Indonesian Bronzes at Art and Coffee

Buddhist Kundika and BellToday for Art and Coffee, our curatorial team talked about the wonderful bronzes currently on view in the new exhibition Marking Transitions: Ceremonial Art in Indonesia. These two objects are both from the island of Java and date to the 14th-15th centuries, and were integral to Buddhist rituals.

Buddhism came to Indonesia in the 6th century, and large temples built in the 8th century by Buddhist empires can still be found on Java and Sumatra. Because Buddhism was introduced to the archipelago around the same time as Hinduism (and because both came from India), religious ideas and practices were closely intertwined. Until Islam was introduced in the 13th century, both religions were central to daily life on these islands. Today, Buddhism is one of the six official religions of Indonesia, though less than one percent of the population identifies as such (compared to 87% Muslim and almost 10% Christian/Catholic). The island of Java, the origin of these objects, is the most populated island in the world. This was the site of the Sailendra Dynasty (8th-10th century) that heavily patronized Mahayana Buddhism, and is responsible for the famous 9th century Borobudur temple. A fascinating example of Indian-influenced Indonesian architecture, this UNESCO World Heritage Site wasn’t known to the world until the early 1800s. Today, it is still a pilgramage destination and Indonesia’s top tourist destination.

These two objects, a water vessel and a bell, were used in Buddhist rituals like those that would have taken place at Borobudur and throughout Java. The water vessel, or kundika, would hold the “water of life” for purification. The spout is formed as the mouth of a mythical animal, and the pointed handle on top evokes a stupa. A stupa is a Buddhist architectural motif found mostly in South and Southeast Asia that originated as a structure housing remains or relics. Stupas also evolved into the familiar pagoda structures that are more common to East Asia.

The bell is a wonderful example of of form and motif. The short, wide body is typical of bells used for Buddhist rituals. At the base of the handle, you can see two concentric bands of lotus petals, a common symbol in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. In Buddhism, the lotus symbolizes enlightenment: rooted at the bottom of a murky pond, the lotus blooms rise above the surface of the water. In the same way, a central aspect of Buddhism calls practitioners to rise above attachment and desire to attain enlightenment. Also present on the bell is the Dharmachakra or the Wheel of Life (also seen as Wheel of Dharma) that symbolizes the perfection of Buddha’s teaching of enlightenment.

These bronzes are just two of many fascinating objects in Marking Transitions: Ceremonial Art in Indonesia– the exhibition also includes beautiful textiles, a Balinese crown, a dagger and other ritual objects. The exhibition is on view through March 24, but don’t delay– you’ll want to get a close look at these fascinating objects more than once! ~CM

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