The Monstrous Faces of the Guardians of Time

The Borobudur Temple, the massive Mahayana Buddhist temple in Central Java, Indonesia, was built in the ninth century during the reign of the Shailendra Dynasty, which emerged in eighth-century Java. The temple’s design combines the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana, the release from karma and the cycle of death and rebirth, with traces of the Gupta art reflecting the influence of ancient India on the region. Apart from being a shrine to the Lord Buddha, Borobudur is also a temple for Buddhist pilgrimage. A pilgrim’s journey begins at the base of the monument and follows a path around the temple. The pilgrim then ascends to the top of the monument through the three realms in the Buddhist cosmology. Those three realms are Kamadhatu (“the world of desire”), Rupadhatu (“the world of forms”) and Arupadhatu (“the world of formlessness”). However, to experience this journey, the pilgrim will first walk through the gate of the temple adorned with a terrifying head which gives the illusion of the gate looking like the open mouth of the giant. The giant head represents Kala (“time”).

Borobudur-Nothwest-view.jpg
Borobudur temple view from northwest plateau, Central Java, Indonesia.

 In ancient Indian epics, Kala appears as a god. In the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, Krishna reveals his identity to the hero Arjuna as the giant, terrifying personification of Kala who would destroy everyone when their time comes. In the Uttara Kanda, the last chapter of the epic Ramayana, Kala appears as the messenger of Yama, the god of death. He told Rama that the time has come for his return to heaven. Rama accepted his advice and along with his brothers, as well as several rakshasas (giants) and monkeys, he went to the river Sarayu. It was from this river that Rama made his journey to the heavens. In the Bhagavata Purana, a holy text in Vaishnavism (a Hindu tradition that reveres the god Vishnu), Kala appears as the force that is responsible for the eventual shift in one’s life as a whole, that is creation and extinction. This impermanence is attributed to the march of time, or Kala.

Brown Concrete Statues on Brown Wooden Platform

The name Kala as a representation of the god of death already exists in Old Javanese manuscripts which are called Sastra Parwa, probably written around the ninth – 14th century ADwhich consists of fragments from the Mahabharata epic. A section of the manuscript named the Bhismaparwa, which is an excerpt from the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas in Bharatayuda, tells the story of the death of the hero Bhisma by Arjuna’s arrow. Although the story is devoted to Bhisma’s heroism, Kala made an appearance when Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, taught Arjuna about the dharma (duty) of a Khsatriya (knight) who at times has to take a life in the name of dharma. When Arjuna asked for a proof of this, Krishna who is the incarnation of Lord Vishnu then turns himself into Kala, a giant who is ready to pounce and tear humans indiscriminately as it is his duty as the personification of time. After seeing Kala and understanding the inevitability of this war, Arjuna resolved to go to war against his kinsmen.

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Wayang Kulit of Batara Kala, 1966

In traditional Javanese and Balinese mythology, Batara Kala is the god of time and destruction. He rules over the Underworld along with the Underworld goddess Setesuyara. Pre-Islamic Javanese beliefs, such as those relating to the eclipse, are related to Batara Kala. For example, the solar eclipse is due to Batara Kala swallowing the sun. Therefore, people are prohibited from conducting certain activities during an eclipse such as building a house, hosting a wedding party and looking directly at the sun. When an eclipse happens, Javanese villagers would traditionally try to ‘rescue’ the sun or moon by offering sacrifices and banging lesung (traditional rice hulling equipment) or slit drums to cause noise, surprise Batara Kala and make him vomit so that he would release the sun or moon. 

Detail of Kala’s head on over the niche at Jabung, East Java

Kala as a representation of giant man-eating creature also appears in Kakawin Sutasoma, composed by Mpu Tantular in around the 14th century AD, in the reign of King Hayam Wuruk of the kingdom of Majapahit. The Sakawin Sutasoma tells of a figure named Sutasoma, son of King Hastina, who was diligent in is prayers. However, Sutasoma did not want to be king and preferring instead to wander. In his wanderings, Sutasoma met a giant, a tiger and a dragon. However, impressed by Sutasoma’s gentleness, they converted to Buddhism and became his disciples.

Batara Kala if Batara Kala freed him from this illness and turned him human again. Priests came to Sutasoma to ask him to kill the king. However, Sutasoma refused. Instead, Sutasoma offered himself to be eaten by Batara Kala in exchange for the 100 kings. Batara Kala readily agreed and ate Sutasoma. Seeing Sutasoma’s willingness to sacrifice himself, the giant king freed the other 100 kings. He then followed Sutasoma’s example and became a Buddhist.

10th century carving of Kala’s head in Banteay Srei style, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Once upon time, Batara Guru (the king of the deities and the Javanese equivalent of the Hindu god Shiva) and his wife Dewi Uma (the Javanese equivalent of the goddess Parvati) rode on the divine bull, Andini. When Batara Guru looked over at his wife, he was struck at how beautiful she appeared as the sunset flattered her features. Batara Guru could not contain his lust and tried to make love to her. Dewi Uma tried to refuse as they were flying above the ocean on a divine bull, but she was soon overpowered by her lustful husband. Dewi Uma avoided Batara Guru’s seed and the seed rained into the ocean. Therefore, the sperm became inauspicious as, due to the violent nature of the production of the sperm, the ocean boiled up and let out great thundering sounds.

Banteay Srei Kala.jpg
Depiction of a guardian spirit (Yaksa) atop a mythological creature (named Kala or Rahu) at the Banteay Srei in Angkor (Cambodia)

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Kings and Giants (Wayang: Stories of the Shadow Puppets Book 2) by [Martini Fisher]

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