Trim mustache. Southeast Asian arts - Borobudur,


Borobudur is one of the most impressive monuments ever created by man. It is both a temple and a complete exposition of doctrine, designed as a whole, and completed as it was designed, with only one major afterthought. It seems to have provided a pattern for Hindu temple mountains at Angkor (see above Cambodia and Vietnam ), and in its own day it must have been one of the wonders of the Asian world. Built about 800, it probably fell into neglect by c. 1000 and was overgrown. It was excavated and restored by the Dutch between 1907 and 1911. It now appears as a large, square plinth (the processional path) upon which stand five terraces gradually diminishing in size. The plans of the squares are stepped out twice to a central projection. Above the fifth terrace stands a series of three diminishing circular terraces carrying small stupas, crowned at the centre of the summit by a large, circular, bell-shaped stupa. Running up the centre of each face is a long staircase; all four are given equal importance. There are no internal cell shrines, and the terraces are solid; Borobudur is thus a Buddhist stupa in the Indian sense. Each of the square terraces is enclosed in a high wall with pavilions and niches along the whole perimeter, which prevents the visitor on one level from seeing into any of the other levels. All of these terraces are lined with relief sculptures, and the niches contain Buddha figures. The top three circular terraces are open and unwalled, and the 72 lesser, bell-shaped stupas they support are of open stone latticework; inside each was a huge stone Buddha figure. The convex contour of the whole monument is steepest near the ground, flattening as it reaches the summit. The bottom plinth, the processional path, was the major afterthought. It consists of a massive heap of stone pressed up against the original bottom story of the designed structure, so that it obscures an entire series of reliefs—a few of which have been uncovered in modern times. It was probably added to hold together the bottom story, which began to spread under the pressure of the immense weight of earth and stone accumulated above. Asian mustache styles.

The stupa complex at Borobudur in Java, Indonesia.

Robert Harding Picture Library/Photobank BKK

Buddha sculpture and stupas at Borobudur, central Java, Indonesia.

The whole building symbolizes a Buddhist transition from the lowest manifestations of reality at the base, through a series of regions representing psychological states, toward the ultimate condition of spiritual enlightenment at the summit. The unity of the monument effectively proclaims the unity of the cosmos permeated by the light of truth. The visitor was meant to be transformed as he climbed through the levels of Borobudur, encountering illustrations of progressively more profound doctrines the nearer he came to the summit. The topmost terrace, whose main stupa contained an unfinished image of Buddha that was hidden from the spectator’s view, symbolized the indefinable ultimate spiritual state. The 72 openwork stupas on the circular terraces, with their barely visible internal Buddhas, symbolize incomplete states of enlightenment on the borders of manifestation. The usual way for a pilgrim to pay reverence to a Buddhist stupa is to walk around it, keeping it on his right hand. The vast series of reliefs about 3 feet (1 metre) high on the exterior walls of the terraces would thus be read by the visitor in series from right to left. Between the reliefs are decorative scroll panels, and a hundred monster-head waterspouts carry off the tropical rainwater. The gates on the stairways between terraces are of the standard Indonesian type, with the face of the Kala monster at the apex, vomiting his scrolls.

Stupas at Borobudur, central Java, Indonesia.

Stupas at Borobudur, central Java, Indonesia.


The reliefs of the lowest level illustrate scenes that show the causal workings of good and bad deeds through successive reincarnations. They show, for example, how those who hunt, kill, and cook living creatures such as tortoises and fish are themselves cooked in hells or die as children in their next life. They show how foolish people waste their time at entertainments. From these scenes of everyday life, one moves to the terraces above, where the subject matter becomes more profound and metaphysical. It illustrates important Mahayana texts dealing with the self-discovery and education of the bodhisattva, conceived as being possessed by compassion for and devoted wholly to the salvation of all creatures. The reliefs on the uppermost terraces gradually become more static. The sensuous roundness of the forms of the figures is not abated; but, in the design, great emphasis is laid upon horizontals and verticals and upon static, formal enclosures of repeated figures and gestures. At the summit all movement disappears, and the design is entirely subordinated to the circle enclosing the stupa.

The iconography of Borobudur suggests that the legend of the royal bodhisattva recounted in many of the reliefs was meant to “authenticate” some king or dynasty. Yet it hardly seems possible that Borobudur was the focus of a specific royal cult, as there is no provision at all for the performance of royal ritual. It must have been, then, in some sense a monument for the whole people, the focus for their religion and life, and a perpetual reminder of the doctrines of their religion.

A considerable number of bronzes, some small, some large, have been found in Indonesia in a style close to that of the sculptures of Borobudur and Mendut. One fine, large standing image comes from Kotabangun in Borneo; but some come from Java. Many small cult images of the Buddha and Buddhist deities exist. Some are close in type to the early Pala images of Indian Bihar, the homeland of Buddhism, with which the Javanese must have maintained close touch. A few small but extremely fine gold figurines of undoubted Javanese workmanship have also turned up. For all their small size they must rate as first-class works of art. As well as images there are many beautiful bronze ceremonial objects, such as lamps, trays, and bells. These objects are decorated with the same kinds of ornament, although on a miniature scale, as the architectural monuments: scrolled leaves, swags, and bands of jewels.

Post-Borobudur candis

Post-Borobudur candis illustrate the Buddhist doctrine in different ways. Kalasan, for example, built in the second half of the 8th century, was a large, square shrine on a plinth, with projecting porticoes at the centre of each face. The roof was surmounted by a high circular stupa mounted on an octagonal drum, the faces of which bear reliefs of divinities. Topping each portico was a group of five small stupas, and another large stupa stood at each disengaged corner of the main shrine. The moldings were restrained and elegantly profiled. Each section of the exterior wall contains a niche meant for a figure sculpture. The decorative scroll carving is especially fine.

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Another shrine from this period, Candi Sewu, consisted of a large cruciform shrine surrounded by smaller temples, only one of which has been restored. All of the temples seem to have had roofs in the form of tiered stupas, compressing the overall Borobudur scheme into the scope of a storied shrine tower. From Candi Plaosan came many beautiful sculptures, donor figures, and iconic images of bodhisattva s.

Perhaps the most interesting of the post-Borobudur Buddhist shrines of the 9th century is Candi Sari. It is an outstanding architectural invention. From the outside it appears as a large, rectangular, three-storied block, with the main entrance piercing the centre of one of the longer sides. The third story stands above a substantial architrave with horizontal moldings and antefixes. Two windows on each short side, three on each long, open into each story, though at the rear they are blind. The windows are crowned by large antefix-like cartouches of ornamental carving based on curvilinear pavilions hung with strings of gems. The uppermost windows are hooded with the Kala-monster motif. The roof bears rows of small stupas, and perhaps there was once a large central stupa. Inside, Candi Sari contains a processional corridor around three interior shrines that were possibly intended for images of the garbha-dhatu deities, as at Candi Mendut.

The last great monument of the central Javanese period, Lara Jonggrang at Prambanan, is indeed a colossal work, rivaling Borobudur. It was probably built soon after 900. Not Buddhist but Hindu, the shrine represents the cosmic mountain. There were originally 232 temples incorporated into the design. The plan was centred on a square court with four gates containing the eight principal temples. Facing east, the central and largest temple, some 120 feet (40 metres) high, was devoted to the image of Shiva. To the north and south it is flanked by slightly smaller temples devoted to the two other members of the Hindu trinity, Vishnu and Brahma. The smaller shrines contained many subsidiary images. The whole complex was enclosed, far off-centre, in an extremely large walled courtyard.

Although these are Hindu buildings, their high-terraced shrine roofs bear tiers of elongated and gadrooned stupas. The reliefs on these structures are especially beautiful. One series, representing the guardians of the directions, integrates the ornamental motifs with the plastic forms of the bodies in a most original way. The balustrades and inset panels abound with lively reliefs portraying various deities or scenes taken from the great Hindu classics, especially the Ramayana.

East Javanese period: 927–16th century

During the east Javanese period a very large number of monuments were produced at the eastern end of the island (after 1222) and in Bali (after c. 1050). Few single structures, however, are as impressive and as comprehensively planned as are the monuments of Borobudur or Lara Jonggrang.

Around the strange natural mountain with tiered peaks cut and built in stone called Mount Penanggungan there are 81 structures (10th century) of different kinds (now mostly in ruins). Prominent among these structures are bathing places. This mountain was identified by the people with the sacred Mount Meru, and its natural springs were believed to have a magical healing power and a mystical purifying capacity. Another such bathing place is Belahan (11th century). Made of brick, it, too, has extensive ruined temples. Belahan is supposed to have been the burial place of King Airlangga, who probably died about 1049. One of the greatest east Javanese icons formed the central figure against the back wall of the tank. Carved of red tufa (a porous rock), it shows the god Vishnu seated at peace on the back of his violently dramatic bird-vehicle, Garuda. It is said that the image represents the king himself in divine guise. Beside this image was a sculpture of a type associated with many of these sacred bathing sites. It is a relief of a four-armed goddess of abundance, her two lower hands holding jars pierced with holes, her two upper hands squeezing her breasts, which are also pierced; through the holes the sacred water flowed into the basin. There are many variants of this idea at the springs of Mount Penanggungan. On Bali the same kind of fountain sculpture appears at the Goa Gadjah, at Bedulu, in a spring-fed tank below a cave.

In both Java and Bali there are many rock-face relief carvings from this period (there are no secure dates). Some represent legendary scenes; others represent candis; the shallow chambers of others are thought to be royal tombs.

The structure that gives the best ideas of what the typical east Javanese shrine of the mid-13th century was like is Candi Kidal. The nucleus of the building is a square cell, with slightly projecting porticoes each hooded by an enormous Kala-monster head. But the cell itself is dwarfed both by the massive molded plinth upon which it stands and by the huge tower with which it is surmounted. The tower stands above an architrave stepped far out on tiered moldings. It is no longer composed of diminishing stories, as earlier towers were, but is conceived as a massive pyramidal obelisk made up of double bands of ornament spaced by stumpy pilasters and bands of recessed panels. The architectural projections and moldings distinguish Candi Kidal from earlier Javanese architecture, with its plain wall surfaces.

Many masterpieces of sculpture belong to the east Javanese period. Among them are some superb icons of Shiva and of a goddess of Buddhist wisdom from Singhasari and a splendidly “primitivist” image of the elephant-headed god of wealth from Bara, Blitar.

From the late 13th century onward a whole series of candis was created in eastern Java. As time went on the candis lost their monumental scale and became simply shrines within a series of courtyards on a pre-Indian pattern. From Candi Djago through Candi Panataran at Blitar (14th century) and Candi Surawana it is possible to trace the line of descent of the modern Balinese temple enclosures.

By the end of the 14th century, the figures in the relief sculpture at these shrines had come more and more to resemble the shadow puppets of the popular wayang drama. They adopt the stiff profile stance that presents both shoulders, while the trees and houses resemble the stereotype silhouette leather and wood cutouts used as properties in the shadow plays. The art of carving in the near-full round, however, did not follow the same course of evolution as the reliefs. Such work did become softer and more delicate in style, with accretions of broad floral forms, but well into the 15th century the icons retain something of the strength of older sculptural conceptions. Another plastic tradition that seems to have escaped domination by the wayang formula resulted in the production of beautiful small terra-cotta figures as part of the revetment (stone facing sustaining the embankment) of the east Javanese capital city of Majapahit. Like the reliefs, the many small excavated bronzes of Hindu scenes are under the wayang influence, three-dimensional though they may be. Curlicues proliferate, and the plasticity of bodies is virtually ignored.

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16th century to the present

When Islam arrived in Indonesia, it used the repertoire of traditional ornament for its mosques and tombs; but, in conformity to Muslim custom, the representation of living creatures was excluded on religious buildings. The gates of the 16th-century mosque at Sendangduwur, Badjanegara, show a splendid example of this adaptation. The wings of the old Hindu Garuda, a colossal bird-vehicle of the high god Vishnu, frame the gate; the body and head are suppressed. Above the lintel are abstract tree-clad mountain forms recalling the imagery of the cosmic Meru ; and legendary snakes hood the jambs. The 16th-century mosque at Kudus even has a gate based on the split-candi pattern used in Bali (see below Bali ). Tombs such as that of Ratu Ibu at Airmata, on the island of Madura, add to their simple volumes elaborate but abstract variants of the scroll-filled antefixes of older architecture and of the petal-shaped aureoles of the larger east Javanese icons. In Sumatra the Muslim rulers encouraged a revival of the pre-Indian ancestor cult, along with its ancient and characteristic arts.

The rajas of eastern Java finally retreated before the Muslim invaders during the 16th century and departed to the island of Bali, where they remained. The old Javanese Indianized culture they brought with them survived and combined with animist folk elements. In Bali today that culture has bred a widespread popular art. There are now many hundreds of temples in Bali of varying age. Each family group has its own temple, dedicated to the ancestors; each village, too, has its temple, in which special attention is paid to a rich fertility goddess identified with the ancient Indian goddess of bounty, Shri. Special temples dedicated to the goddess of death stand near the cremation ground. There are numerous major temples—many associated with volcanic peaks—dedicated to different deities and spirits; they range in size and importance from Besakih on Mount Agung (where a megalith is incorporated as a phallic Shiva-emblem) to Panataram Sasih of Pedjeng (where the bronze drum called “the Moon of Bali” is preserved).

Balinese temples are conceived as multiple courts raised on terraces. The tall stone or brick and plaster gates are shaped like a candi-tower split down the centre; they are usually encrusted with ornament based upon deep multiple curlicues interspersed with simplified, two-dimensional relief figure sculpture. Fantastic three-dimensional guardians sometimes stand at the foot of the access staircase. Beyond the gates are one or two courts within which various ceremonies (including sacrifices and cockfights) may take place. The rearmost court backs onto the mountain, whence spirits descend temporarily when invoked. The court has no icons; at most, there is a seat for invisible deities. The structures in the court, mostly of wood and thatch, may be of many stories. (Such structures are called merus.) Sometimes the treasuries are ornamented with carving; and a few older stone meru towers in local shrines are carved with mythological figures.

Temple ceremonials, especially the cremation of distinguished people, evoked elaborate ritual art objects in precious metals, as well as in wood or fabric. All were characterized by exuberant and repetitive curvilinear floral ornament and by figures based on Indian legend, especially the Ramayana and parts of the Mahabharata . In the villages today, music, dance, sculpture, and painting are focused on the shrines and are practiced with an intensity unknown elsewhere in the world. Art is woven intimately into the life of the people. The masks carved of wood for the dances are specially refined, sometimes ornate versions of the masks used in the animist rituals of other Southeast Asian peoples. In the 20th and 21st centuries there have been numerous village sculptors and painters, who sell to tourists work based upon the old ceremonial arts. During the 1930s an outside impetus to develop their traditional legendary imagery in Western formats came from a German painter, Walter Spies, who lived on Bali. A landscape tradition was evolved, and the painters have been able to communicate something of the extravagant visual charm of their island, giving glimpses of luminous village and mountain landscape. The style of both sculptors and painters, however, is based upon gently undulating curves and is often highly ornamental, with repeated patterns. A repertoire of posture and gesture has been abstracted from the wayang. The work thus tends to prettiness rather than vigour; the sculptors create no truly intelligible volumes, and the painters fill their surfaces with naively structured shapes.

Java: 20th century

A conscious revival of traditional art was attempted in the 20th century, especially in Java, the main territory of modern Indonesia. There was government support for the resuscitation of old crafts—silverwork, for example. A number of artists adapted Westernized figure drawing to their own decorative compositions. The best known painter of Indonesia is the Javanese Affandi. He used oil paint to execute pictures of Indonesian subjects in a vividly coloured Expressionist impasto (thick application of pigment to the canvas). This European brushwork technique, however, contains a strong element of the sinuosity of Javanese tradition. As yet, Affandi is the only artist from Southeast Asia to have attained a personal worldwide reputation.

The Philippines

The population of this island group contains a number of different ethnic strata, the oldest of which shares in the general folk culture and its associated folk arts of the islands of Southeast Asia (see above Indonesia ), with an emphasis on geometric simplification. An element in the Tagalog (a people of central Luzon) is perhaps descended from the oldest level of immigrants with a Paleolithic background. The Moro are Muslims who converted to Islam during the 15th and 16th centuries. Today they produce a decorative art in which old Muslim geometric motifs are combined with strong Chinese decorative influences (from Song times, Chinese ceramics and textiles were imported). The decoration is applied primarily to textiles, weapons, and containers to hold the betel nuts that are chewed throughout Southeast Asia.

The most important departure in Philippine art was the result of the Spanish conquest of 1571. Thereafter, the bishopric of Manila and all of Luzon became the focus for an elaborate development of Spanish colonial art, primarily devoted to the construction and decoration of Roman Catholic churches in the current flamboyant, highly ornate, and colourful colonial style. There is good colonial architecture in other islands, including Bohol and Cebu. A large quantity of religious sculpture of the canonical Christian subjects was imported from Mexico and from Spain itself. Sculptors and missionary painters also immigrated, and a powerful local school developed under the direct influence of the 17th-century Spanish artists Murillo and Alonso Cano. Local arts were encouraged in 1785 by the remission of taxes for religious artists. Because of the close colonial ties, the stylistic developments corresponded substantially with those elsewhere in the Spanish empire, and European prints served as models for local artists. Of the major early churches for which this sculpture and painting was executed, only San Agustin (1599–1614), in Manila, still stands; it was designed by Fray Antonio de Herrera, son or nephew of the great Spanish architect Juan de Herrera. During the 19th century the Neo-Gothic style was imported, mainly through the Philippine architect Felipe Roxas, who had traveled in Europe and England. San Sebastian in Manila is a notable example of this style. The Spaniard Hervas, Manila’s municipal architect from 1887 to 1893, favoured neo-Byzantine forms; e.g., Manila Cathedral (1878–79).

It was only in the later 19th century that any secular art flourished at all. Schools of fine art modeled on the European schools were set up between 1815 and 1820, and a number of painters began to work in versions of European academic styles, painting landscapes, portraits, and classical subjects. The best known among them are Juan Luna, Felix Resurrección Hidalgo, Antonio Malantic, and the genre painter Fabian de la Rosa. After the transfer of rule to the United States in 1898, industrialization began in earnest; the methods of the art schools were adapted, as in Europe, to the needs of modern commercial society. In the 1930s a substantial modern experimental school of Philippine architects began the remodeling of the industrial environment in terms of 20th-century architectural and design conceptions. Prominent names are Pablo Antonio, Carlos Arguelles, and Cesar Concio. Beginning in the 1930s but especially after World War II, artists in Manila adopted the Abstract and Expressionist styles current in the United States. After the devastation wrought by that war, Manila and other cities and towns were rebuilt, virtually anew, in local variants of the international style.

Folk arts

The arts of many regions in Southeast Asia remained either untouched or only slightly influenced by the Indianized arts of other regions. Such influence is found especially in regions where the gold trade flourished. In Sarawak (Bonkisam), for example, the remains of buildings similar to late Tantric east Javanese candis have been discovered. Among a few people (e.g., the Hmong of highland Vietnam), vestiges of Indian erotic temple imagery have been adapted to local fertility ceremonies, and most of the religious ideas of the region show at least faint traces of Indian influence.

Save for the megaliths and Dong Son bronzes, most of the known folk-art objects are relatively recent, although their inspiration and types belong to traditions far older and geographically more far-reaching than the Indianized traditions.

The two main non-Indian art styles in the whole region have been provisionally named the “monumental” and the “ornamental-fanciful.” They coexist virtually everywhere, though they probably represent two evolutionary phases. The principal manifestations of the monumental style are the megalithic monuments, although there is great variety among the megalithic customs of the many different populations in Sumatra, Laos, Indonesia, Borneo, and the Philippines. The influence of the ornamental-fanciful style, which is characterized especially by the scrolled spiral, insinuates itself even into many of the decorative arts, particularly in the curvilinear and flamboyant inflection given to ornamental motives in the major Indianizing styles.

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The link between the two styles is probably the ubiquitous squatting ancestor figure, cocked knees supporting elbows, carved in soft wood or woven in cane or fibre. These figures may be either male or female. Under special social circumstances in recent times, very large wooden versions of the figure have been used as substitutes for more conventional, standing megalithic ancestral monuments (Sumatra and Sabah). The custom is probably an old one. There can be little doubt, for example, that the Theravada Buddhist images of Burma, Thailand, and Laos were accepted as special modifications of the ancestor image. The transition from revering numinous ancestor images whose identity had been forgotten to worshipping an Indianizing icon was easy for the tribal populations.

The complex significance of the original squatting ancestor figure enabled it to be used in a variety of contexts. It might have combined associations of the fetus, the fetal burial position, and female birth and intercourse positions, as well as a ceremonial posture assumed by the living. It came to be used primarily in wooden sculpture on all scales, but also in woven textiles (e.g., Iban), to represent the continuing power informing human existence, both in the purely ancestral sense of family continuity and identity and in the sense of the fertility of the land. Its earliest recorded appearance may be on Chinese Yangshao painted pottery (c. 2000 bce ); but it appears in essentially the same form over a range of territory including Sumatra, Nias and Sunda islands, Java, Borneo, New Guinea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and out into northern Australia and Melanesia. It may be used purely as an ancestral image in a family shrine house or as a motif added to any one of a variety of implements to potentiate them; for example, large bowls (Sumatra), kris or sword handles (Java, Sumatra, Borneo), spoons (Timor, the Philippines), musical instruments (Borneo), and magicians’ staves (Borneo).

The treatment of such figures may be invested with more or fewer of the characteristics of the ornamental-fanciful style, in those regions where this style prevails (e.g., Batak, Dayak). There are also special versions of the squatting figure that seem to belong especially to important magical crafts, such as the Javanese kris handle, on which miniature carvings can give an extraordinarily monumental effect. Sumatran Dayak hereditary magical staves may be carved with a “tower” or “tree” of such ancestor figures. On Nias, for example, along with the squatting figure, a standing figure in the bent-knee posture common in Polynesia also appears as a variant. In the Philippines similar variants are sometimes interpreted as vestiges from a remote Indian mythology, adopted probably for the sake of their cultural prestige. In southern Borneo the figure appears carved in the full round and as a pattern for woven textiles; it often has a protruding tongue and, sometimes, antlers—a combined motif known in the Changsha art of southern China (c. 300 bce ). Antlers also appear on certain Sumatran knife hilt figures. A variety of designs, some of them “abstract,” are based on this figure. Among the Jarai of Vietnam, for example, a pattern of lozenges represents an abstraction from a group of these figures. Especially in the textiles of Sumba and other Indonesian islands, similar patterns, often referred to as decorated triangles, represent the same phenomenon. When, as in textiles, the anthropomorphic reference of the abstract pattern is lost, the male genitals may remain to assert the ancestor significance.

The association between the squatting figure and the widely practiced cult of the skull is manifested in the combined cult of ancestors, headhunting, and head worship. Among the Wa of Myanmar, for example, the squatting figure in a lozenge abstraction decorates the chests in which the severed heads of enemies are stored. Virtually everywhere among the early farmers of Southeast Asia, such heads were regarded as repositories of great spiritual power. The cult of the skull has produced a version of the squatting figure that is commonly known by the Indonesian word korvar; it is a figure with an ancestral skull in place of a carved head. Such figures are especially common in the more easterly island cultures. The ghostly power of the deceased ancestor can thus become present and available to his descendants—to give oracular advice, for example. A related idea is incorporated in the masks used in a wide variety of rituals and dance-dramas throughout Southeast Asia; for example, among the Batak of Sumatra and the Dayak of Borneo, where especially fine examples are made. There can be little doubt that the same idea (blended with imagery from the imported Hindu epics) underlies the range of elaborate masks that were once used in the Javanese and now can be seen in the Balinese wayang dances. It is possible that the flamboyant flame skull protuberances and winglike flanges ornamenting the head in so much of the Buddhist art produced in Myanmar and Thailand reflect a persistent but submerged interest in the cult of the skull.

Another major motif is the snake, which (even in areas where direct Indianizing influence was not strong) is frequently combined with imagery derived from the cult of the powerful, magical Hindu naga ; often many-headed, this serpent is the patron and guardian of water and treasure, both material and spiritual. The snake motif has also been blended with images of the Chinese dragon, going back perhaps to Chinese Han ornamental designs. Outstanding examples are found on the elaborate relief-carved doors of Sumatran Batak houses ; “flying” roof finials in many parts of Indonesia; and in much Borneo Dayak ornament, from tattoos to carved bamboos and bronze body ornaments. The snake is the magico-mythical creature that gives both its bodily shape (either straight or undulant) and its metaphysical power to the kris. Distributed from Malacca to Celebes, these swords (the earliest known dated 1342) reached their high point of artistic development in Java. A variety of other motifs originating on the mainland of Asia is found in many of the surviving folk arts of Indonesia. Among them are the “man in the embrace of an animal” (Dayak kris handles) and animals “stacked” one above the other (Timor, Indonesia).

The ornamental-fantastic style

The styles in which these variations on basic motifs are carried out vary principally according to the preponderance of the sinuous curves and spirals of the ornamental-fantastic style. This style serves as the basis for decoration and as a method of artistic phrasing. It may have made its way into Southeast Asia as late as the 1st millennium bce, being formally related to the spirals used in Chinese Neolithic, Shang, and Zhou bronze art. (It should, perhaps, be mentioned that Chinese art, certainly until well into the Common Era, was itself far more “tribal” than later Chinese tradition recognizes.) Probably connoting spirituality, the spiral imagery appears in Southeast Asian magical art at all levels, from the textiles of Java and the incised bamboo implements or carved doors of Dayak Borneo to the ornament on the costumes of sculptured dancers or deities at every major city site. Given a fiery upward inflection, it appears in the finials on major Indianized stone architecture and on the carved wooden gables of Burmese and Thai Buddhist halls. There is not always complete stylistic consistency within any one cultural group. For example, the fantastic snake-dragon creatures carved in deep relief on the housedoors of the Batak may be extravagantly sinuous, with many spirals, while their figure sculpture adheres to the sterner plastic idiom, virtually without any linear sinuosity. Among the Dayak of Borneo the fantastic style may be confined entirely to surface ornament. On Indonesian islands, ancestral figures may be relatively static and foursquare, while the decorative carving and textiles may display considerable linear fantasy. A special version of the ornamental-fantastic style characterizes the surviving Indianized arts of Bali and Java, intruding even into sculptural inventions derived from strongly three-dimensional medieval Indianizing patterns. Thus, the decoration on the wayang cutout leather puppets, with its somewhat stereotyped curlicues, has proliferated at the expense of the three-dimensional sense (see above Indonesia ). Balinese wayang masks may be carved entirely out of curling surfaces and completed in paint with sinuous eyebrows and mustaches. In many parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Sumatra, and Indonesia, designs originally based upon Indian flowering-scroll patterns can be found in architecture, textiles, theatre costumes, musical instruments, and wooden utensils, all efflorescing with extravagant curling ornament. It is unfortunately true that only in a few of its most serious manifestations does this kind of ornament display substantial artistic invention, with carefully varied, asymmetrical, complementary, and counterchanged curves. Usually, it degenerates into repetitive space filling, without variety or formal meaning.


Perhaps the types of folk art best known in the West are the textiles, especially batik and ikat. Both names refer to techniques practiced by different groups of people, who must have learned it from each other. Essentially Javanese but known in other islands, batik may have resulted from the imitation with dyes of South Indian painted cloths, probably before 1700. The essence of the technique is that melted wax is poured from a small metal kettle onto areas of a plain cotton cloth, which is then dyed, only the unwaxed parts taking the colour. The process can be repeated with several different colours. The oldest basic colours are indigo and brown; red and yellow were used later. The possible patterns range from lozenges and circlets through a large repertoire of cursive animal and plant forms. The batik technique can produce sumptuous and complex designs that not even the most elaborate weaving techniques can duplicate. It was encouraged by the Muslim rulers as a major element of social expression in garments and hangings.

Ikat is known among the Batak, in Cambodia, and especially among the dispersed Dayak people. It, too, probably originated in India. The extraordinarily difficult ikat textiles (woven cotton and occasionally silk, especially in Cambodia) are made primarily for use in important ceremonials and were regarded by their makers as major works of art. Before being woven, the thread is tightly tied at carefully calculated points in the hank (coiled or looped bundle); this is then dyed, the tied parts not taking up dye. The process may be repeated for different colours. As a consequence of the predyeing, designs appear as the thread is woven. In most ikat only the warp (the series of yarns extended lengthwise in the loom and crossed by the weft) is so treated; but in southern Sumatra a tie-dyed floating weft is added to the plain weft. Naturally, ikat designs tend to be static and more or less rectilinear. In the finest ikat, however, birds and animals, spirits and houses, and, in Cambodia, a vestigial iconography of royal Buddhism may be formalized into extremely beautiful banded compositions.
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