A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

Note: Comments are moderated. If you include a link, your comment will not be published. As you will note, I do not accept ads on my website and that includes in comments.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Borobudur: The Architecture of Buddhist Cosmology

Image courtesy of UNESCO (see link below).

Borobudur is a temple located in central Java.  It is a shrine to the Buddha, and a pilgrimage place.  It was built between 750 and 842 CE.  Carved into the base of the temple are 160 carved reliefs, the most complete collection of Buddhist reliefs anywhere in the world.  Looking down on it, one can see a mandala - a microcosm of the universe - a pattern with spiritual and ritual significance for Buddhists and Hindus.

An aerial view of the temple from the Borobudur website (see link below).
The three zones of the universe are exemplified at Borobudur.
The foundation is approximately 387 feet on each side.
Image courtesy of the Borobudur website.

According to Buddhist cosmology, the universe has three zones, represented at Borobudur in rising layers.  The first is Kāmadhātu, the world of desire.  This world is inhabited by common people.  This is the base of the temple, which has been covered by a foundation and is hidden from view except for one corner that has been left uncovered for viewers.  These 160 reliefs carved into this base illustrate the law of cause and effect, and the collection is known as the Mahakarmawibhangga.  They illustrate the behavior of desire, including the invidious behavior of acts such as killing, rape, torture, and robbery.  There is a reckoning in the afterlife depicted for those committing these acts.  There are also reliefs showing meritorious behavior such as charity and working together.  When the base was dismantled and the reliefs discovered, they were photographed by Casijan Chepas in 1890.  These photographs are on view in the site museum.

The Buddha's mother, Queen Maya, retreats to Lumbini so that she may give
birth to Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha.  This is one of the reliefs from
the base, which do not depict a continuous story, nor are they all related to the
Buddha.  Beside the blameworthy and praiseworthy activities, they show other
aspects of everyday life.  This image and the one below courtesy of Wikipedia.
Here Siddhartha Gautama shaves his head in his preparations to become an ascetic.

Rupadhatu, or the world of forms, is the second layer.  It is a transitional zone, where humans are released from their desires for the physical world.  They continue living in the world and see forms but are not desirous of them.  This is comprised of four tiers, which have galleries of carved reliefs and niches with 432 statues of the Buddha, as well as depictions of Sanskrit manuscripts.  The top layer is Arupadhatu, the world of formlessness.  This is the abode of those who have become Buddhas.  These terraces have stupas containing Buddha sculptures that face outward.  The central stupa is empty; it is unknown if whatever was inside was removed, or whether it was always empty.

This image and the one below courtesy of Wikipedia.

There are no written documents that reveal who built Borobudur, but it is generally held that it was a ruler in the Sailendra dynasty, as the temple was built in the peak of their reign.  There is a lot of confusion as to the religious preferences of rulers at that time, but because known Buddhist kings allowed Hindu monuments to be built, and vice versa, it suggests a climate of tolerance existed.  There is a Hindu complex nearby known as Prambanan, which likewise has three levels corresponding to the zones of Borobudur.

Prambanan - the Hindu temple compound that also has three levels or zones.
This has suffered much earthquake damage, but is used by local Hindus today.
Image courtesy of the Borobudur website.

There are two smaller temples that appear in a straight line leading to Borobudur, Mendut and Pawon.  Although the exact relationship between the three temples is unknown, today they are part of a procession in the Waisak day festival.  This is held each year on the day of the full moon in April or May, commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha.  It is an important day in the Buddhist calendar, and pilgrims from all over the world come to take part in the procession from temple to temple, ending at Borobudur.

Image courtesy of the Borobudur website.

Although it is unknown why Borobudur was abandoned, and there may have been many reasons, volcanic activity surely had a part.  When discovered, the site was covered in volcanic ash.  The capital of the kingdom was moved to East Java; then in the 15th century, there was a conversion to Islam.  All of these contributed to the desertion of the site, and it continued only in memory through local tales for centuries.

Mount Merapi seen ominously smoking in 2009.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the British took over Java in 1811, Sir Thomas Raffles was appointed governor.  He had an interest in Javanese history, and listened to the rumors about a big monument in the jungle.  He had the site cleaned, and the reliefs documented and interpreted.  In 1885, the hidden reliefs were found, which also had Sanskrit instructions left for the carver, from which the construction was datable.  Over the pursuing years the site was restored, and water damage from inadequate drainage was corrected.  After a 1973 renovation funded by UNESCO, Borobudur was used once again for worship.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As an interesting aside, in 1982 Philip Beale, previously of the British Royal Navy, was in Indonesia to study ships and marine traditions.  He found ten panels at Borobudur showing sea vessels - some powered by oars, others by sails.  He thought since the other panels showed everyday life, these ships may have been part of the Cinnamon Route - a shipping route linking Indonesia to Africa across the Indian Ocean, past the Seychelles, Madagascar, and the Cape of Good Hope to Ghana.  With the help of experienced Indonesian shipbuilders, he had a ship modeled on the stone carvings constructed.  It was then launched on an expedition to retrace the route to Ghana.  The expedition took six months, demonstrating that ancient trading routes were viable.  The ship - the Samudra Raksa, "defender of the seas", is housed in a museum in Borobudur Archaeological Park.

The stone relief of an Indonesian trade ship.
The full-scale reconstruction of the above ship, here stored at the Borobudur site.
Both images courtesy of Wikipedia.
UNESCO made Borobudur a world heritage site in 1991.  Today it is the most visited tourist site in Indonesia, attracting pilgrims and art and architecture lovers alike.  A marvel when it was built, it is still one today.

The Borobudur Archaeological Park website is here.
The UNESCO website for Borobudur is here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, illustration from Lee, H., 1887.
The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton
Plant, to Which is Added a Sketch of the History of Cotton and
the Cotton Trade.  
S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London.

Medieval Europe subscribed to beliefs in many legendary creatures, unicorns being a prime example, although that myth began in ancient Greece.  Most of these critters were born from hearsay and a lack of knowledge of foreign places.  One such creature was the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, a zoophyte from Central Asia that grew sheep from its stem.

Illustration from Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch's picture book for children,
circa late 1700s.  Clockwise it features a Basilisk, a Roc, a Phoenix, a Dragon,
the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, and a Unicorn.
Close-up of the above illustration - "Das Boramez, oder Scythische Lamm".

A "zoophyte" is an animal that looks like a plant, common in medieval and renaissance herbals.  They were often found in early medical texts, and are examples of explanations explaining the origins of unknown plants.  These continued into the 17th century and were commented on by many scholars of the time, including Francis Bacon.  Claims of zoophytes began to be refuted by 1646, and skepticism increased in the 17th and 18th centuries.

1605 illustration by Claude Duret of Moulins from Histoire Admirable des Plantes.

The plant-born sheep of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary were claimed to be connected to the plant through an "umbilical cord", which was supple and allowed the sheep to graze on the vegetation surrounding the plant.  Once all the vegetation was consumed, the sheep died.  These plants were said to grow from seeds that looked like melon seeds but rounder.  The sheep, or lamb, was believed to have blood, bones, and a crab-like flesh, which could be eaten.  The blood supposedly tasted like honey.  The "wool" was used by the local people to make cloth.  Wolves and other animals were attracted to it.

This illustration is from the 1350 book The Travels of Sir John Mandeville,
first written in Anglo-Norman French, and translated.  Mandeville is the
pseudonym for an unknown compiler of the book, which was very popular
and influential in its time.  Columbus had a copy.  This is what the plant was
thought to look like, although other illustrations show only one lamb per plant.

It may have been an explanation of cotton - that fiber unknown to Europeans except by trade, who had no notion of how it was produced from a plant.  Since cotton is white and fluffy, similar to wool, it's easy to see where the sheep-plant idea arose.  But there is actually a plant that produces something that could vaguely resemble a sheep or lamp.  The Cibotium barometz is a fern of the genus Cibotium.  (Cibotium comes from the Greek "kibotion", a small box used to hold medicines).  It is also known as the Scythian Lamb or Barometz (Tartar for lamb). This tree fern is native today to parts of China, where it is known as Golden Hair Dog Fern, and the western Malay Peninsula.  It can grow to the height of 3'3" tall when erect, but is often prostrate and spreads on open forest slopes.  The fronds grow up to 10' long.  It is collected in Southeast Asia and is in serious decline.  It is used in folk medicines; it is believed to replenish the liver and kidney, and strengthen bones and muscles.

An 1878 depiction of a cotton plant.  Ebers, Georg,
Egypt: Descriptive, Historical, and Picturesquem,
Vol. I.  Cassell & Company, Ltd., New York.

As early as 436 CE, there is a similar plant mentioned in Jewish folklore.  The Yeduah was a lamb-like creature that sprouted from a stem from the earth.  The Yeduah could only be severed from its stem with darts or arrows.  When it died its bones were used for divination.  Another legend is of the Faduah, a human-shaped zoophyte also connected to the earth by a stem from its navel.  This plant would kill anything that got too close, and also died when severed from its stem.

Frontispiece of John Parkinson's Paradisi in Sole Paradisus
Terrestris: Or a Garden of All Sorts of Pleasant Flowers
which our English Ayre will Permitt to be Noursed Vp.
With a Kitchen Garden of All Manner of Herbes, Rootes, &
Fruites, for Meate or Sause Vsed with Vs, and an Orchard of
All Sorte of Fruitbearing Trees and Shrubbes Fit for Our Land.
Together with the Right Orderinge, Planting & Preserving of
Them and Their Uses and Vertues Collected by John Parkinson
Apothecary of London.
  London: Printed by Hvumfrey Lownes and
Robert Yovng at the Signe of the Starre on Bread-Street.  1629.
Adam and Eve are in Paradise.  The plant is by the river above Adam.

Many searched to find this rumored plant.  It was debated by philosophers, written about in literature, and discussed all over Europe.  Besides the aforementioned Sir John Mandeville of the 14th century,  in 1549 Sigismund, Baron von Herberstein wrote a detailed account of it in Rerum Muscoviticarum Commentarii ("Notes on Russia").  Although he never found it, he claimed he heard too many reports of it for it not to be true, and said it could be found near the Caspian Sea.

A more accurate depiction of the fronds, but the sheep are still
around the plant.  From the Svenska Familj-Journalen, Vol. 18, 1879.

Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician and scholar, went to Persia in 1683 intent on finding it.  Since he was unsuccessful, he concluded it was a legend.  He did offer an explanation however, as he had observed the custom of removing a lamb from its mother's womb in order to get the soft wool, and thought this fetal wool could be mistaken for something from a plant.  Diderot included an entry on it in his Encyclopedia, although some see this as a criticism of blind religious belief and a call to view all phenomena scientifically.

A preserved sample under glass at the Garden Museum, London.
The plant today.  Image courtesywww.forestferns.co.uk.

This is a fascinating example of how humans, educated scholars even, explained the unknown.  Today, with photographic media and the internet, any curious person can research something they are unfamiliar with.  However, we humans seem to have a penchant for mystery and the impossible.  What common legends do we still subscribe to?

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Cheers to Bravo!

Study of Tamayo's Hands; 1931; silver gelatin print.

I love black and white photography.  Without the dimension of color I can really see and concentrate on the subject.  I think for some photographers it is harder; you need a unique kind of eye to see something in black and white.  In fact, I see black and white photography as a different genre from color photography.  My favorite black and white photographer is Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

Split Nopal; circa 1970; gelatin silver print.

Bravo is recognized today as one of the masters of photography and the main representative of Latino photography in the 20th century.  He was born in Mexico City in 1902, and grew up privy to the avant-garde movements that followed the Mexican Revolution, a cultural renaissance that drew international artists.  His photos captured the disparity between urban and rural life as they confronted modernity.

In a Village; circa 1944; gelatin silver print.  The woman sitting was Bravo's
second wife, Doris Heydn.  Bravo referred to this photo as Sueño de una turista,
or Tourist's Dream.  The women are oblivious to each other, creating tension.

Although he left school at the age of twelve to contribute to his family's income after his father died, he eventually began studying painting and music at the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1918.  His father and grandfather had been amateur photographers, and although he received his first camera in 1923 he did not become a professional photographer until two years later.  He met and worked with some of the well-known artists of that time - Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Sisqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, to name but some.

The Good Reputation, Sleeping; from a 1938 negative; gelatin silver print.
The title comes from a proverb - La Buena fama durmiendo; earn a good
reputation, then rest on your laurels.  This photo was the result of a phone
call on behalf of André Breton who wanted an image for the cover of a catalog
for an upcoming surrealist exhibition at the Galería de Arte Mexicano.
This is my personal favorite black and white photo

Although he was never formally a part of the surrealism movement, his work has elements of dreams and fantasties, and his photographs of inanimate objects are generally imbued with human qualities.  His work was often political and he had associations with revolutionary artists and writers.  Despite his openness and exposure to influences outside of his native country, his work displays a distinctively Mexican focus.  This was in tune with national efforts to create a unified Mexican cultural identity, and the emergence of Mexico City as an international center for art and the intellectual climate that accompanied it.

The Crouched Ones; 1934; gelatin silver print.  The anonymous men have
been visually decapitated, their feet bound by the chains linking the chairs.
Such a compelling statement about the constraints and invisibility of laborers!

Tina Modotti was working for the magazine Mexican Folkways, which explored the cultural history of Mexico.  She gave Bravo some freelance assignments, and when she was deported in 1930 for her politics, he took her place.  His work at first consisted mostly of photographs of artifacts, murals, and portraits.  But he also began to photograph landscapes, architecture, nature, and the daily life of everyday people.  He was able to convey a sense of isolation and dissonance in many of his photos; his images tell captivating stories.

Daughter of the Dancers; 1933, gelatin silver print.

For decades he shot his provocative vignettes, but in the 1940s he focused more on landscapes.  Because of his interest and involvement in film his work took on a more cinematic look.  His shots became more complex, blending past and present. Octavio Paz, the Nobel Laureate, was a close friend of Bravo's.  He described Bravo's photographs as instances of revelation, moments of fixation.

Optical Parable; 1931; gelatin silver print.  He flipped
the negative reversing the text.  Parable, parabola in
Spanish, refers to both a shape and a story, thus is wordplay.

Bravo used silver-gelatin, palladium, and platinum printing processes.  He mostly printed 8 x 10 copies, but also did some 11 x 14 prints, and rarely 16 x 20.  He explored all facets of photography, including Polaroids and disposable cameras.  It would have been interesting to see what he would have done with digital photography, but he passed away in 2002, having lived a rich and productive 100 years.

Bravo in London in 1980, age 78.
Image courtesy of Bill Jay.

Bravo was married three times to women who were all professionals of some renown in their own right. He was, and is, a profoundly influential photographer whose work has earned international acclaim.  Born in interesting times, he took full advantage of his situation and involved himself fully in life.  I celebrate his life and work and hope that he will continually inspire those who experience his art.

All images © The J. Paul Getty Trust.  All rights reserved.
The Asociación Manuel Álvarez Bravo AC is archiving his work.