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”).

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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.

File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Wajangpop voorstellende Batara Kala TMnr 3582-69.jpg
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)

When the divine couple returned to the heavens, Batara Guru was still angry at Dewi Uma’s rejection, so he whipped her and left. When he returned to her, he discovered that Dewi Uma had been crying loudly all day. Batara Guru sneeringly told her: “you are like a giantess”. However, due to the power of his words as the supreme god, Dewi Uma turned into a giantess called Batari Durga. Batari Durga left the heavens and stayed in the forest as the queen of evil.

After he calmed down and reflected rationally, Batara Guru realized that it was because of his lust that the ocean’s waters were boiling up. He asked his prime minister Batara Narada to tend to it. When Batara Narada reached the ocean, he found a young giant. The young giant was the result of Batara Guru’s inauspicious seed that had rained into the ocean. He took the young giant to Batara Guru, who grudgingly acknowledged him as his son. Batara Guru then gave him the name Batara Kala.

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Bho Motif.South face of Tower, Mukteshvara Temple
The bho is framed by two Indonesian-style guardians, wearing snakes in their hair. Between the guardians, an ornate chandrashala depends from the mouth of a kirttimukha. Within the chandrashala is a bell, and below the bell a circular lotus surrounded by flying celestials; in front of the lotus is a head within a smaller chandrashala, arranged as if peeping out from atop a balcony. Below is a scene with court ladies, flanked by two hunting scenes with deer and elephants.
Above the bho, a figure of dancing Shiva occupies a shallow projecting niche, which is surrounded by miniature carved shrines.

Soon it was discovered that Batara Kala was always hungry. However, because he was the unlucky son of the king of the gods, Batara Kala could not consume ordinary foods such as rice, vegetables and fruits. Therefore, Batara Guru gave him human food called sukerta. A sukerta is a polluted person, people who are impure or those who are affected by their ‘original sins’. Such humans were designated to be the food of Batara Kala.

Batara Kala has an insatiable appetite. He was sent by the devas (gods) to earth to punish humans for their evil habits. However, Batara Kala did not differentiate between good and evil. As befitting his status as the divine personification of time, Batara Kala devoured everything no matter who or what they were. Thus, he was interested only in devouring humans to satisfy his appetite and nothing else. Alarmed, the devas then recalled Batara Kala from earth. Traditionally, Javanese people try to obtain Batara Kala’s favor, as the god of time and destruction, to prevent misfortune, especially for their children. 

Apart from refraining from participating in taboo activities during an eclipse, exorcism ceremonies called ruwatan, are held for children born under inauspicious circumstances, to prevent them from being devoured by Batara Kala. This ceremony usually includes a wayang (Javanese shadow puppet) performance and a traditional feast. Ruwatan is a regularly held practice in Mojokerto, East Java, Indonesia. It is a hybrid tradition of Hinduism, Islam and the Javanese culture, it has been practiced since the Majapahit period.

The type of people who are classified as sukerta are very wide-ranging and oddly specific. According to Pakem Pangruwatan Murwakala, a guidebook on how to conduct a ruwatan, there are 60 kinds of sukertasPustaka Raja Purwa, a collection of stories used as references by dhalangs (puppetmasters) in wayang kulit performances in Java, describes 136 sukertas.

Some examples of people who are considered impure are, but not limited to, Ontang anting (only sons), Unting-unting (only daughters), Gehanagedhini (a pair of siblings consisting of only one son and one daughter), Pendhawa (five sons), Pandhawa pancala putri (five daughters), Kembar (twins), Gotong mayit (three daughters), Cukil dulit (three sons), Serimpi (four daughters), Sarambah (four sons) Sendang kapit pancuran (three siblings, two sons with a daughter in the middle), Pancuran kapit sendang (three siblings, two daughters with a son in the middle), Sumala (a child who is born with a physical defect), Margana (a child born when the mother was traveling), Wahana (a child born when the mother was at a party), Wuyungan (a child born in a war or disaster), Julung sungsang (a child born in the middle of the night) Julung sarab (a child born at sunset), Julung caplok (a child born at twilight), and Julung kembang (a child born at dawn). These are only some of the impurities caused by one’s birth.

There are also sukertas which are caused by simple carelessness such as people who whistle at midnight, people who drop the dhandang (rice container) and people who were simply unlucky in their life. The belief is that these unlucky people were cursed by Batara Kala and would bring disasters or diseases to their villages. To escape misfortune and avoid being devoured by Batara Kala, these unfortunate people must be cleansed (diruwat) to free them from calamities by undergoing the ruwatan ceremony.

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Wayang ruwatan, is wayang performance which held in the noonday instead of in the night, in part of Sedekah Bumi (Memetri Bumi) ritual.

The ruwatan ritual includes sesajen (offerings to the gods and goddesses) and wayang kulit (shadow puppet plays). The offerings consist of special elements such as eggs, white and red rice, cooking spices, coins, incense and seven different kinds of flowers. The story presented by the shadow puppets would usually tell the people about the story of Batara Kala who wonders throughout the world looking for his food. His efforts would usually be thwarted by Batara Wisnu (Vishnu) or one of his avatars.

Men Wearing Green Shirt

In Balinese temples, a Bhoma is a monstrous face, carved to decorate certain parts in the Balinese temple complex. Like the Javanese Kala, Bhoma was intended to protect the temple complex from malevolent spirits. In Balinese mythology, Bhoma is the son of the god Wisnu (Vishnu) and the goddess Pertiwi (Prthivi), the god of preservation and the mother earth herself. One day, when Wisnu was digging the earth, shapeshifted as a wild boar, he met the beautiful earth goddess. Their encounter led to a union between Wisnu in his wild boar form and Pertiwi, which produced Bhoma. The word Bhoma came from the Sanskrit word bhaumá, which means dedicated to the earth or coming from the earth.

Both the heads of Kala and Bhoma are Kirtimukha (glorious face -the word mukha in Sanskrit refers to the face while kirti means fame or glory). A Kirtimukha is the name of a fierce face of a monster with huge fangs and a gaping mouth commonly found in the iconography of Hindu temple architecture in India and Southeast Asia, as well as in Buddhist architecture of the regions.

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Kirtimukha on top of arch above entrance to Hindu temple in Kathmandu, Makara at bases of arch

The Hindu story of Kirtimukha begins when a great King Jalandhara who, by virtue of extraordinary austerities, managed to accumulate great powers for himself. In a burst of arrogance, King Jalandhara sent forth his messenger, the monster Rahu to challenge Lord Shiva, to give up his beautiful bride Parvati to the king. This provoked Lord Shiva’s anger and a tremendous burst of power exploded from his third eye and created a ravenous demon lion. A terrified Rahu sought Lord Shiva’s mercy. Although Lord Shiva readily forgave him, they then had to figure out a way to feed the ravenous demon lion. Lord Shiva suggested that the monster should feed on the flesh of its own feet and hands. Thus, the lion, ever loyal to his Lord Shiva, willingly ate his body starting with its tail as per Shiva’s order, stopping only when the top half of his face remained. Lord Shiva, who was pleased with the lion’s devotion to him, gave the lion the name Kirtimukha and declared that it should always be at the door of his temples as a symbol of Shiva himself.

Especially in South Indian architectures, the Kirtimukha is often used as a motif on the pinnacle of a temple or the image of a deity. The Kirtimukha serves primarily as a gruesome, awe-inspiring guardian of the threshold. The use of the giant Kirtimukha or Mahakala (“the great time”) as ornaments of palace doors in Indian and Javanese temple then spread to the East as Banaspati in Eastern Java, Bhoma or Barong in Bali and many others.

File:Bu jar with Taotie design, China, Shang dynasty, 13th-11th century BC, bronze - Tokyo National Museum - Tokyo, Japan - DSC08459.jpg
Bu jar with Taotie design, China, Shang dynasty, 13th-11th century BC, bronze

East Asia also has a similar face adorning their artifacts. In China, similar creatures are known as the Taotie (greedy glutton). A Taotie is an ancient Chinese mythological creature in the form of a gluttonous beasts which were emblazoned on bronze and other artifacts during the first millennium BC. The Taotie is often represented as a motif on Chinese ritual bronze vessels from the Shang dynasty (1766-1046 BC) and the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). The design typically consists of a monstrous mask with a pair of raised eyes and no lower jaw area, much like the Kirtimukha of Southeast Asia. The design can be traced back to jade pieces found at Neolithic sites belonging to the Liangzhu culture (3310 – 2250 BC), the last Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta of China. There is also a notable similarity with the painted pottery shards found at Lower Xiajidian cultural sites (2200 – 1600 BC) in Northeast China, which is found mainly in the southeastern part of Inner Mongolia, the northern part of the Hebei province and the western Liaoning province, China.

Han Bronze Door Knocker Taotie Face.jpg
Door knocker with Taotie’s face. Han dynasty. Kaifeng Museum, Kaifeng, Henan Province. 

The first known usage of Taotie is in the Zuo Zhuan, a narrative history of China written between 722 and 468 BC which tells about a gluttonous son of the Jinyun clan, a nomadic clan which thrived during the time of the mythical Yellow Emperor (c. 2698 – 2598 BC). After the Yellow Emperor unified the Central Plains, the Jinyun clan was given territory in today’s Zhejiang in southeastern China as the Yellow Emperor culture spread and flourished in the northern part of China. Lu Buwei’s Chunqiu (“Spring and Autumn Annals”) describes Taotie as “… a head, yet no body.”

My books on Batara Kala and other Shadow Puppet stories are available on Amazon. Click here to check them out.

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

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