Chapter 1, Part 7
Panangkaran’s reign in the kingdom of Medang ended in the year 775, leaving a legacy of a new Buddhist kingdom as well as starting the era of Hindu-Buddhist temple construction within his realm. His successor, Dharanindra, emerged as an even more powerful ruler than Panangkaran. Thanks to Sailendra’s turn to Buddhism and intermarriages with the ruling family of the Sumatra-based Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya, the Medang-Srivijayan union became a major power in Maritime Southeast Asia.
During his reign Dharanindra, also called King Indra, commissioned the construction of Manjusrigrha, ‘House of Manjusri’ after the most important bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The design of the temple, however, is believed to have been made during Panangkaran’s rule. Taking the layout of a mandala – a symmetrical shape symbolizing the universe in Buddhism cosmology – the main temple at the center of the plan is a tall structure topped by a distinctive Buddhist stupa. More than 200 smaller structures used to surround the main temple in four directions. However the present name of the temple compound, Candi Sewu or ‘Thousand Temples’, owes to a Javanese folklore of Roro Jonggrang and Bandung Bondowoso.
Once upon a time in Java a prince from a powerful kingdom was mesmerized by the beauty of a princess from a rival kingdom. Bandung Bondowoso, as the prince was called, wanted to marry Roro Jonggrang, the princess, who did not have the will nor the desire to be united with the prince. Instead of saying no, she said to him that she would marry him only under one condition: the prince must build one thousand temples within one night, an impossible task she believed. He agreed.
Summoning demons and other supernatural creatures, the prince sought for their help to finish the otherwise preposterous task for humans. When the 999th temple was completed, the princess and her maids rushed to the barn and began pounding rice, a typical morning activity in Java to start the day. Upon hearing the sound, the spirits returned to their lair thinking dawn was about to break, and left the last temple unfinished.
Historians believe after its completion Manjusrigrha was used as the official temple of Medang for its beauty and grandeur. It was at the time the largest Buddhist temple in Java, and it is believed that a statue of Manjusri once resided at the main sanctum.
Dharanindra’s construction spree did not end despite having built a temple of Manjusrigrha’s scale. To the far northwest of the royal temple he built another shrine called Venuvana, present-day Candi Mendut. Housing the statues of Gautama, Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani, Venuvana was also embellished with bas-reliefs of various bodhisattvas, celestial creatures, Mahayana Buddhist deities, as well as panels of Jataka fable – animal stories of Buddhist teachings found in many temples in Asia.
However Dharanindra’s ambition to project the power of his kingdom was not only limited to building impressive Buddhist temples. He was also keen on conquering foreign lands and incorporating them into the Medang-Srivijayan realm. A multitude of inscriptions discovered throughout the region describe his raids and conquests of Ligor, Champa and the Mekong delta in modern-day southern Thailand, southern Vietnam and Cambodia, respectively, lending him the title Wairiwarawiramardana, ‘the slayer of courageous enemies’. When the Sailendras controlled the Mekong delta, the local ruler was Jayavarman II, the same person who would later establish the Khmer Empire, a kingdom with unrivaled architectural legacy in Southeast Asia.
At home, to further showcase the power of his kingdom, Dharanindra commissioned the construction of a colossal Buddhist temple unlike anything the region had ever seen, one that would become the world’s biggest Buddhist shrine even more than a millennium after its construction. But the king did not live long enough to see its completion for it would take decades to finish Borobudur, how the temple is known today.
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