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.



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4. Rudrāyaṇāvadāna, the Traditions about Rudrāyaṇa

III. North-Western Corner. The bas-reliefs of the third portion of the first gallery (on the right-hand wall) are known to represent in the upper row the departure of Buddha from his home, that is to say, his entry into the religious life, and all the trials which preceded the attainment of perfect illumination. Out of the 30 in the lower row at least 22, and perhaps 25, are, as we shall show step by step, consecrated to the celebrated historical legend of king Rudrāyaṇa. Again it is in the Divyāvadāna that we may read it. XXXVII, ed. Cowell and Neil, pp. 544-586. It is known that Burnouf translated a fragment of it in his Introduction à I'histoire du Bouddhisme indien, pp. 341-344. In the B.E.F.E.-O. of 1906, M. Ed. Huber gave, in accordance with the Chinese translation and the Sanskrit text, an analysis of it, from which it clearly appears that this avadāna, like the preceding ones, is only an extract from the Vinaya of the Mūla-Sarvāstivādins. In this connection M. Huber had seemed to discern through the drawings of Wilsen that one of the episodes of the story, viz. that of the two cats (cf. below, Panel 80), was represented at Borobudur; but, justly discouraged by the inexactitudes of the only accessible reproductions, he was obliged to abandon this clue. Direct comparison of the text with the monument has permitted us to follow it up from one end to the other. [232] The extremely exact and sufficiently detailed resume published by M. Huber, to which we refer the reader, will allow us this time to insist a little less upon the history and a little more upon the sculptures.

First of all, we must state that we do not see any way of making the story on the stone begin at the corner of the western staircase, but only at the first re-entering angle after the face intersected by that staircase. Do the three first bas-reliefs on the left of the entrance, in which Śakra plays his accustomed role of deus ex machina, form a whole by themselves, or must they not rather be a continuation of those on the right? Or, on the contrary, may we not some day come to think that the story of Rudrāyaṇa also comprises a prelude omitted in the Divyāvadāna? Only the chance of reading some Indian text may some day tell us, even if we have not to await a solution by a Tibetan or a Chinese translation.

[Panel 64] For the moment we begin with the Divyāvadāna at Panel 64, where Rudrāyaṇa, king of Roruka, questions merchants, who have come from Rājagṛha, the capital of Bimbisāra, concerning the merits of their master.

[Panel 65] A king is seated in his palace; on his right a courtier holds in both hands a rectangular tablet: this must represent the letter which, in the first fire of his enthusiasm, the sovereign of Roruka resolved to write to his cousin of Magadha. Further, two suppositions are permissible: if the king represented is the sender, his name is Rudrāyaṇa; if, as seems more natural, he is the addressee, he is Bimbisāra. We do not ask our sculptors to decide this by attributing to each of the two monarchs a characteristic physiognomy: that would be exacting too much from them.

[Panel 66] Then follows a grand reception to welcome, [233] or to say farewell to, the improvised ambassadors, in a royal court no less uncertain. The Divyāvadāna says no word regarding this function: but the meaning of the mise en scene is not to be doubted; and, for the rest, it is sufficient to compare it with the bas-relief of the upper row, which represents a grand dinner offered to Buddha. There, as here, the table is laid in the Javanese fashion: from twenty to thirty bowls, containing divers seasonings or viands, surround an enormous pot of rice, which constitutes the principal dish in fact, a regular rijslaffel of ten centuries ago.

[Panel 67] This time the attitudes of the minor persons and the obvious character of the offering define very distinctly the hero and locality of the scene: Bimbisāra is receiving at Rājagṛha the casket of jewels which Rudrāyaṇa has sent to him together with his letter.

[Panel 68] The case of stuffs sent in return by the king of Magadha to his new friend occupies the middle of the scene: but the pensive air of the king and the respectful immobility of the attendants make it doubtful whether we have to do with Bimbisāra deciding upon his present, or Rudrāyaṇa receiving it and already wondering what he can give in exchange. We were somewhat inclined towards this last supposition: but, all taken into account, it seems impossible to establish a regular alternation between the heroes of these first six bas-reliefs. If we must admit any symmetry between them, we should rather be inclined to think that in nos. 1-3 the scene is at Roruka, and in the three following at Rājagṛiha. Then we return to Roruka until no. 13.

[Panel 69] However that may be, the following bas-relief again represents Bimbisāra, receiving from Rudrāyaṇa his precious cuirass [...] [234]

[Panel 70] The total absence of landscape is sufficiently rare to render it worth our while to direct attention to it here. The whole height and breadth of the panel are occupied by a procession, in which the place of honour, between the arms of a man perched on an elephant, belongs to a kind of rolled up kakemono, on which we know that the silhouette of Buddha is painted. Doubtless, the scene is taken at the moment when the inhabitants of Roruka, who are come out to meet this supreme gift from Bimbisāra, bring it back with great pomp to their town.

[Panel 71] This picture is quite analogous to Panel 64, not to mention that it is likewise placed at the turn of an angle: only, in the interval the subject of the conversation has changed in a most edifying manner, it is no longer the merits of their king which are the boast of the people of Rājagṛha, but those of Buddha himself.

[Panel 72] Rudrāyaṇa, as soon as converted, begged to receive instruction from a monk, and the master despatched to him the reverend Mahākātyāyana: a monk is, in fact, sitting at the right of the king, and even on a higher seat than he. In the most gratuitous and also the most perplexing manner the designer considered it necessary to surmount the shaven head of this monk (cf. pi. XXXVII, 2) with the protuberance of the uṣṇiṣa, which is special to Buddhas. Let us add that Mahākātyāyana seems, in the midst of the edified hearers, to be making a gesture of refusal: what he refuses is, doubtless, to preach in the gynaeceum of the king: that is the business of the nuns.

[Panel 73] Thus the following panel shows us the nun Śailā preaching from the height of a throne to the king and four of his wives, who are seated on [235] the ground. Behind her a servant seems to be ordering three armed guards to forbid anyone to enter the harem during the sermon. It will be noticed that doubtless from modesty the nun and, in a general way, the women are seated with their legs bent under them, and not crossed in the same manner as those of the monks and the men. In the same order of ideas we may again notice that the real padmāsana, with the legs closely crossed, the soles of the feet turned upwards and the right foot forward, is reserved by our sculptors for Buddha alone […]

[Panel 74] The scene is obviously the same, except in two points. Firstly, a second nun, squatting behind Śailā, represents doubtless the quorum necessary for an ordination. In the second place, there are now only women in the audience, and the place formerly occupied by the king is taken by a third Bhikshunī kneeling. Immediately the text invites us to recognize in this novice queen Candraprabhā, who, conscious of her approaching death, has obtained from Rudrāyaṇa authority to enter into religion.

[Panel 75] That on the following bas-relief the king is again in conversation with his favourite wife would likewise not be understood, did we not learn elsewhere that Candraprabhā was born again in the nearest heaven, and that she promised her husband to return after her death to advise him as to the ways and means of reunion with her in another life. Here she is fulfilling her promise.

[Panel 76] This explains also why the very next morning Rudrāyaṇa decides to go and be ordained a monk by Buddha, and announces to his son Śikhaṇḍin that he abdicates [236] in his favour. In this case the drawing of Leemans, pl. XCI, 152, reproduces only the upper part of the characters, and commits the very grave fault of making the king's interlocutor a woman: it is obviously a man.

[Panel 77] The two scenes Panel 72 and Panel 77, which are quite symmetrical, bring face to face with one another, in the customary surroundings of a royal residence, the type of the monk and the type of the king. Only the continuation of the text reveals to us that this time the monk is no longer Mahākātyāyana, but Rudrāyaṇa himself, who has just been ordained by Buddha in person at Rājagṛha. In a long dialogue he rejects, for his first round in public as a mendicant monk, the seductive offers of Bimbisāra. You may well imagine that it was impossible to pass by so fine an opportunity for reproducing, both on the monument and in the text, the famous episode of the temptation of the future Śākyamuni by this same Bimbisāra.

[Panel 78] The bas-relief is divided into two parts by a tree, and the different orientation of the characters emphasizes this separation. On the right, at Rājagṛha, the monk Rudrāyaṇa (still wrongly represented by Wilson as a Buddha) learns from merchants, natives of his country, that his son Śikhaṇḍin is conducting himself badly on the throne, and he promises to go and put things in order. On the left, at Roruka, King Śikhaṇḍin is warned by his evil [237] ministers that there is a rumour of his father’s early return, and he forms with them a plot to assassinate him. In the background is to be seen already, in her private palace, the Queen Mother, who in this portion of the story will play a very important part.

[Panel 79] The panel is divided like the preceding one, and the separating tree is, in this case, further reinforced by a little shrine, Text: edicula. which serves as porch to a palisaded interior: nevertheless the two scenes take place at Roruka. On the right king Śikhaṇḍin learns from several persons (one of whom, being armed, is perhaps his emissary, the executioner) of his father’s death and last words. On the left, filled with remorse for a double crime, the murder of a father and the murder of a saint, he comes to seek refuge with his mother: doubtless this is the moment chosen by the latter to disburden him at least of his crime of parricide by revealing to him, truly or falsely, that Rudrāyaṇa is merely his reputed father.

[Panel 80] There remains the task of exonerating him from the not less inexpiable murder of an arhat, or Buddhist saint. Is it worth while to recall the ingenious stratagem conceived by the evil ministers in order to prove that there is no arhat, or, at least, that those who pretend to be such are only charlatans? On the left we perceive, each hidden under his stūpa, the two cats which have been trained to answer to the name of the two first saints formerly converted by Mahākātyāyana. On the right the Queen Mother and Śikhaṇḍin take part in the demonstration, which to them appears convincing.

[Panel 81] The frame contains two distinct episodes. On the right king Śikhaṇḍin passes, seated in a litter; surely he has just ordered each person in his suite to throw [238] a handful of dust on Mahākātyāyana, with whom his relations have never been cordial. On the left the monk, already free from the heap of dust, under which he has miraculously preserved his life, announces to the good ministers Hiru and Bhiru the approaching and inevitable destruction of the infidel city of Roruka.

[Panel 82] Like Śikhaṇḍin in his palace, we witness the rain of jewels which, according to the prophet, must precede the fatal rain of sand. The eagerness of the inhabitants to gather up the precious objects, cast down from vesselsThese vessels, which we have already encountered above […] seem to be a current accessory of Indian imagination. Compare the passage from the Jātakamālā, XV, 15 (ed. Kern, p. 97; trans. Speyer, p. 138), where the clouds pour down “like overturned vessels”. in the height of the clouds, is painted with a vivaciousness which seemed to us quite deserving of reproduction. In the first row a boat which is being loaded with jewels proves that the good ministers have not forgotten a very practical recommendation of Mahākātyāyana. Let us remark in passing that the departure of the two good ministers in ships scarcely fits in with the localization (which was surely already known to the author of the text, and which M. Huber recently treated again in the B.E.F.E.O., VI, 1906, pp. 335-340) of Roruka in Central Asia.

[Panel 83] The destinies are accomplished: Roruka has been buried with almost all its inhabitants. When the curtain rises again, we are in the village of Khara, the first halting-place of Mahākātyāyana on the route of his return to India. The tutelary goddess of Roruka, who has followed him in his flight through the air, is detained at Khara by an imprudent promise: but, on leaving her, the monk presents her with a souvenir in the shape of his goblet, over [239] which a stupa is raised, it is the inauguration of this monument which is represented on the bas-relief: on the right is the chief of the village; on the left, with a lamp in one hand and a fan in the other, is the goddess herself; behind them crowd the laity of both sexes and the musicians.

[Panel 84] We are carried to the next halting-place, Lambaka. Śyāmāka, the young layman, the sole companion who remained with Mahākātyāyana, receives from the people of the country an offer of the throne. A miracle, which is frequent in the texts, but unsuitable for representation on stone (the shade of the tree under which he stands remains stationary, in order to shelter him), has revealed to them the excellence of his merit.

[Panel 85] We pass on to the third halting-place, Vokkāṇa. Here Mahākātyāyana leaves to her who in a former existence was his mother his beggar’s staff, a fresh pretext for building a stūpa. As in Panel 83, we are present at the inauguration of the monument. At least, the continuation of the narrative accords with the introduction of this subject on the bas-reliefs in too striking a manner for the identification not to impose itself.

Better still: just as Panels 83, 84 and 85 set before us religious feasts interrupted, thanks to a not excessive desire for variety, by a profane subject, so Panels 86, 87 and 88 intercalate a land scene between two maritime episodes.

[Panel 86] Landing of Bhiru and foundation of Hiruka. Apparently it is Bharukaccha, the Barygaza of the Greeks and the present Bharoch, or Broach, which is meant.

[Panel 87] Now this intervening scene represents the entrance of a monk into the palisaded enclosure of a town, whilst a group of inhabitants approaches to give him welcome. Here again, with the text in our hands, it seems difficult not to recognize the return of Mahākātyāyana to Śrāvasti.

[Panel 88] The two pictures in which we see a boat just drawing near [240] to a bank would represent, no less scrupulously than do the texts, the two foundations of Hiruka and Bhiruka by the two ministers Hiru and Bhiru after their flight by water from Roruka.

The double repetition of the scene of the stūpa and of the ship will be noticed. We do not see any plausible explanation of it, unless we suppose that the sculptor, after having skipped more than one important incident in the history of Rudrāyaṇa, has been obliged, in order to fill up the space for decoration, to lengthen out the epilogue. In fact, we must not forget that the bas-reliefs, which were carved in situ and in the very stones whose juxtaposition constituted the monument, could be neither removed nor replaced. There is no absurdity, therefore, in supposing that the artist, on approaching the last angle before the northern staircase, perceived that he still had to fill five or six panels, of which he could not decently devote more than two to the Kinnarajātaka: he will then have rid himself from his embarrassment by a double repetition, which moreover was justified by the texts, while bringing right to their destination all the few persons who had escaped from Roruka, that is the goddess, Śyāmāka, Mahākātyāyana, and the two good ministers.

5. Bhallāṭiyajātaka, the Birth Story of Bhallāṭiya

[241] [Panel 89] We may say, furthermore, that the two last panels of this portion of the gallery Panels 89 & 90 are likewise duplicates. The only appreciable difference is that the same prince is standing on the first to overhear and seated on the second to listen to the discourse of the same pair of Kinnaras. Such is, in fact, the name that we do not hesitate to give to the human phenomena, who are related to the Gandharvas by their musical talents Gandhabbaputta they are called by st. 7 of Jātaka no. 481 (IV, p. 252, 1 16). and who are represented here with birds’ wings and feet. The Buddhist art of India and the Far East seems to have taken no account whatever of the concurrent tradition which claims that the Kinnaras are human monsters with horses’ heads. It is not that monsters of this kind are unknown to ancient Indian sculpture; but the woman with a horse’s head, who, on a medallion of the balustrade of Bodh-Gaya (Rāj. Mitra, Buddha-Gayâ, pl. XXXIV, 2) and of that of the smaller stūpa at Sāñchī, is carrying away a man, is at the commencement of Jātaka no, 432, which relates her history, simply called a yakkhiṇī assamukhī. When it has not been considered more suitable to give them, as above in the illustration of the Sudhanakumāra legend, a purely anthropomorphic aspect, it is usually a kind of harpy that is represented under this name. This strange combination of the bust of a man or a woman, with or without arms, grafted on to the body of a bird, is found almost everywhere. It fits as well into the corners of the pediments of the temple of Mārtaṇḍ in Kashmir as into those of the metopes of the Prambanan temple in Java. It has continued to be especially frequent in the decorative and religious art of Siam. In India proper it appears in the paintings of Ajaṇṭā; and we have remarked elsewhere, in a sculpture inscribed on the “Tower of Victory” at [242] Chitor (XVth Century), “a double pair of Kinnaras”, perfectly analogous to those of Borobudur. We brought back a photograph of it: the inscription is: Kinnarayugmayugma. Perhaps, under the Kinnarajātaka rubric, they were not otherwise treated even on the old railing of Barhut: unfortunately we can only judge of this by a wretched sketch from a half-broken stone, and there is at present nothing to prove that, as Cunningham suggests, the leaves, or the feathers, which terminate the busts of the two monsters, must have separated their human trunks from their bird legs. Cunningham, Stûpa of Barhut, p. 69 and pl. XXVII, 12 […] Grünwedel, Buddhistische Studien, p. 92, points out that the connection between the Kinnara-jātaka of Barhut and that of Boro-Budur has already been shown by Heer J. W. Yzerman in the Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenhunde van Ned. Ind., Vijfde Volgreeks, d. I, afl. 4, pp. 577-579. Since the above was written representations of Kinnaras have also been found on the paintings of Central Asia.

[Panel 90] We consider ourselves none the less authorized by this inscription to consider the two Panels 89 & 90 as a replica of this same jātaka: what other justification can be given for the edifying character of these scenes and for their introduction into the series? Certainly the subject is once again borrowed from one of the previous lives of the Master: the only question is exactly which “re-birth” is concerned. Here the two prolix pictures of Borobudur will be of assistance in determining retroactively the real identification of the bas-relief of Barhut, so poor in details. It is here quite clear, for example, that the scene of the adventure is a rocky solitude: we must at once put aside a certain episode in the Takkārīyajātaka (no. 481) since it takes place in a royal court, where two Kinnaras, put in to a cage, refuse to display their talents. Moreover, we cannot fix upon the Candakinnarajātaka (no. 485), although that [243] too has for scenery a piece of jungle: for our king is evidently not thinking of killing the male Kinnara, in order to get possession of the female. It therefore remains for us to adopt the Bhallāṭiyajātaka (no. 504), in which also we have nothing but conversations in a mountainous district. In other words, relying on the replica of Boro-Budur, we believe we may for the bas-relief of Barhut leave aside the identifications proposed by Cunningham (loc. cit.) and Prof. Hultzsch (Ind. Ant., XXI, 1892, p. 226) and advocate that of Mr. S. J. Warren and of Dr. S. d'Oldenburg, who, besides, is right in believing it as not more demonstrable merely by the aid of the sole Indian document than the two others (loc. cit., p. 191). It is a most touching love story. The king of Benares, while out hunting, surprises in the depth of the wood the extraordinary behaviour of two of these marvellous beings, and enquires why they cover each other alternately with tears and caresses. He learns that 697 years ago they were separated for one single night by the sudden swelling of a river; and in their life of a thousand years the loving couple have never yet been able to forget this cruel separation, or to console each other entirely for those few hours irremediably lost to their happiness. It will be observed on Panel 90 that the sculptor has considered it his duty to maintain the hierarchical order, and has placed the male in front of the female, as if he were the interlocutor of the king: but in the text of the jātaka, just as in the famous Dantesque episode of Francesca di Rimini, it is the woman, always the more ready to speak, who relates their common adventure, whilst her lover stands silent by her side.


King Rudrāyaṇa


Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

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