No relief from vandals
When Dr Lydia Kieven returned to a small sanctuary high on East Java’s Mount Penanggungan she expected to be enchanted and awed yet again.
Instead she burst into tears. Vandals had hit the mid 15th century shrine known as Candi Kendalisodo since her last visit and chiselled off part of a relief. This showed Arjuna, one of the Pandawa brothers being tempted by Bimasuci in a tale from the Indian Mahabharata epic.
“I felt really hurt,” said the German art historian and cultural archaeologist.”It was like a blow to the stomach. At the same time I wondered whether my work had highlighted the site and made others think it had value so could be exploited. It’s an ethical question.”
At first blush such reasoning seems flawed. To know of the site’s importance requires any Philistine to be well-read and diligent. Dr Kieven’s specialized research is unlikely to be found by the average bookshop browser or Internet scavenger.
Then there’s the steep unposted track to the site, half a kilometer below the 1653 meter summit. It takes more than two hours to climb from the foothills of Trawas so only the determined and hardy make the journey. Some are pilgrims for there are signs of offerings; worshippers are unlikely to destroy what they revere.
Maybe unprincipled collectors have done their research and ordered parts to be plundered.
“I don’t know, but vandalism continues even now,” said Dr Kieven as she prepared for another hike to the site, this time to commemorate 100 days following the death of her friend Suryo Prawiroatmodjo, a pioneer conservationist and promoter of Majapahit history. His ashes have been interred at Kendalisodo.
“A panel about a meter square dating from 1450 has also now gone to who knows where. What to do? No-one is going to sit up there watching for 24 hours a day. Sadly isolation is no protection.
“My approach is to help build knowledge, understanding and appreciation. That way people may get to see the richness and importance of their history and become carers.”
She’s doing this by acting as a tour guide and lecturing, including at the Pusat Pendidikan Lingkungan Hidup (PPLH – environmental education center) on the slopes of Mt Penanggungan and started by Suryo. She has also helped run local cultural festivals.
She also plans to produce a shortened Indonesian version of her latest book – Following the figure with the cap – a new look at the religious function of East Javanese temples. This examines carvings depicting the indigenous stories of the East Java Prince Panji, whose adventures feature on many temple reliefs.
There are at least a dozen versions of his romance with Candrakirana (Princess Moonbeam). It’s the universal tale of handsome boy meets lovely girl; boy loses girl, boy finds girl again – though not till after he’s had a few affairs along the way.
Dr Kieven’s journey to become one of the world’s leading experts on East Java temple art started in a small village outside Cologne. Gifted with curiosity, wanderlust and the ability to master languages she was desperate to explore beyond her “too tiny” town.
That had been the unfulfilled ambition of her grandfather and businessman father. They stayed in Germany, so Lydia lived their dream.
At first the goal was India. “I don’t know why,” she said. “Maybe because someone brought me a toy elephant, or because I read 1001 Nights when I was around ten.”
Instead she studied mathematics and art history at university. She failed the first but did well at the second, then became a tour guide in France. A friend looking for a travel companion suggested Bali, “not India, but at least a little India”.
Suddenly all her wanderings became focussed. She avoided Kuta, headed for Ubud and saw a picture of Borobudur and its astonishing reliefs.
“Now I knew what I wanted - and I wanted to come back. I also realized I had to study the language”
Back home she took an MA in Indonesian language and literature, then to Yogyakarta to study at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM). She now speaks Indonesian like a local, plays in the gamelan and can also wrap her dexterous tongue around Javanese.
Her tour guiding now took in Indonesia, giving her opportunities to stay and research when the Europeans headed home. Her interest in the Panji stories led her to cultural historian Professor Adrian Vickers who supervised her PhD at Sydney University.
Mount Penanggungan is so rich in history that it probably deserves world heritage listing and protection. There are at least 81 sites, including temple remains and bathing pools, like the popular and easily accessible Candi Jolotundo (below), built around 977.
Here visitors can walk through plastic trash, hear high volume pop music and see the latest graffiti carved on surrounding rocks.
But it would be wrong to blame all despoliation on young people who know not what they do, and whose school history lessons started at the 1945 Revolution. The Dutch colonialists were wanton plunderers of precious artefacts, shipping some back to Holland, giving others to visiting dignitaries, or scattering statuary across the archipelago.
Dr Kieven found one of only two known three-dimensional figures wearing the curious half-moon shaped Panji Cap hidden in a Bandung library.
The Majapahit kingdom collapsed early in the 16th century. The remnants fled to Bali and East Java’s Bromo highlands.
“I can’t write the final word on Panji,” said Dr Kieven who will soon return to teaching Southeast Asian Studies at Frankfurt’s Goethe University. “I’m still trying to understand so much,
“My theory is that although Panji belongs to daily life he was also an aristocrat and pointing a way to the Tantric path (of Hindu meditation).
“Now I want to write about Penataran (near Blitar and the largest Hindu temple complex in East Java built over 250 years). I hope I can apply my knowledge and give just a little help to lift self-esteem regarding Javanese history. It’s my contribution against globalization and Arabization.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post, 19 August 2013