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Jakarta Post

Lydia Kieven: No relief from the vandals

  • Duncan Graham

    The Jakarta Post

Trawas, East Java   /   Mon, August 19, 2013   /  12:17 pm
Lydia Kieven: No relief from the vandals

Lydia Kieven. Duncan Graham

When Lydia Kieven returned to a small sanctuary high on East Java'€™s Mount Penanggungan, she expected to be enchanted and awed yet again.

Instead she burst into tears. Vandals had hit the mid 15th-century shrine known as Candi Kendalisodo since her last visit and chiselled off part of a relief. The work showed Arjuna, one of the Pandawa brothers, as he was tempted by Bimasuci in a tale from the Mahabharata epic.

'€œI felt really hurt,'€ said the German art historian and cultural archaeologist.'€ It was like a blow to the stomach. At the same time I wondered whether my work had highlighted the site and made others think it had value so could be exploited. It'€™s an ethical question.'€

At first, blush such reasoning seems flawed. To know of the site'€™s importance requires any Philistine to be well-read and diligent. Kieven'€™s specialized research, however, is unlikely to be found by the average bookshop browser or Internet scavenger.

There is a steep unposted track to the site, half a kilometer below the 1,653-meter summit. It takes more than two hours to climb to the peak from the foothills of Trawas, only the determined make the journey. While some are pilgrims to make offerings, the devoted are unlikely to destroy what they revere.

Perhaps unprincipled collectors have done their research and ordered parts to be plundered?

'€œI don'€™t know, but vandalism continues even now,'€ said Kieven as she prepared for another hike to the site, this time to commemorate 100 days following the death of her friend Suryo Prawiroatmodjo, a pioneer conservationist and promoter of Majapahit history. His ashes have been placed at Kendalisodo.

'€œA panel about a meter square dating from 1450 has also now gone to who knows where. What to do? None is going to sit up there watching for 24 hours a day. Sadly isolation is no protection. My approach is to help build knowledge, understanding and appreciation. That way people may get to see the richness and importance of their history and become carers.'€

She is doing this by acting as a tour guide and lecturing, including at the environmental education center on the slopes of Mt. Penanggungan that was started by Suryo. She has also helped run local cultural festivals.

Kieven also plans to produce a shortened Indonesian version of her latest book '€” Following the figure with the cap '€” a new look at the religious function of East Javanese temples. This examines carvings depicting the indigenous stories of the East Javan Prince Panji, whose adventures feature on many temple reliefs.

There are at least a dozen versions of his romance with Candrakirana (Princess Moonbeam). It'€™s the universal tale of handsome boy meets lovely girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again '€” though not till after he has had a few affairs along the way.

Kieven'€™s journey to become one of the world'€™s leading experts on East Java temple art started in a small village outside Cologne. Gifted with curiosity, wanderlust and the ability to master languages, she was desperate to explore beyond her '€œtoo-tiny'€ town.

That had also been the unfulfilled ambition of her grandfather and businessman father. They stayed in Germany, so Lydia lived their dream.

At first, her goal was India. '€œI don'€™t know why,'€ Kieven said. '€œMaybe because someone brought me a toy elephant, or because I read 1001 Nights when I was around ten.'€

Instead she studied mathematics and art history at university. She failed at the first but did well at the second, then became a tour guide in France. A friend looking for a travel companion suggested Bali '€” '€œnot India, but at least a little India'€.

Suddenly all her wanderings became focused. She avoided Kuta, headed for Ubud and saw a picture of Borobudur and its astonishing reliefs.

'€œNow I knew what I wanted '€” and I wanted to come back. I also realized I had to study the language'€

Back home she took a master'€™s degree in Indonesian language and literature, then went to Yogyakarta to study at Gadjah Mada University (UGM). She now speaks Indonesian like a local, plays the gamelan and can also wrap her dexterous tongue around Javanese.

Her adventures as a tour guide now took her to Indonesia, giving her an opportunity to stay and research when the Europeans headed home. Her interest in the Panji stories led her to cultural historian Professor Adrian Vickers, who supervised her doctorate at the Univeristy of Sydney.

Mt. Penanggungan is so rich in history that it probably deserves world heritage listing and protection. There are at least 81 sites, including temple remains and bathing pools, like the popular and easily accessible Candi Jolotundo, built around the year 977.

Here visitors can walk through plastic trash, hear high volume pop music and see the latest graffiti carved on surrounding rocks.

It would be wrong, however, to blame all despoliation on young people who know not what they do and whose school history lessons started with the 1945 Revolution. The Dutch colonialists were wanton plunderers of precious artefacts, shipping some back to Holland, giving others to visiting dignitaries, or scattering statuary across the archipelago.

Kieven found one of only two known three-dimensional figures wearing the curious half-moon shaped Panji Cap hidden in a Bandung library.

The Majapahit kingdom collapsed early in the 16th century. Its remnants fled to Bali and East Java'€™s Bromo highlands.

'€œI can'€™t write the final word on Panji,'€ said Kieven who will soon return to teaching Southeast Asian Studies at Frankfurt'€™s Goethe University. '€œI'€™m still trying to understand so much. My theory is that although Panji belongs to daily life he was also an aristocrat and pointing a way to the Tantric path [of Hindu meditation].

'€œNow I want to write about Penataran, she says of the large Hindu temple complex in East Java that was built over 250 years. '€œI hope I can apply my knowledge and give just a little help to lift self-esteem regarding Javanese history. It'€™s my contribution against globalization.'€