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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6. Maitrakanyakāvadāna, the Traditions about Maitrakanyaka

IV. North-Eastern Corner. Altogether we have offered certain, or at least extremely probable, interpretations of 27 out of the 30 panels bordering upon the preceding corner. The 30 still to be considered are much more refractory to all attempts at explanation. After Messrs. S. d’Oldenburg, [244] Speyer and Groneman we can quote as certain only the identification of the Maitrakanyakāvadāna. For the rest, it would be useless to launch out into hypotheses, where we still lack the elements of proof; and even more so to renew the purely descriptive commentary which Leemans has given in full: for there is no task more idle than to describe bas-reliefs without understanding them. Let us say in defence of the Dutch archaeologist that access to the sources was for him almost impossible, and that he had at least the perspicacity to recognize that the pictures of the lower series do not form a continuation of those of the upper.

On the north-eastern corner these latter extend from Buddha’s attainment of the Bodhi to his first preaching. Below, the legend of Maitrakanyaka is related to us between two others, of whose titles we are still ignorant. Our first care, therefore, must be to determine as exactly as possible where it commences and where it ends. The texts which have preserved it for us, and to which we are indebted for the explanation of the meaning of the bas-reliefs, agree in rendering the story in two symmetrical parts, separated by a turning-point. Maitrakanyaka, the orphan son of a shipowner, follows at first various trades, in order to provide for the needs of his mother, to whom he successively offers gains increasing according to a geometrical progression [245] of 4, 8, 16, and 32 kārṣāpaṇas; but, as she wishes to prevent him from following his father’s example and going to sea, he forgets himself so far as to kick her prostrate head. The wreck of the ship which he has fitted out marks the culminating point in the story, of which the second part corresponds, point for point, with the first. Having escaped death, Maitrakanyaka is, as a reward for his works, successively and amorously received at each halting-place by 4, 8, 16 and 32 nymphs (apsaras): but his adventurous spirit leads him still further and further, at last into a hell where sons who strike their mothers are punished. This symmetry must have been welcome to the sculptor, and must have dictated to him in his turn the arrangement of his bas-reliefs. Now the scene of the wreck is figured on Panel 108, and the story does not end until Panel 112. One might suppose, therefore, that the four pictures which precede Panel 108 are likewise consecrated to Maitrakanyaka. One thing at least is certain, namely that he appears, already accompanied by his mother, on Panel 107, at the corner of the north and east facades of the stūpa. For the following ones we are entirely in accord with Prof. Speyer and Dr. Groneman.

[Panel 106] Under a maṇḍapa Maitrakanyaka, seated on the ground with his hands joined, is offering to his mother a purse, which he has just placed before her upon a tray adorned with flowers. The bystanders are numerous: behind the mother are seven women, standing or crouching; behind the son may be counted five of his companions. Quite at the left a house is seen in outline. It will be observed that the left elbow of the mother is as [246] though the joint were twisted: let us not hasten to cry out that this is a mistake on the part of the sculptor, or even a deformity, at least according to the native taste: the skilfully dislocated arms of the Javanese dancing-girls bend no otherwise than in this position.

[Panel 107] An edifice cuts the panel into two distinct parts. On the right Maitrakanyaka is practising his last sedentary occupation, that of a goldsmith, as is proved by the small balance held by a woman, who may be either his mother or a simple customer. In the foreground a purse, bigger than that of the preceding picture, is doubtless supposed to contain the 32 kārṣāpaṇas. The four legendary gifts would thus have been reduced by the sculptor to two. On the left, in fact, despite the poor state of the bas-relief, we see the mother of Maitrakanyaka vainly prostrated at his feet.

[Panel 108] The supplications of his mother failed to restrain Maitrakanyaka; on the right we see the sad end of his sea-voyage, on the left his encounter with the four first nymphs. Here the sculptor seems to have been afraid neither of repeating himself nor of wearying the spectator by the sight of so many pretty women; for we perceive successively:

[Panel 109] The encounter with the 8 nymphs;

[Panel 110] The encounter with the 16 nymphs (in point of fact they are only 11);

[Panel 111] The encounter with the 32 nymphs (14 in reality).

[Panel 112] At last the mania for roaming has led Maitrakanyaka as far as a town of hell: apparently [247] he is gathering information from the terrible guardian of the place, whilst in the background we perceive, with a burning wheel upon its head, the condemned soul whose place, unwittingly, he has come to take. For the rest both wear the same costume, with the exception of a few details in the form of their jewels. But these differences, slight though they be, exclude, it appears, the possibility of recognizing Maitrakanyaka a second time in the sufferer. There is every reason for believing, on the contrary, that, owing to a scruple of the artist, just as we did not see him strike his mother, so also we are not witnesses of his punishment: like his crime, his chastizement is only suggested. We must not forget, in fact, that he is the Bodhisattva in person. According to the texts, the wheel of fire has scarcely mounted upon his head, than he forms a vow to endure this terrible suffering for ever with a view to the salvation of humanity: whereupon he is immediately freed from all suffering. Does the left part of the panel forthwith represent this apotheosis? Or does the palisading which intersects the building, while at the same time determining the boundaries of the interior of the infernal town, serve as a framework for a new action? This it is almost impossible for us to decide, so long as we have not identified in their turn the eight panels of the following and final story.

Let us sum up: the principal wall of the first gallery of Borobudur is decorated with 240 bas-reliefs, arranged in two rows; all those of the upper row have already been identified by the help of the Lalitavistara; thanks especially to the Divyāvadāna, the same may now be said of two thirds of those of the lower row. This recapitulation of the results obtained not only encourages us to hope for the [248] fortunate completion of this enterprise in a relatively near future: it also allows us to discern the ways and means to the ultimate success, as well as the difficulties which we shall continue to encounter. Among the first of these we must naturally place the absence of satisfactory reproductions. The long series which we have just examined would doubtless have been recognized long ago, as were immediately the scenes, in two or three pictures, of jātakas figured on the opposite wall, if the published drawings had been perfectly exact. But a slight inattention such as, in the story of Maitrakanyaka, the change of sex of a person, or, in that of Rudrāyaṇa, the transformation of a monk into a Buddha is, as may be conceived, sufficient to put us off the scent, and forces archaeologists who have not direct access to the originals to abandon the most judiciously chosen clue. We must, therefore, rejoice that the Government-General of the Dutch Indies has recently sanctioned the project of photographing all the sculptures still existing at Borobudur. Doubtless it will, with its accustomed generosity, not fail to distribute copies among the various societies for oriental studies. On this condition alone will the enigmas which still resist, although invaded on all four sides at once, finally yield to the collective researches of students of Buddhism; in the meantime we cannot legitimately reproach the latter for having left so long unexplained a monument of this importance.

Does this mean that it is sufficient to cast one’s eyes upon exact reproductions, or even upon the originals, of these bas-reliefs, whose narrative aim is not doubtful, in order to understand their meaning? The preceding identifications prove clearly enough that it is also necessary to know beforehand the story which they would tell. And, doubtless, the blame for this belongs to some extent to the [249] sculptors: still it would be well, before devolving upon them the burden of our ignorance, to have present to our minds the conditions under which they must have worked. Firstly, enormous surfaces were given them to be covered: on the principal wall of the first gallery alone the 240 panels there aligned have an area of more than 400 square metres! In truth, it was not so much sculpture as decorative fresco-work that was exacted from them. Hence we understand why in the 120 pictures of the upper row they should have spun out the childhood and youth of their Master, whilst in the 120 of the lower one they somewhat lengthened out the ten avadānas to which they had recourse in order to fill the space. It was materially impossible for them to keep solely to the picturesque or pathetic episodes, that is to those which alone had a chance of being immediately recognized by the spectator, and which were capable of forthwith arousing in the faithful of former days the memory of some tradition and in the archaeologist of to-day the recollection of some reading. For them every incident is good, provided that it lends itself docilely to representation. We may even ask ourselves whether the most colourless motifs are not in their view the best. They are really too fond of scenes in which everything takes place by way of visits and conversations between persons whose discreet gestures, such as are becoming to people of good company, tell us absolutely nothing concerning the course of events. If this abuse is, strictly speaking, excusable, they do not, in our opinion, escape the reproach of having more than once evaded the difficulty by intentionally omitting, and replacing by insipid receptions at court, subjects more dramatic and consequently better fitted to make us grasp the thread of the story. It is, of course, understood that we are here speaking from the point of view of the identification of these bas-reliefs. All the less must we forget that we are treating of images of piety, the more mindful the sculptors themselves were of this. Their evident decision to put aside all scenes of violence (bloody sacrifices, executions, murders, parricide, etc.) offered by their subjects, is justified, like their irreproachable chastity, by the desire to arouse in the mind of the faithful none but calm and collected, in one word, truly Buddhist impressions. This they have perfectly succeeded in doing, and we are rather in the wrong to reproach them for it. It is not entirely their fault if our western taste, corrupted by an excessive striving for expression and movement, is especially affected by the monotony of these series, whose edifying character remains to us a dead letter.

[250] Not only are the characteristic episodes thus drowned in a dull, monotonous flood of pictures without movement, but even in each picture the principal motif is often submerged under a veritable debauch of accessories and details. The only excuse here for the artists is to be found in the form of the frame, which is at least three times as wide as it is high. Consequently there is no great personage whose cortege is not spread out to form a wallcovering, sometimes over several rows. True, the presence of these numerous dumb actors is quite conformable to Javanese, as well as to Indian, custom; but it is understood that most often they take no part in the action: they confine themselves to crowding it with their stereotyped repetition, which is more or less compensated by the variety of the attitudes, always deftly treated. This is not all: the sculptors have made it, as it were, a point of honour not to leave vacant any part of the surface at their disposal. In order to complete the furnishing of their panels, they go so far as to fill the space beneath the seats with coffers or vases; at the top they heap together, according to circumstances, buildings or trees, naturally figured on a reduced scale; or again rocks, treated according to the old Indian convention; or, finally, animals [251] of all kinds, cleverly sketched, indeed, from life, with the single exception of the horses, which are mediocre. It may be imagined that the clearness of the story is not much enhanced by this crowding, the more so as there is nothing to tell us, for example, whether the animals play a part in it or not: for the worst is that they sometimes do so. Thus the birds represented in the Śibijātaka, or on such and such a scene from the Māndhātrāvadāna, form an integral part of the story, whilst those which fly away with Manoharā are pure decoration. Finally, we must not forget that the artists of Borobudur did not in any way forbid themselves the use of the ancient expedients of the Indian school, juxtaposition of two or three distinct episodes and repetition of a person in the same picture. Thus it may happen and on this point the reading of Leemans’ descriptions is particularly edifying that in the midst of such confused masses we fail to fix upon the sole actors, or objects, whose presence is of real importance for the concatenation of the facts.

But the chief and most evident fault of these bas-reliefs is the persistent incapacity of their authors, in spite of their manual skill, to create figures having a characteristic individuality. Assuredly, it would be unfair to regard it as a crime on the part of the artists of those distant isles not to have reached a pinnacle of art which remained unknown to the Indian school and to which Greek art itself attained only at its best period. But the fact is patent. They are capable of representing types, but not individuals. They possess a model of a king, which serves without distinction for gods, as does that of the queen for goddesses; a model of a monk, which, with the exception of the coiffure, is equally suitable for Buddhas; a model of a courtier, an [252] anchorite, a Brahman, a warrior, etc. This stock figure is used by them on all occasions. According to the circumstances it is capable, by the play of gesture and even by facial features, of expressing different states of mind: it is incapable of assuming a physiognomy distinguishing it from its congeners. Thus it is that, for example, in the same legend we have seen the same princely personage called here Dhana, Sudhana, or Druma, there Rudrāyaṇa, Bimbisāra, or Śikhaṇḍin. At a distance of five panels a king and a monk are similarly engaged in conversation with each other: nothing warns us that in the interval they have both changed their personalities. It would not appear that in ancient times the pilgrim who made the pradakshiṇā of these galleries was able without the oral commentary of some monkish cicerone to ascribe different names to figures so similar: still less can we, now that the local tradition is completely extinct, dispense with a written commentary. We may affirm that we shall succeed in identifying on the walls of Borobudur only those bas-reliefs of which we have somewhere read the legend: and, again, the example of the Sudhanakumārāvadāna proves that we must have read it in the same work as had the sculptor.

This bookish character of the sculptures of Borobudur is from the philological point of view the most curious conclusion to which we are led by our rapid inquiry directed to the particular point of view of their identification. If these bas-reliefs cannot be understood except by a constant comparison with the texts, it is because they were composed after the texts and to serve as illustrations thereto. Through the lithographic reproductions the manner in which the Javanese artists treated the last life of Buddha had already given us an inkling of this: the direct study [253] of the originals and the review of the neighbouring series only confirm us in this opinion. Art gréco-houddhique du Gandhâra, vol. I, p. 617. It follows that these sculptures not only give us information on many concrete details of contemporary Javanese life and civilization: they also reveal to us which version of the Buddhist writings was most readily used in Java at that time. Thus we know already from the manner in which the artist illustrated the legend of Prince Sudhana, that he followed the Sanskrit text preserved by the Divyāvadāna, and not the Prākrit version of the Mahāvastu. The three other certainly identified avadānas, those of Māndhātar, Rudrāyaṇa, and Maitrakanyaka, likewise attest the current custom of drawing from this canonical fund of which the Divyāvadāna is a kind of anthology. Now the independent researches of MM. Ed. Huber and Sylvain Levi have shown simultaneously that this last collection is, for the most part, taken from the Vinayapiṭaka of the Mūla-Sarvāstivādins; and, on the other hand, the Chinese tell us that the Lalitavistara, which is followed page after page by the bas-reliefs of the upper row, belongs to the same school. Cf. Ed. Huber, B.E.F.E.O.,VI, 1906 and S. Lévi, T’oung pao, series II, vol. VIII, no. I; Beal, Romantic Legend, pp. 386-7. The study of the sculptures of Borobudur authorizes, therefore, the supposition that the canon of the Mūla-Sarvāstivādins was that best known in Java. Perhaps this preference was due to the prestige of the Sanskrit, in which it was edited, and to what may be called its higher exportation value, as compared with the Prākrit of the Mahāsāṅghikas, or the Pāli of the Sthaviras. However this may be, the hypothesis is clearly confirmed by the categorical information furnished by the Chinese traveller Yi-tsing; in his time, he tells us, towards the year 700 of our era, that is [254] to say, scarcely a century before the foundation of Borobudur, in the Islands of the Southern Sea the Mūla-Sārvāstivādanikāya has been almost universally adopted. I-Tsing, A Record of the Buddhist Religion, trans. Takakuso, p. 10. Lit. “there is almost only one...” This agreement in the evidences deserves to be noticed. All taken into account, it does not impair the interest of our bas-reliefs. Assuredly, in spite of the talent of their authors, they were condemned beforehand to lack that indefinable spontaneity and animation which can be communicated to the work of the artist only by labour in communion with a still living oral tradition. The sculptors of Borobudur, in the effort to revive an inspiration at times languishing, have had to be content with dipping into foreign and already ancient texts: but, on the other hand, they have the merit of having supplied us with several series of illustrations for authentic fragments of the sacred scriptures of Buddhism, treated with a technical skill which would deserve to be studied in detail by those whose metier it is. If our conclusions run the risk of somewhat lessening the aesthetic value of their works, the documentary interest emerges, by way of compensation, considerably increased.




Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

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