The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Cap this, Prince Panji     

The old slogan ‘if you want to get ahead, get a hat’ still holds good in Indonesia. In East Java’s recent gubernatorial election campaign it’s no accident of advertising that the winners wore peci, the rimless black cap.
Although widely considered an Islamic headdress it’s also associated with nationalism.  Early photos of first president Soekarno show him sporting the blangkon. The Javanese turban is now seldom seen outside weddings and Yogyakarta where it’s worn by men in the kraton, their rank determined by the batik pattern.
When the young revolutionary abandoned the blangkon, with its hints of feudalism, for the more democratic peci, it became the sign of resistance.  Now the hat supposedly asserts the wearer is genuinely Javanese, a Muslim and a Republican.
But there’s another hat that’s even more indigenous, for the peci was probably an import, and  related to the Turkish fez.
Though some reckon it’s a beret, the Panji cap looks more like a pedal-pusher’s helmet, perching on the hair rather than the fish-bowl crash hats used by motorcyclists. It was identified more than a hundred years ago by Dutch archaeologists squinting at temple reliefs in East Java.
They originally believed the carvings were an extension of those found on the Central Java sites of Buddhist Borobudur and Hindu Prambanan.
Later it become clear that the art and culture of East Java stands apart from its Indian origins and western neighbor.
German art historian Dr Lydia Kieven has now taken what she calls a ‘new look’ at the religious function of temples during the Majapahit kingdom, the so called Golden Era, roughly 1300 to 1500 AD.
Although now better described as a cultural archaeologist, truth is she’s a sleuth, and should be the hero in a TV series where the gumshoe spots the overlooked clue that reveals the full story.
For the many temples of East Java are not well preserved. Weather, time, vandals and official indifference have eroded many reliefs leaving the gaps to be provisionally filled by the imaginative and inquisitive.
Following the Cap Figure isn’t a grab-me-and-read title (why not Pursuing Panji?) but this isn’t an E-novel for a long journey.  It’s a serious study that grew out of Dr Kieven’s doctorate at Sydney University.
Without trying to dilute the book’s importance in any way or deter readers, there are some irritants.
PhD thesis writers understandably want a readership beyond supervisors and examiners.  Years of intense study deserve more than leaving just another shelved reference for the next generation of students, so why not publish for a broader market?
Fine– though only if the research is totally rewritten to suit that different public  – the eclectic inquirer.
Dr Kieven may not be an Indiana Jones action hero, but she’s a robust explorer who’s collected some fine stories in stone, and that’s meant climbing mountains and probing caves.
 Who wouldn’t want to know more about ‘monkey and ungrateful man’ and ‘the bull and the crocodile’?  Or Dr Kieven’s key question – why does the cap figure appear so often, and only on the Majapahit temples?
The points raised are too fascinating to be lumbered by eight-point footnotes, slabs of tables best left in the library, polysyllabic prose and in-text references.
The best example of what could have been done is the magnificent Worshipping Siva and Buddha the temple art of East Java by Ann Kinney published in 2003.  This coffee table book with big color pictures and an easy-read text includes a chapter by Dr Kieven.
Unfortunately the photos in Following the Cap Figure are mainly monochrome and small, often too tiny to see the feature being discussed.
Who was Panji and why did he wear his cute cap with front and back peaks? It must have been fashion and status because like the blangkon and peci it offers no protection from sun or rain. Earlier carvings show it worn by commoners, then higher ranks.
For Dr Kieven the capped chaps are intermediaries who ‘prepare and guide the pilgrim to an encounter with the sacred’.
The mythical Prince Panji was the all East Java lad-about-forest who lost and then found his lover Princess Candrakirana, deliciously translated as Moonbeam.  Their quest for true love provides the setting for scores of stories, many erotic,  that surely delighted the Majapahit folk thriving on the Brantas River’s fertile floodplains.
These producers and traders were so cashed up that they could indulge in art, so confident they could unleash their creativity and set new directions.
Dr Kieven sees the gadabout as a Javanese cultural hero, but Panji was also a fertility symbol and the cap was linked to Tantri stories.
She defines the concept of Tantrism as ‘macrocosm and microcosm as one … the central goal is the union of the individual soul with the cosmic soul.’ Are the cap figures leading the relief reader in this direction?
Anyone fascinated by Javanese history can field test their theories against Dr Kieven’s ideas and research, and here the book’s small size is an advantage.  Apart from the later sites on Mount Penanggungan most East Java temples are accessible, often found squashed alongside kampong.
Only poorly policed regulations stand between history and another housing development or toll road.
To suggest that more is yet to be learned about the Majapahit era is not to belittle the author’s extensive work, only to say the field  has only been partially tilled, not ploughed.
Shouldn’t locals be doing this research?  It’s a question that niggles all outsiders working in the archipelago. Elsewhere Dr Kieven has written of how she’s settled these concerns:
“Later on I realized that the presentation of my expertise as a foreigner did in fact contribute and strengthen the knowledge, the pride and the respect of the Javanese people concerning their rich cultural heritage.”
Now to find the best way to spread that knowledge.
Following the Cap Figure                                                                                                                  by Lydia Kieven                                                                                                                             Published by Brill, 2013        

(First published in The Sunday Post 22 September 2013)                                                                                                                                           

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