Emma Natalya Stein, Freer|Sackler curatorial fellow for Southeast Asian art, shares scenes from her recent journey to Indonesia.
August 4, 2017
It’s 6 pm Friday evening, and the mosques compete for airtime on my balcony at Chakra Homestay. I am in the city of Solo (Surakarta), one of Java’s historical courtly centers, where I arrived this afternoon. For the past week I have been in Central Java’s other epicenter of art and culture, Yogyakarta, for an exciting workshop on Southeast Asian art history, co-organized by SOAS London and Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. The program brought together scholars from Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States to explore topics relating to the interconnected Hindu-Buddhist world. A particular focus was esoteric religious practice (tantra) in Indonesia and its appearance in art.
After several days of seminars, we set out for a field trip to temples—always the greatest part, especially for an art-loving group! Each of the sites we visited dates to the Central Javanese period (circa eighth–tenth century).
First on our list was the majestic Buddhist monument of Borobudur, famous for its five terraces brilliantly carved with narrative reliefs and its hundreds of seated Buddhas.
On day two we ascended the Dieng Plateau, a four-hour drive north of Yogyakarta, where Hindu temples that closely—but not entirely—resemble Indian temples overlook the surrounding lowlands, beside an emerald green lake.
The third day was devoted to the palatial Ratu Boko monastery and the vast complex of temples at Prambanan.
We then returned to Yogyakarta for a final day of intensive seminars. After the workshop, I’ll head off for a week of additional temple visits farther east in central Java and in Bali. It begins tomorrow at 6 am with a visit to a cluster of esoteric temples on the tea-covered slopes of Gunung (volcano) Lawu.
August 13, 2017
Sacred sites in Indonesia are intimately connected with the natural environment. They are carved into rocks, situated on the banks of rushing rivers, and carefully positioned with respect to the archipelago’s sometimes-violent volcanoes. In Bali, where Hindu tradition continues to be vibrant, this connection is especially evident.
Although the island’s sacred landscape is densely packed with sites both old and new, the greatest concentration is situated centrally, within a fertile tract of land between two rivers. Basing myself in Ubud, I was able to make day trips to many places of art historical and archaeological interest.
I began my days in the damp cool of early morning and traveled on the back of a local driver’s motorbike. In addition to the driver’s familiarity with the roads, I had as my primary resource A.J. Bernet Kempers’ volume Monumental Bali. It remains the essential guide to the area, despite the fact that the data was collected in the 1980s. Fortunately, since its publication, some of the sites labeled “difficult access” have become more easily accessible, and further excavation work has revealed additional important destinations.
Each place I visited presented a unique picture of the interconnectedness of Bali’s sacred art and its natural landscape. However, what I found most compelling was when I could see the connection between sites. One way to do so was by walking from one to another—but such opportunities are increasingly rare. As sacred places are converted into tourist attractions, the links between them become obscured or, worse, obliterated. The creation of a monument carves out a discrete space and isolates it from the surrounding landscape. This can entail the destruction of related sites through the paving of parking lots and stairways and the building of ticket offices, restrooms, and other visitor facilities.
I did remember from a brief visit to Bali ten years ago that it had been possible to walk through the jungle between two of central Bali’s better-known attractions—the cave temple of Goa Gajah and the monumental relief carving at Yeh Pulu. Most guidebooks don’t mention the link, but some inquiries at Goa Gajah soon led me to the trailhead. Walking back behind the main archaeological area, I could see some fragments of a large relief that had been carved into the rock face and hear the sounds of the jungle beginning to take over.
The narrow footpath is lined on both sides by purple flowers and a dense tangle of dripping vines. Sounds of the rushing river rise from the gorge below. At several places, the path branches off and plunges down to the water. Here, the jungle’s cacophony emerges.
At one place, a recently constructed bamboo bridge leads to a series of caves. Thick tree roots growing through the rocks suggest a relatively ancient date of excavation.
After about a half a mile, the path halts at a small temple with a bathing place below.
It then wends out of the jungle and into paddy fields to emerge at Yeh Pulu, where a monumental relief carving depicts stories associated with the Hindu deity Krishna amid scenes of pastoral life in Bali.
Another place where I was clearly able to see the connection between sites was when—to my surprise—a steep ascent through terraced rice fields led me from Tirta Empul, one of Bali’s holiest bathing places, up to Pura Pegulingan, the next temple I’d hoped to visit that day! Pura Pegulingan presents an excellent picture of Bali’s unique fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism. Remains of sculptures related to the deity Shiva can be found throughout the temple courtyard, which is centered on a towering stupa, a Buddhist reliquary mound.
Off the beaten pathways was where I most often discovered walkable connections among sites. I found that following the rivers revealed a network of related places, often composed of a larger, perhaps primary place with a proliferation of smaller shrines, caves, and bathing places around it. While the larger monuments suggest elite patronage, the constellation of minor sites likely functioned as hermitages and places of worship for ascetics and local communities—much, in fact, as some still do today.
Indonesia is a fantastic place to visit. Whether or not you’ve had the chance to go, you’ll be able to experience examples of its artwork firsthand in Washington, DC. Come see the new Southeast Asia galleries when the Freer|Sackler reopens this October!