Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Sailendra Dynasty: Builders of Borobodur, Agents of Buddhism

Borobudur (depicted in Civilization V), the greatest monument of Sailendra Dynasty
They gave the world the largest stupa in the world – Borobudur. Their civilization shrouded in mystery. They ruled Central Java and became agents of Buddhism from a once Hindu Kingdom. For over the century they ruled the region until their rivals reentered the scene and grab the control of the Kingdom. This is the Sailendra Dynasty of Central Java.

The Sailendra Dynasty ruled Central Java from 760 to 830. Their name meant Lord of the Mountain in Sanskrit, probably because the region had numerous mountains and volcanoes. The promoted Mahayana Buddhist and built the great wonder called Borobudur.

Mystery shrouded the Sailendra Dynasty. Because of few existing sources, mostly inscription, the rise and beginning of the Sailendra Dynasty was scantly laid out. However, their rise seemed to have begun in the 778. In the plains of Kedu in Central Java, the Hindu Sanjaya Dynasty ruled the Mataram Kingdom. However, the Sailendras rose up and took over the Kingdom, making the Sanjaya Dynasty to go east. Panangkaran ruled as the first Sailendra ruler of the Mataram Kingdom. He took the title of Maharaja or Great King, making Sailendra the first to adopt such title. Following his ascension to the throne, he made Buddhism the state religion and commissioned the building of Buddhist temple or Candis as they were called in Indonesia. In 778, he ordered the construction of the Candi Kalasan, a Candi dedicated to the female Bodhisattva Tara. He also resumed the construction of Borobodur. The new Sailendra King ordered changes in the depiction of erotic or earthly images in the base and the construction proceeded.

Borobudur stood as the biggest Buddhist temple in the world. Its layout based on the Mandala with Mt. Meru as the center. It had numerous bas and narrative reliefs that showed the life of different Bodhisattvas. However, the reliefs showed more than just the life of the Bodhisattvas. It also expressed depictions of the daily lives of the people under Sailendra rule.  For example, it depicted people working in rice fields and engaging in trade. Borobudur eventually became the greatest monument that the Sailendras left for the present day.

The reliefs of Borobudur gave some details about the economy of Sailendra. Basically, under the Sailendra rule, the people engaged in wet rice farming, using the nearby rivers as source of irrigation. The monsoons and the rivers allowed the Kedu plains to be fertile and the people had harvest year-around. Besides agriculture, the people also had trade as a source of livelihood, however, it did not become competitive. Because the area ruled by Sailendra flourished in the central plains of Java, it did not had any complete access to the sea and ports. They had to rely on merchants to bring their products from the hinterlands to the coastlines. Layers of merchants acting as middlemen passed on Sailendra products like rice until it reached ports. By the time the goods arrived in the coastal ports, the price was not internationally competitive and so merchant ships only purchased the goods for the sake of provisions. Other than trade and agriculture, the Sailendra Kingdom also had numerous artisans that worked in the temple, like Borobudur, commissioned by the rulers. They also profited from the coming of pilgrims that visited Borobudur. Although not internationally competitive, the economy of Sailendra provided subsistence that allowed it to grow.

 On the other hand, in the administrative affairs, the Sailendra ruled over a decentralized kingdom. It followed the concept of Mandala, where the ruler served only with religious purposes, in this case, promoting Buddhism, presiding religious rituals, and commissioning temple. Surrounding capital or main city where the Maharaja resided, local rulers commanded great level of autonomy, they served as de facto kings of their own domains. Thus the kingdom did not had any definite borders.

Because of limited and few sources, only few Sailendra rulers had been identified. The Balitung Inscription of 970 showed the names of Sailendra rulers but their reign and their relations had not been established. The names include Panangkaran, Panungalan, Warak, Gurung, and Samaratunga.

In the field of foreign affairs, the Sailendra commanded great prestige in its neighbors and other Buddhist Kingdoms as far as India. It had relations with Buddhist Kingdoms in Sumatra (most importantly Sri Vijaya), India, and Sri Lanka. Buddhist monks from other countries arrived in Sailendra in order to visit and make pilgrimage in its temples. Some Buddhist also inaugurated images of Bodhisattvas. For example, a monk from Gada (in modern Bangladesh) visited Sailendra and inaugurated the image of Manjusri Bodhisattva in Candi Sewu in Kelurak.

The Sailendra also commanded great power outside Central Java either by conquest or by marriage. Sailendra intermarried with the rulers of Sri Vijaya in southern Sumatra, and its rulers associated themselves closely with the Sailendra rulers in Java. In addition, the area of modern day Cambodia also fell under its influence. However, with the rise of Jayavarman II, they seceded from Sailendra-Sri Vijaya and formed the new Kingdom of Khmer. The Sailendra rulers also attempted to gain a foothold in Vietnam by launching attacks on its coastlines. Sailendra attacked Vietnam in 774 and 787.
The Sailendra ruled for decades until 825 when the Hindu Sanjaya returned. But it did not meant a complete end for Sailendra. It used its princess and princes in order to survive. The leader of the Sanjaya, Rakai Pikatan, married the daughter of the Sailendra Maharaja Samaratunnga, Pramodhawardhani. It resulted to the survival of the Sailendra dynasty, their religion, and their temples, like Borobodur. But some Sailendra moved to Sri Vijaya and assimilated with its rulers.

The Sailendra Dynasty is mysterious simply because only few sources narrate its existence. Nevertheless, they are prestigious in the sense that they shaped the histories of its contemporary kingdoms, which are more known, like Sri Vijaya and the Khmer empire. They are also remembered to this day thanks to the magnificent monuments they left for tourist to visit.

See also:

Coeddes, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Honolulu, Hawaii: East-West Center Press, 1968.

Heidhues, Mary Somers. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Tarling, Nicholas. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia v.1 pt. 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Southworth, William. "Sailendras: A Javanese Buddhist Dynasty." in Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia from Angkor Wat to East Timor. Edited by Ooi Keat Gin. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc, 2004.

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