Sunday, December 11


At the highest point in the range of hills above Yogyakarta, where on a clear day you can see the planes forever taking off from Adisucipto, is Candi Ijo -- a 9th century Shaivite temple. Near it has been found, curiously, the only statue of Vishnu's Narasimha (Man-Lion) avatar encountered in Indonesia. The 4th avatar of Vishnu is Narasinga to the Javanese.

We are far down, on Malioboro St in Yogya, crushed within throngs of revelers celebrating, with a carnival, a royal wedding. Sultan Hamengkubuwono X’s fifth (and youngest) daughter, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Bendara, a hotel management graduate from Switzerland, is getting married to a Sumatran civil servant (who has been elevated to royalty as Prince Yudanegara) at a mosque inside the Palace complex (story here.) President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is in town with the First Lady, and so is everyone else: the procession we are in the midst of was supposed to draw 100,000 souls.

"Too squishy." Mr. M says stoically as we watch, from the head of the parade, the floats set off one by one.

One of the floats is under police protection, perhaps the only one with a religious motif. A cop on a motorcycle is parked abreast of a statue of a fierce Vishnu with a lion's head (i.e. the Man-Lion or Narasimha avatar), attacking the demon-king Hiranyakashipu, who was about to kill his own son Prahlada because he worshipped Vishnu. The demon-king has collapsed, lying across Narasimha's thigh, his head hanging down, his arms hanging helplessly and his legs in the air in aimless struggle. Narasimha is ripping open the demon-king's abdomen with two hands, the entrails dangling.

A quick recap of the story from the Puranas:

In his previous avatar of Varaha (Boar), Vishnu had killed the demon Hiranyaksha whose depredations had become intolerable to mankind.

Hiranyaksha's brother Hiranyakashipu, greatly angered, decided the only fit revenge would be to kill Vishnu (the Protector of the Universe to Hindus.) Since only the most supernatural of powers would do, he believed Brahma, the Creator, might be the sole recourse, if he managed to conduct the right penances. This seemed to work; pleased with Hiranyakashipu's long austerities, Brahma appeared and offered him a boon. Hiranyakashipu wished thusly:

O my lord, O best of the givers of benediction, if you will kindly grant me the benediction I desire, please let me not meet death from any of the living entities created by you. Grant me that I not die within any residence or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought about by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal. Grant me that I not meet death from any entity, living or nonliving created by you. Grant me, further, that I not be killed by any demigod or demon or by any great snake from the lower planets. Since no one can kill you in the battlefield, you have no competitor. Therefore, grant me the benediction that I too may have no rival. Give me sole lordship over all the living entities and presiding deities, and give me all the glories obtained by that position. Furthermore, give me all the mystic powers attained by long austerities and the practice of yoga, for these cannot be lost at any time.

One day while Hiranyakashipu is performing austerities at Mandaracala Mountain, his home is attacked by Indra and the other gods. At this point the divine sage Narada intervenes to protect Hiranyakashipu's consort Kayadu, who he describes as sinless. Narada takes Kayadu into his care and her unborn child (Hiranyakashipu's son) Prahlada, becomes affected by the transcendental mantras of the sage, in utero. As he grows into boyhood, Prahlada is recognized as a devoted follower of Vishnu, first to his father's consternation, then to his livid rage.

Hiranyakashipu attempts to kill the boy; Prahlada is always protected by Vishnu's power. When asked to devote himself only to his father-king, Prahlada refuses to acknowledge his father as the supreme lord of the universe and claims that it is Vishnu who is omnipotent and omnipresent. Hiranyakashipu points to a nearby pillar and asks if 'his Vishnu' is in it:

O most unfortunate Prahlada, you have always described a Supreme Being other than me, a Supreme Being Who is above everything, Who is the controller of everyone, and Who is all-pervading. But where is He? If He is everywhere, then why is He not present before me in this pillar?

Prahlada calmly answers:

He was, He is and He will be. He is in pillars, and He is in the smallest twig.

Hiranyakashipu, unable to control his anger, smashes the pillar with his mace, and sets upon destroying his son. Following a tumultuous sound, Vishnu in the form of a Man-Lion appears from within the pillar, in defence of Prahlada. In order to kill Hiranyakashipu, yet not violate the boon given by Brahma, the form of Narasimha is chosen. Hiranyakashipu can not be killed by human, animal or god. Narasimha is neither -- he is a form of Vishnu incarnate as a part-human, part-animal. He comes upon Hiranyakashipu at twilight (when it is neither day nor night) on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and puts the demon on his thighs (neither on earth nor in space), using his sharp fingernails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disembowels and kills the demon.

At exhibitions of Indonesian art, the sculpture from Candi Ijo (above) is often shown. When at the Met in NY, a wall label extolling the "calmer, gentler spirit" of the Indonesians was placed next to the Narasimha sculpture; perhaps the curators thought a Thai massage was in progress.

At the Candi Ijo, high up in the green hills, there is a mantra written 16 times in the stone in foot-high mandalas: Om Sarva-vinasa, Om Sarva-vinasa (Hail, All-Destroyer) -- presumably invoking Shiva. It is a little odd that the Narasimha statue was found in this location. The vajra in the hands of the carnival Narasimha is also curious.

Below -- the carnival Narasimha. A fuller video of the floats is here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the MET description, do you think that the curators do not know the story of Hiranyakasipu, Prahlad and Narasingha? If they do, how do you explain their commentary?

11:04 AM  
Blogger Grandpoohbah said...

While it is foolhardy to speculate about what someone else may (or not) know, organized spectacles are influenced by creators of 'spin' and thus might be subjected to analyses of their own texts and internal motives.

The book Museum culture: histories, discourses, spectacles has a chapter by Brian Wallis titled Selling Nations. The author opines that the Indonesian exhibit was part of a charm offensive after the 1989 Indonesian student uprisings (in the course of which protestors claimed the Suharto regime had created a 'violent society.') Alarmed about sweatshop-labor stories, de-forestation exposes, and reports of official censorship making their rounds amongst voters and potential-tourists in America, the Indonesian government decided to use historical art to promote an alternative view of Indonesia. In fact, the "euphoric nationalism" of the exhibition became such that the Ford Foundation felt compelled to give a $100k grant to hold independent lectures that would reflect a broader range of opinion.

But the Met is not the Ford Foundation (no one loans you their priceless art for you to be "off-message"), so imagine the dilemma of the curator who is tasked to come up with cheery blurbs, and is having a tolerable time with the gentle Buddhas and serene Manjushris, till he comes upon the Narasinga statue. A "whoa!" moment: you certainly don't want to suggest a label that would imply divine retribution is about to rise up and rip out Suharto's guts.

See here for more opinions on how, rather than absolutely knowable facts, a sort of "global power sharing among the elites of different countries" creates this kind of "museum discourse."

12:25 PM  

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