A Note On the Ganesha Image discovered from Palembang, Sumatra

 Ganesha. Jalan Mahyor Ruslan, Palembang, Sumatra.7th-8th century. Stone. (Photo: Dr. E. Edwards McKinnon)

Fig 1 Ganesha. Jalan Mahyor Ruslan, Palembang, Sumatra.
7th-8th century. Stone. (Photo: Dr. E. Edwards McKinnon)

In a recent Issue of lndonesia  E. Edwards McKinnon published a stone Ganesha found at Jalan Mayor Ruslan, Palembang 1n 1983 (figs. 1 and 2 )[1] A He suggested a probable 12th-13th century date for the Ganesha and noted the statue‘s excellent condition.[2]. In my opinion, Mc Kinnon‘s dating is too late and a 7th or 8th century date is more likely.[3] This earlier dating would place the Ganesha among the earliest images found at Palembang, and in fact in Sumatra. It would also mean that the Ganesha is one of the very few, if not the only, Hindu Image from the Palembang area with such an early date, as the other earliest known material from the region is Buddhist.

My 8th century dating for the Ganesha is based on comparisons with Indian Images, one of the closest comparison‘s being with the 7th century Ganesha from the Bala-Brahma temple at Alampur (fig. 3). It 1s frequently as difficult to date Ganesha images in India as it is in Southeast Asia: the body type is usually determined by unchanging iconographic rather than stylistic considerations, and the elephant heads often vary radically, even within the same area and period. The Alampur Ganesha is, however, part of a set of Aaptam&Vikci that allows us considerable additional comparative material. Dr. Katherine Harper Lorenzana, who is preparing a detailed study of Aptam&Vikci, suggests an early 7th century date for the Alampur matraks and the Ganesha, because she believes they relate most closely to the Ellora Cave 21 and 14 sets of the latter half of the 6th century.[4]

In comparing the Alampur and Palembang Ganeshas we can note the general similarities of body proportion and relative head size. Both gods wear their hair piled in a jat‘όmukuta that sits well back from their foreheads. The attributes they hold are the same. They each hold a rosary (aksamala) in their upper right hand and an axe (parasu) In their left. Not only are the general size and shape of these attributes the same (compare particularly the almost identical construction of the axes), but the way they are held with the bent central fingers is also similar.

Fig. 2. Ganesa. Jalan Mahyor Ruslan, Palembang, Sumatra.7th - 8th century. Stone. (Photo: Dr. E. Edwards McKinnon)

Fig. 2. Ganesha. Jalan Mahyor Ruslan, Palembang, Sumatra.
7th – 8th century. Stone. (Photo: Dr. E. Edwards McKinnon)

The modaka bowl held In the lower left hand of the two images is particularly telling. Appearing like a cut fruit with its seeds revealed, the Alampur modaka bowl is unusual in Indian art. The Palembang Ganeshas bowl closely reflects this Alampur attribute type. Furthermore, as a general rule, Southeast Asian Ganesha’s hold empty modaka bowls. The final attributes, those held in the lower right hand, cannot be identified with certainty for either Image. It is clear, however, that they are not tusks. That of the Alampur Ganesha could perhaps be a cloth. Ganesha’s from other Calukyan sites, such as Badam and Alhole, hold a variety of attributes in their lower right hands that often cannot be easily identified: they sometimes appear to be money bags, garlands, vegetables (radishes?), or pieces of cloth. Judging from the photograph, the Palembang Ganeshas attribute may be broken on top. Nevertheless, It shares with the Alampur attribute a pliable quality not out of character with Chalukyan prototypes.

If we were to broaden the comparison to other Chalukyan art we would find additional similarities with the Palembang Ganesha. For our present purposes, however, the point is that the Palembang image must be close in date to the Alampur Ganesha, and it could not be more than a century later. In my opinion, the Palembang Ganesha is so completely Indian in style, Iconography, and general feel that its importation from India must be considered, a possibility. Initially arguing against this possibility is the image‘s size, approximately 180 cm high, larger, I think, than any other Indian Image found elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The Immigration of Indian artists to Southeast Asia is, of course, a different matter.

Could the Ganesha have been made locally?. Other monumental stone sculpture has been found in the Palembang area, as McKinnon points out in his article.[5] Three of these are large inscribed styles that, as with the elegant Sabokingking stone with its ndίga heads, are sophisticated thic achievements. The Sabokingking stone argues for a local (or at least Sumatran) manufacture, as its unique form does not occur elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The Palembang inscription, along with four others from Southern Sumatra, give us both a time frame (682-686 AD) and place name (Srivijaya) for their manufacture. Their dates would, apparently, fit well with the Palembang Ganesha.

The Bukit Seguntang Buddha at over 360 cm is the largest stone sculpture from the Palembang area; Nik Hassan Shuhaimi has suggested that it dates to the late 7th-early 8th century.[6] A second large stone Image (H: 172 cm) from Palembang is a four-armed Avalokitevara,[7] which could also, in my opinion, date to the 7th-8th centuries. Both images are, I think, decidedly Southeast Asian products, but Shuhaimi has proposed influence from Pala-period Eastern India for the Buddha,[8] while Sinhalese influence is usually mentioned for the bodhisattva.[9] Can we now propose yet a third monumental image from Palembang, and a Hindu one at that, of the same time-period and with Chalukyan influence?.


Fig. 3. Ganesha. Bala-Brahma Temple, Alampur, India.
Stone. (Photo: Archaeological Survey of India) Early 7th century.

One possible explanation for the diverse character of these sculptures would be that all three images were imported from different areas. This is in line with Bennet Bronson‘s and Jan Wissemanfs redeposition theory, in which they speculate that “the 7th century inscriptions and the 6th-10th century statues. . . are present [in Palembang] because they were brought in from somewhere else during the 14th-17th centuries.”[10] Bronson and Wisseman were at the time attempting to reconcile the early date of the inscriptions and sculpture with what they believed was a total lack of physical evidence for the occupation of the site before around the 14th century. McKinnon‘s notice of late first millennium Chinese potsherds from Palembang[11] and the 1984 discovery of an extensive ancient habitation area west of modern Palembang[12] may revise Bronson‘s and Wisseman‘s conclusions as to how early there were settlements in this area, but even if evidence surfaces that these existed from the 7th century on, we are still left with the odd stylistic mix of artistic objects from the site, and, unless considerably more sculpture is discovered,[13] with the puzzle of why so few objects, including several important statues which imply sophisticated workshops, have been found.

Finally, if the Palembang Ganesha was imported, could it have come from somewhere other than India? If this were so, the possible alternatives would be Sri Lanka or, more likely, elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Briefly, Sinhalese Ganesha tend to be later and follow Tamil (primarily Chola) styles. In Southeast Asia, one might look to Malaysia and Southern Thailand or Java. A number of Ganesha images are known from the Malay and Thai Peninsula that date to the 8th century.[14] These are, however, modest images that show little relation to the Palembang Ganesha. Likewise the Ganesha images from Java appear not to provide a likely source. The earliest Javanese Ganeshas may be those from Dieng, which date to around the 8th century.[15] While they are not, in fact, without similarities to Calukyan images, they are already Javanese in style, with such characteristics as the seated position in which the soles of the feet press together before the body. By the 9th century Javanese Ganesha have a highly distinctive style that does not at all relate to the Palembang Ganesha.[16]

If the Palembang Ganesha were Imported, therefore, India remains the most likely source. Another alternative exists, however: that the Image was in fact carved in Sumatra by an Indian or Indian-trained artist. To prove this using art historical analysis is, obviously, difficult.[17] The assumption might be that the object would necessarily display some non-Indian characteristics. Indeed, the Indian art historian might note that it is unusual for Indian Ganeshas to have the elongated trunk, the human eyes with their raised eyebrows, or the two small skulls in the he address. As I said above, however, the variety among Indian Ganeshas must give one pause in being categorical about such specific characteristics. The question of provenance for the Ganesha as well as for the other Palembang stone sculptures may be most amenable to a technical solution. A relatively simple microscopic cross-sectional analysis of the stone, which requires a very small sample, would immediately tell if the sculptures are from different stone sources. If samples were obtained from Sumatra‘s apparently restricted stone sources as well, very specific answers could be formulated. Such an analysis has been carried out by Richard Newman for areas of India,[18]but it is particularly appropriate for Sumatra with its limited quarries and number of sculptures.

In summary, two possibilities present themselves for the Palembang Ganesha: either it was imported from India or it was made outside of India, probably in Sumatra, by an Indian or Indian-trained artist. In either case, the image probably dates to the 8th century and thus adds a new early and significant Hindu face to Sumatran Sriwijaya[19]

[1] E. Edwards McKinnon, “Early Polities in Southern Sumatra: Some Preliminary Observations Based on Archaeological Evidence,” Indonesia 40 (October 1985): Plate 9. I want to thank Dr. McKinnon for information regarding the Ganesha and for the photographs published here as figs. 1 and 2.

[2] Ibid., p. 20.

[3] Dr. McKinnon 1n a personal letter says that an earlier date for the Ganesha could be Indeed a possibility.

[4] I want to thank Dr. Lorenzana for discussing the dating of the Bala-Brahma Ganesha with me.

[5] McKinnon, “Early Polities in Southern Sumatra,” passim. F. M. Schnitger‘s 1937 monograph Thz Archeology of Hindoo Sumatra (Leiden: Brill) still remains the standard discussion of the Palembang finds.

[6] Nik Hassan Shuhlaimi, “The Bukit Seguntang Buddha: A Reconsideration of its Date,” Journal of the Malay Branch of the Rσyal Asiatic Society 52, 2 (1979): 33-40. A good Illustration is published in Bennet Bronson and Jan Wisseman, “Palembang as Srivijaya: The Lateness of Early Cities in Southern Southeast Asia,” Asian Perspectives, 19, no. 2 (1976): Plate III.

[7] For an Illustration see McKinnon, “Early Polities in Southern Sumatra,” Plate 8.

[8] I am not prepared to accept completely Shuhaimi‘s arguments for stylistic influences on the Buddha. His tortuous discussion relies completely on analysis of the Buddha!s robe. He does not mention the head at all which, although damaged, does not appear to me to be Pchia but closer to Sinhalese or South Indian images.

[9] McKinnon, “Early Polities in Southern Sumatra,” p. 13.

[10] Bronson and Wisseman, “Palembang as Srivijaya,” p. 233.

[11] E. Edwards McKinnon, “A Note on the Discovery of Spur-Marked Yueh-Type Sherds at Bukit Seguntang Palembang,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Rσyal Asiatic Society, 52, 2 (1979): 41-47.

[12] McKinnon, “Early Polities in Southern Sumatra,” pp. 15-17. This site, called Karanganyar, is also discussed by 0. W. Wolters in “Restudying Some Chinese Writings on Srivijaya,” Indonesia, 42 (October 1986): 1-41.

[13] The discovery of the Ganesha makes this now an actual possibility.

[14] See, for example, Piriya Krairiksh, Art in Peninsula Thailand Prior to the Fourteenth Century AD. (Bangkok: The Fine Arts Department [1980]), Plate 16, and Chirasa Khochachiwa, “The Oldest Ganesha Sculpture 1n Thailand,” The Journal of Silpakorn University (1986), illustration on p. 82 (text in Thai).

[15] See Alice Getty,Ganesha: A Monograph on the Elephant Face God (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1936), Plate 30 c.

[16] For a discussion of Southeast Asian Ganesha images see my “Ganesha in Southeast Asian Art: Indian Connections and Indigenous Developments” forthcoming in a volume on Ganesha throughout Asia edited by A. K. Narain.

[17] The most consistent attempt at such an analysis for Southeast Asian art is A. B. Griswold, “Imported Images and the Nature of Copying in the Art of Siam” in Essay Offered to G. H Luce by His Colleagues and Friends in Honour of His Sventy Fifty Brithday., 2 vols., ed. Ba Shin et al. (Ascona: Artibus Asiae, 1966) 2:37-73. While his conclusions appear to be widely accepted, I feel any of them should best be considered tentative.

[18] Richard Newman, The Stone Sculptures of India: A Study of the Material Used by Indian Sculptors from ca. 2 Century to the 16 Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Art Museums, 1984).

[19] Dr. McKinnon in his letter tells me that a second but damaged Ganesha was found at Palembang about a century ago. He also says he is writing an article on Sivaite remains from Sumatra which will, certainly, be very helpful in assessing the Ganesha discussed here.

By : Robert L. Brown

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