, the Indra of the Gods, has, on the mere mental wish of the king of men, yielded up to him the half of his throne: and there was no difference to be seen between them, except that the eyes of Śakra did not blink.

[Panel 47] If this interpretation were at all doubtful, it would be confirmed by the picture immediately following, which represents a combat between the gods and the Asuras. Thanks to their human ally, the gods triumph.

[Panel 48-50] But from this moment a certain hesitation begins to manifest itself between the text and the bas-reliefs; and immediately the uncertainty in our identifications reappears. According to the Divyāvadāna Māndhātar after the battle asks: “Who is conqueror?” “The king”, is the reply of his ministers; whereupon the infatuated king carries [230] his presumption so far as to wish to dethrone Indra, in order to reign alone in his place. But this time he has gone too far. Scarcely has he conceived this thought than he is thrust from the height of the heavens down to the earth; and he has hardly time, before he dies, to pronounce a few edifying words concerning the excess of his blind ambition. Consequently Panel 48, which is quite analogous to Panel 45, should represent the last consultation of the king with his minister;

Panel 49 should be dedicated to the last words which he pronounces after his fall, while on the left Śakra, standing and with a halo, should turn away from him; then finally

Panel 50 should show us his funeral and, as befits a cakravartin, the depositing of his ashes in a stūpa. But these explanations, plausible though they may be, have not the obviousness of the preceding.

3. Śibijātaka, the Birth Story of Śibi

We should say the same of those which we might propose for the ten bas-reliefs which continue the series as for as the western staircase, excepting the sixth. It seems indubitable that this latter represents the essential episode of the Śibijātaka, that is to say, that previous life in which the future Buddha ransomed a dove from a falcon at the price of an equal weight of his flesh. It is well known that we still have no Indian Buddhist version of this form of the legend. Except for the Brahmanic epopee, it is known to us only from the allusions of the Chinese pilgrims Fa-hien (trans. Legge, p. 30), Sung Yun (trans. Chavannes, B.E.F.E.O., III, p. 427), Hiuan-tsang (trans. Stan. Julien, I, p. 137), and from Chinese versions, such as that which was retranslated from Chinese by M. Ed. Huber, Sutrālankāra, Paris, 1908, p. 330, and from Tibetan by Schmidt, Der Weise und der Thor, p. 120. At least, nothing is wanting to the scene, neither the Bodhisattva seated in his palace, nor the bird of prey perched on a neighbouring tree, nor the [231] pigeon, which appears twice, once placed on the back of the throne and once in one of the plates of the scales. This time the bas-relief would be sufficient for its own interpretation. We feel how rare is such a case among all these sculptures; and the greater number of those of the upper row which in the south-west corner extend from the birth of Śākyamuni to the four excursions which determined his vocation are not more expressive.


King Māndhātar


Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

About this Website

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License