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Notes on the Geography of Indonesia: Borobudur 3

From the viewpoint of a circumambulating visitor, the panels on the left side of the first tier shows stories from the Buddha's hundreds of previous lives--the so-called jatakas. Those on the right show two things. On the lower band, they tell tales of heroism, so-called avadanas; on the upper, they tell the life of the Buddha. Three avadanas are excerpted in the pictures here.

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Indonesia: Borobudur 3 picture 1

Just to make sure you're not lost: we're standing on the first gallery and looking west from the mid-point of the south side. This is the beginning of the pilgrimmage route, or pradaksina. On the left or balustrade side are two ranks of jatakas. On the right or main wall, there are also two ranks of pictures. The upper line tells the life of the Buddha; the lower presents a collection of avadanas, tales of heroic deeds. The first such story, which starts in the lower right panel, is "The Prince and the Nymph Manohara." It's easy to follow, if you know the story; otherwise, it's Greek. The explication recounted here is based on John Miksic's Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddha (Shambhala, 1990).

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A naga or snake, here in human form, touches his head. He's under the spell of a snake charmer who wants to lure him to neighboring South Pancala, where the king's immoral behavior has brought the district to ruin. As water spirits, nagas bring rain and fertility, but no naga will bless by his presence the wicked king of South Pancala--not unless forced to do so by a wicked snake charmer. This one hopes to collect a royal reward.

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The naga escapes from the snake-charmer with the help of a hunter, who in exchange is given a magic lariat. He uses it to capture the nymph Manohara, who (though shown as a woman) is a kinnara, half-human, half-bird. Her friends, on the left, skittle away; the magic lariat immobilizes her.

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The hunter gives Manohara to Prince Sudhana, who naturally falls in love and marries her.

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Manohara has already given a magic jewel to the hunter, as proof of his control over her. Prince Sudhana has it now. Here, he gives it to his mother for safekeeping so he can go off and subdue a rebellion. It's all a plot by a chief priest who fears that when Sudhana becomes king another chief priest will be appointed.

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The wicked priest and his cohorts tell the king that his recent bad dream implies impending disaster unless Manohara is sacrificed. The king consents; the priests gloat.

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The queen, faithful to her son, gives Manohara her magic jewel. She flies away, leaving the palace behind.

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Sudhana returns, bringing booty but finding his wife gone.

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Pursuing her, he comes to a wise man. Manohara has come and gone, but she's left the wise man with her ring and instructions how Sudhana can find her. The wise man gives the ring to Sudhana.

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Sudhana makes his way to the land of the kinnaras, where nympths prepare to bathe Manohara. He puts her ring into the water jar on the right. Later, Manohara finds it and smuggles him into the palace.

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Manohara's father isn't pleased and orders Sudhana to shoot an arrow through seven trees and into a gold post. Done!

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Then Sudhana must recognize Manohara among a large group of nymphs. No problem!

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Party time! The two are reunited and watch live entertainment. (Manohara has been defaced, but she sits next to Sudhana.)

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The pair return home to Pancala and live happily ever after, which is more than can be said for the wicked priests.

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Another story: Rudrayana and the Evil Prince. Two kings, Rudrayana and Bimbasara, exchange gifts, in this case a chest with cloth.

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Bimbasara sends a monk.

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The monk is very persuasive, and the queen requests a nun.

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The queen becomes a nun herself and asks Rudrayana to abdicate and become a monk.

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Rudriyana abdicates in favor of his son.

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Bimbisara tries but fails to persuade Rudrayana to become king again.

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The son becoming a tyrant, Rudrayana decides to resume the monarchy. His son sends murderers to kill his father, who asks to meditate, then allows himself to be killed.

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The monk responsible for Rudrayana's conversion predicts that disaster will befall the kingdom; people gather their belongings and prepare to flee.

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They disperse to several places; one ship arrives at a new home, where the newcomers are honored by the local inhabitants.

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A closer view of the scene, showing the welcome accorded Hiru, one of Rudrayana's ministers. (The house, like the ship, is historically interesting, because no real houses--or ships--survive from the time Borobudur was built.)

Who is the hero in this "tale of heroism"? Good question: is it the religiously inspired but presently deceased Rudrayana? Is it the surviving ministers who salvage something for the freedom-loving people of the kingdom?

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A third tale, that of Maitrakanyaka, an extraordinarily lucky young man who has everything except a father. His mother hides the fact that his father was a merchant who died on a voyage. Maitrakayanka tries his hand and succeeds at all the other occupations that his mother, deceiving him, says his father followed.

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Eventually, he learns the truth and sets out on a voyage himself, disregarding his mother's pleas. His ship is wrecked, but he is greeted by four nymphs.

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He sets off again, only to be met by eight nymphs. He sets out again and again, until he is met by 32 nymphs. Everywhere he succeeds, except that his mother has been cast aside.

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This proves his undoing. Maitrakanyaka finally comes to a place where a man is being punished for cruelty to his mother. The wheel that grinds his skull flies to Maitrakanyaka, who is told that the punishment is now his to bear for 66,000 years. Maitrakanyaka has a generous soul, however. He volunteers to accept the punishment forever, so that other cruel sons won't have to bear it. The wheel rises from his head, and he is released from his sentence.

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