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Relief carving, Borobudur Photograph by Hardy Hartono Gunawan, 2008

Relief carving, Borobudur, Java, Indonesia. Relief carving of devotees on the second level of Rupadhatu (the world of forms) at Borobudur. Two flying deities are shown above the row of worshippers. Photograph by Hardy Hartono Gunawan, 2008 http://www.flickr.com/photos/gabisa_motonia/

Chinese literature of the 5th and 6th centuries mentions the significance of Palembang-Srivijaya as a centre for maritime trade, providing an important link between China, south-east Asia and India. During the 7th century it also became known as a centre for the practice of Vajrayana Buddhism (the Tantric school of Mahayana Buddhism). An ancient inscription (Talang Tuwo, 684 AD) indicates that the king associated himself with the power of a bodhisattva and was seen as a religious ruler.

When the Chinese pilgrim, Yijing, stopped at Palembang-Srivijaya on his way to Nalanda in India, he noted that the monastic community was more than 1000 monks and highly recommended it as an excellent centre for Buddhist scholarship. He studied there for several years, during which time he translated many Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Other notable pilgrim-scholars who studied at Srivijaya include Vajrabhodi, Dharamapala and Sakyakirti.

The construction of important Mahayana Buddhist temples such as Borobudur, along with many other temples and stupas suggests that Buddhism flourished in Indonesia. Although the influence of Buddhism declined from the 15th century, a revival during the 20th century was effected by missionary monks, particularly Narada Thera and Ashin Jinarakkhita.


Seated Buddha and perforated stupas at Borobudur. Photograph by Hardy Hartono Gunawan, 2008

Seated Buddha and perforated stupas at Borobudur. Photograph by Hardy Hartono Gunawan, 2008 http://www.flickr.com/ photos/gabisa_motonia/

Situated on top of a hill, approximately 40 km north-west of Yogyakarta in Central Java, Borobudur continues to be an important centre for Buddhist pilgrimage.

Built during the late 8th-early 9th century, this large and complex mountain-like structure resembles a mandala in layout, consisting of six square platforms on top of which are three circular terraces. A dome at the centre of the top platform is surrounded by 72 perforated stupas, each of which contains a statue of a seated Buddha. The various parts of the structure are thought to represent the Buddhist path towards enlightenment with the lower levels relating to the life of the Buddha and his previous lives, upwards through images of bodhisattvas towards representations of higher philosophical realities. Pilgrims circumambulate the monument, beginning on the lowest (ground) level, known as Kamadhatu (the world of desire), then move up to Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and finally Arupadhatu (the world of formless).

On each level the walls and balustrades are extensively decorated with 2,672 relief panels, illustrating significant events in the Buddha's life, stories of his previous lives (jatakas) and legends of kings, saints and deities, together with scenes of daily life. Over 500 statues of the Buddha are found at Borobudur, many of which are placed in rows of niches on each level of the monument.

With the decline of Buddhism in Java during the 14th century, Borobudur was abandoned. However, Sir Thomas Raffles, the British ruler of Java, re-discovered the site in 1814 and during the late 1970s-early 1980s it underwent extensive restoration by the Indonesian government and is now registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site is still used for pilgrimage and the annual festival of Vesak (celebrating the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death).


Seated figure of Vajrasattva, Museum no. IS.38-1994

Seated figure of Vajrasattva, bronze, 9th century, Srivijaya. Museum no. IS.38-1994

Various locations have been suggested for the kingdom of Srivijaya including Kalimantan (Borneo), Palembang (Sumatra) and Chaiya (Southern Thailand). It has also been thought that over approximately 5 centuries, the capital may have been moved several times for strategic or economic reasons. The importance of trade saw the empire expand its influence to include parts of Sumatra, Sri Lanka, the Malay Peninsula, Western Java, Sulawesi, the Malaccas, Borneo and the Philippines.

Although it has been proposed that Srivijaya could have been established as early as the 3rd-5th centuries AD , the earliest evidence of its existence was provided by the Chinese pilgrim-monk, I-Tsing, who visited for 6 months in 671. However, by the 13th century the kingdom's power and influence had faded away.

The Srivijayan kings, related to the Sailendras of central Java, brought Buddhism to Thailand and were patrons of the Buddhist university at Nalanda . The establishment and control of extensive trading links meant that new artistic ideas and styles were constantly introduced from Java, northern India (Pala) and southern India (Dvaravati), northern Thailand (Lanna), southern Vietnam and Kampuchea (Cham).

The Srivijayan period represented a high point in Thailand's artistic development with the production of some of the finest stone sculpture and bronze casting of both Buddhist and Hindu deities. Nakhon Si Thammarat was one of the most important Srivijayan cities where the restored stupa of Wat Mahathat still stands. The ruined stupa at Wat Kaew in Chaiya is another important structure of the Srivijayan period.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Museum no. IS.139-1999
Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, copper alloy, 7th-8th century, Srivijaya.
Museum no. IS.139-1999
Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Museum no. IS.40-1994
Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, bronze
7th-8th century, Srivijaya/Peninsular Thailand. Museum no. IS.72-1993
Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Museum no. IS.72-1993
Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, bronze
8th century, Srivijaya/Peninsular Thailand. Museum no. IS.40-1994

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