Muarajambi Temple: Jambi's monumental mystery
Syofiardi Bachyul Jb
The Jakarta Post
(JP/Syofiardi Bachyul Jb)
Although only one-eighth of its original buildings remain, Muarajambi Temple ' Jambi's most frequented historical tourism destination ' evokes the past glory of southern Sumatra.
Located in Muaro Jambi regency, 20 kilometers from Jambi city, the complex is accessible by a bridge that fords the Batanghari River.
Covering 12 square km and packed with the duku (lanzones) and durian trees of local residents, the complex lies on the northern side of the Batanghari.
Eighty mounds of temple ruins, called menapo, can be found there. Only seven temples have been restored: Gumpung, Tinggi, Tinggi I, Kembarbatu, Gedong I, Gedong II and Kedaton.
Unlike Borobudur or Prambanan temples, which are composed of andesite rock, the buildings of Muarajambi are made from red brick, which is difficult to restore. The buildings already renovated aren't whole. Some are even less than two meters high.
The layout of the temples resembles a housing complex, complete with square fences made from bricks and spacious yards arranged side by side.
There are also canals extending from Batanghari River to the west, while the Buddhist temples sit on high ground to avoid floods.
One can imagine the past splendor of this temple compound, when the 80 structures were standing in neat rows.
The site's archeological finds can best be observed from the Muarajambi Temple Zone Information Center in the complex.
One discovery is a statue of Prajnaparamita made from white andesite. Although found headless, the figure has intricate and beautiful motifs on the clothing and belt carved into its form.
There is also a bronze pot dating to sometime between the 9th and 13th centuries, an elephant sculpture and a lotus stone used for rituals; while stone foundations and terra cotta tile fragments found at the site are evidence of the presence of brick and wooden buildings with roof tiles in the past, according to experts.
Other objects found at the site include Chinese metal coins from the Sung dynasty (960-1279 AD); gold bars, boxes, coins and seals; as well as a bronze gong with Chinese characters and a Buddhist statue, currently kept at the Sriwijaya Kingdom Archeological Park Museum in Palembang.
Bambang Budi Utomo, a researcher of the Muarajambi period from the National Archeological Research and Development Center, agreed that the structures on the site were temples used by Mahayana Buddhists and were not part of a city or royal complex.
'It was a sacred compound rather than a 'profane' housing complex, but so far no records have been found on the era, reign and kingdom dating to when the sacred buildings here were constructed,' he told The Jakarta Post.
The lack of written sources has lead experts to date pieces by artistic style and the characters represented. Buddhist statues, for example, were likely made between the 7th and 8th centuries, while the characters on a well at Gumpung likely date to the 9th or 10th centuries, and the Prajnaparamita statue to the 13th century.
'For the moment, it can be concluded that the sacred monument of Muarajambi was built and functioning from around the 8th century to 13th century,' Bambang said.
The site is believed to have been set up around the time of the Malay and Sriwijaya Kingdoms that were active in the area in the same period, according to Chinese sources, Bambang said.
He says that the sacred buildings within Muarajambi were managed by monks and maintained by lay people. Temples and settlements were built on higher, atop natural levees along the riverbank, to avoid wetlands, making them free from floods and pollution.
Of the temples already excavated, Kedaton is special, due to the Kadiri-style relief inscription on its gate that appears to date to the 11th century, according to Bambang. It reads: 'This is the place of meditation of Mpu [Master] Kusuma'.
'The bronze pot discovered also shows that there was a monastery where samanera or would-be monks were studying adjacent to Kedaton temple, using the pot to cook food for the abbey dwellers,' Bambang said.
The Muarajambi site was first reported by S.C Crooke, a British navy officer, in 1883. Excavation started under the Directorate of History and Archeology in 1975 and the site was proposed for recognition by UNESCO in 2009.
It's a long road to UNESCO recognition, however, and will require serious government management and research from foreign and domestic experts to unveil the background of Muarajambi's grandeur.
In the meantime, the textile motifs of the lower clothing of Muarajambi's Prajnaparamita have attracted attention due to their exquisite and refined patterns.
The white andesite statue resembles a Prajnaparamita from the Singhasari Kingdom in the 13th century in Malang, East Java, better known as the figure of Ken Dedes.
Prajnaparamita, the Buddhist Goddess of Wisdom, was found at Gumpung, the first Muarajambi temple restored.
Although some say that the Muarajambi statue dates to the Singhasari era, Bambang maintains it is not from Java. Despite a resemblance, the Muarajambi statue has aspects of local design philosophy, being slimmer and dressed in richly pleated clothing.
One scholar, Jonathan Zilberg from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has written that it is not certain if the garments draping the figure of the statue reflect textile designs of 13th century Muarajambi or the creative work of its sculptor.
The design of the statue's belt, for example, resembles a traditional Minangkabau house in West Sumatra, with its center in the upstream area of Batanghari. Called Aka Cino (Chinese skill), the design implies resourcefulness in making a living.
The drawings on other bricks nearby are also interesting, bearing images of traditional Minangkabau- or Chinese-style homes.
Like the beautiful textile motifs on the statue, the bricks require more research into the origins of the clothing patterns and decorative designs.
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