The Shaiva gods of Candi Singosari

The traditional Shaiva group of images that features in Javanese temples consists of Shiva (in the central temple chamber, as a linga or human-like divinity), his wife in her manifestation as Durga (in the northern niche), his son, Ganesha (in the rear niche, which may be to the east or west), the sage Agastya to whom the spread of Shaivism is attributed (in the southern niche), and two door guardians, Nandishvara and Mahakala, who flank the entrance (in the front niches, which may be to either the west or the east). An image of Shiva’s mount, the bull, was placed on a small platform or in a small temple facing the main entrance.

Although these gods have Indian origins, this specific arrangement is, as far as we know, only found in Java, where it became standardized from around 800 AD. It was still favoured in the Singhasari period, as is testified by Candi Jawi and Candi Singosari. A number of old Javanese texts and inscriptions also mention these gods. 

Nandishvara

To the left of the entrance stood the image of Nandishvara. In the Indian tradition, Nandishvara is a gana, an attendant of Shiva, and also a benevolent manifestation of the divinity. There are several versions of the story of Nandishvara’s birth. The Kurmapurana and the Linggapurana, for example, relate that Nandishvara’s father was a sage who pleased Shiva by practicing penance for thousands of years. As a reward, Shiva gave the sage a son in his likeness, strong and immortal.

The Singosari Nandishvara is shown standing, wearing a long loincloth and a jacket. He wears numerous jewels as well: a diadem, ear pendants, a necklace, bracelets and anklets. To his right stands a trishula, an attribute of Shiva. His divine character is underlined by the halo behind his head. His hands are now missing, but from what is left of his forearms and a comparison with other Javanese door guardians, we can suppose that his hands were simply resting on his hips. The Nandishvara of Singosari shows clear East Javanese characteristics, including the slightly flattened top to his halo, the ribbons floating behind the headdress, and the spiky halo around the trident. The lotuses flanking the figure and emerging directly from their bulb confirm the image’s thirteenth-century origins. Later on (during the Majapahit period) it was more common to depict lotus plants in a similar position but emerging from high pots. Like those of the other statues, the Nandishvara’s clothes are carved with the utmost care and in great detail. The loincloth falls to the ankles; it is folded at the front and restrained by a double sash. Nandishvara also wears a short sleeveless jacket, like most of the other sculptures at Candi Singosari, and a shoulder sash. The short sleeveless jacket is exceptional and a specific characteristic of the Singosari statues. The textiles are delicately patterned. The patterns on the jacket consist of a mosaic of eight-petalled flowers inscribed in circles, with the spaces between the circles filled with floral motifs. The loincloth is adorned with intersecting circles and flowers. More on textiles and trade.

Mahakala

Mahakala stands to the right of the entrance. His attitude and general appearance are different from those of Nandishvara. He is depicted with broad and strong shoulders. His left hand rests on a mace; his right hand holds the handle of a long sword. He wears a moustache and a beard, and his thick curly hair flares behind his head. Like Nandishvara, he wears a short sleeveless jacket and a shoulder sash, but his loincloth is short. Both the jacket and the loincloth have intricate textile patterns. He has no headdress and his jewels are less elaborate than those of Nandishvara. Foremost, the image expresses physical might and a fierce character. Behind the legs of Mahakala, one can see large lotus leaves emerging from the ground, a feature typical of thirteenth-century art. More on textiles and trade.

Durga

Starting from the entrance and beginning the ritual ambulation clockwise around the temple, the devotee would first reach the northern side of the temple. In the small northern room, which would originally have had wooden doors, would have stood the image of the goddess Durga. At a certain point in the history of this goddess, she became associated with Shiva. Hence, in medieval Indian texts, she is sometimes said to be an aspect of Parvati, Shiva’s wife. She clearly has this function in the context of a Javanese temple.

The Singosari Durga does not stand alone: she is accompanied by a dwarf-like figure and a reclining buffalo. This representation is the most common iconographic form of the goddess. In this form she is known as Mahishasuramardini, ‘the one who killed the buffalo demon’. Many texts relate the birth of Durga and her fight with Mahisha. A well-known version is related in the Devimahatmyam, an Indian text thought to date from the sixth century.

The Singosari Durga is shown with eight arms. She must have held the weapons given to her by Shiva and the other gods, as in this text, but unfortunately her hands are badly damaged. Only three are relatively well preserved: one is holding the tail of the buffalo, the second Yama’s shield and the third is placed on the dwarf’s head. Both given the position of her arm and through a comparison with other Javanese sculptures of Durga, one can speculate that her upper right hand was holding Vishnu’s discus (cakra). Two images of Durga – one from Candi Jawi, housed in the Museum Mpu Tantular (Surabaya) and another from Singosari, now at the Museum Nasional in Jakarta – appear quite similar to our Durga in terms of style, geographical placement and age. The three sculptures share unusual features, rarely found on earlier or later representations of Durga, such as the widely spread knees and the hand delicately placed on the dwarf’s head. Based on a comparison of these sculptures we may conclude that the Singosari Durga was presumably holding a sword (khadga), an arrow (bana), a conch shell (shankha) and a bow (dhanus) in her missing hands.

The Singosari Durga is shown with eight arms. She must have held the weapons given to her by Shiva and the other gods, as in this text, but unfortunately her hands are badly damaged. Only three are relatively well preserved: one is holding the tail of the buffalo, the second Yama’s shield and the third is placed on the dwarf’s head. Both given the position of her arm and through a comparison with other Javanese sculptures of Durga, one can speculate that her upper right hand was holding Vishnu’s discus (cakra). Two images of Durga – one from Candi Jawi, housed in the Museum Mpu Tantular (Surabaya) and another from Singosari, now at the Museum Nasional in Jakarta – appear quite similar to our Durga in terms of style, geographical placement and age. The three sculptures share unusual features, rarely found on earlier or later representations of Durga, such as the widely spread knees and the hand delicately placed on the dwarf’s head. Based on a comparison of these sculptures we may conclude that the Singosari Durga was presumably holding a sword (khadga), an arrow (bana), a conch shell (shankha) and a bow (dhanus) in her missing hands.

Her serene facial expression contrasts with the richness of her dress. Her clothes, just like those of Nandishvara and Mahakala, are delicately patterned and carved with great care and in minute detail. They are similar to those of the door guardians: she wears a long loincloth, a short loincloth around this, and a short sleeveless jacket, as is typical of the sculptures at Candi Singosari. The patterns on her clothes are similar – but not identical – to those on Nandishvara’s jacket: a succession of flowers with diamond-shaped floral designs in between. The flowers on the short loincloth are inscribed in circles, while those on the jacket are loose. The long loincloth, only the lower part of which is visible, is covered with a pattern of diamonds. Within the diamonds flowers alternate with what look like floral bulbs. The loincloth is held on the hips by a sash. A second sash hangs loosely down to the goddess’s knees. Despite the apparent minuteness of the carving of the garments, not all details are exact. The central fold of the loincloth, for example, which should logically pass behind the upper loincloth, is partly carved above it. In addition, one of the floral motifs on the long loincloth (at the bottom, near Durga’s left leg) is not inscribed within a diamond-shaped frame as the others are.

Great care was also taken with the jewellery which resembles gold jewellery discovered in Central and East Java. The goddess wears an elaborate tiered headdress, on which one can see a skull and a crescent moon, symbols of Shiva. In addition to the heavy ear pendants, the armlets, the bracelets, the necklace, the belt buckle and the foot straps, she also wears a waist band, two chains, anklets and a belt. Her waist band is adorned with human heads, a detail quite unusual in representations of Durga, which foreshadows the goddess’s demonization as seen in later East Javanese art and described in contemporaneous literature. Her necklace also includes this motif of severed heads and, if one looks closely at her dress, the floral motifs sometimes alternate with the skull motif. The thick cord hanging from her left shoulder and her double anklets are also covered by a motif imitating snakeskin, another detail pointing to the same development. 

Ganesha

Continuing clockwise the devotee would, after Durga, reach the eastern (rear) side of the temple. There, on a lotus pedestal sat Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and bringer of success and wisdom. The room he occupied was originally separated by a double door with two panels opening inwards, like the other rooms. During the puja ritual water was poured onto the sculpture and drained into a small groove carved in the floor. The grooves, which originate in the various rooms and niches emptied into a larger drain flowing from the main temple chamber to the northern side of the temple.

Placing an image of Ganesha at the rear of a temple seems to be a Javanese tradition. This is also Ganesha’s place in earlier Central Javanese temples (from the eighth and ninth centuries). In India, Ganesha is usually placed near to the main entrance, for, as the remover of obstacles, he is worshipped before commencing any other rituals, so that these will bear fruit. 

Ganesha is certainly one of the most popular gods of Hinduism. His large belly and his elephant head give him a benevolent aspect. Many texts relate, sometimes in very different ways, the story of his birth and how he got his elephant head. Most Indian texts concord that Ganesha, although recognized by Shiva as his son, was created by his wife, Parvati, on her own, and that he was not born with an elephant head. A Javanese tradition has survived in the Old Javanese text Smaradahana. It differs in various aspects from the Indian myths.

While most Javanese Ganeshas are represented seated with the soles of their feet touching, a typically Javanese feature, the Ganesha from Candi Singosari is represented with one leg folded and the other drawn up, in an attitude known as the rajalilasana (‘royal ease position’). He has the twisted hair of an ascetic and wears a miniature crescent moon and skull in his hair knot, all attributes of Shiva, his divine father. His sacred thread (upavita) is supported on the left shoulder and wrapped around the body, falling down under the right arm. It is made of two intertwined snakes, also a hallmark of Shiva. Following the East Javanese tradition, the snakes wear crowns of semi-precious stones. Ganesha is represented here with four arms, holding an axe (upper right), a rosary (upper left) and two bowls. His clothes are similar to those of the other sculptures from Candi Singosari: a short, sleeveless jacket and a double loincloth. The shorter, top loincloth is adorned with a monster head pattern. The monster heads (kala) are depicted without a lower jaw and have a distinct vegetal character, resembling the kala heads of the temple itself. On the long, lower loincloth the kalas have been transformed into a motif made of a single, giant eye in between three teeth and two large fangs. This motif, quite common during the East Javanese period, alternates here with skull motifs. 

The sculpture is literally covered with skulls: Ganesha wears skulls in his hair, and has skulls depicted on his crown, earrings, armlets and clothing. The two bowls that he holds are skull cups, and he sits on a row of skulls. This particular pedestal design can also be observed on other Ganeshas from the same area and period.

Agastya

The last image a devotee would encounter, if going around the temple clockwise, is that of the sage Agastya. Today, it is the only sculpture that is still in situ. Agastya stands on his lotus pedestal in the southern room of Candi Singosari. The image had been broken into pieces, but most of the pieces were recovered during the early twentieth-century excavations and the sculpture was satisfactorily restored.

Agastya is represented as a corpulent, ageing man with a long beard. He is standing firmly on his feet, his right arm is folded across his chest and in his fist he holds a rosary. His left arm is hanging next to his body. It is now broken off in the middle of the fore arm, but the traces on the back slab suggest that he was holding a water pot, as is often the case in Javanese sculpture. On his left shoulder, one can see a fly-whisk. On his right, carved into the back slab, are the remains of a trident (trishula) standing on a small pedestal, as is also observed on the sculpture of Nandishvara. To the left of the figure, a lotus emerges from the ground, spreading its broad leaves and flowers up to the elbow of the great sage.

Agastya’s eyes are half closed, as in meditation, and his expression is serene. He wears the long beard and moustache of a seer. The three horizontal bands on his forehead with a centrally placed dot seem to represent the mark (tilaka) of a Shaivite. This mark consists of three horizontal white stripes often with a red dot suggesting Shiva’s third eye. Shaivite hermits, and ascetics in particular, apply this mark to the forehead. Agastya’s plain loincloth and the absence of jewellery, with the exception of heavy earrings, one armlet and a belt buckle, also mark him as an ascetic, as does his large turban, a characteristic of ascetics in Javanese art from the eleventh century onwards.

Agastya is a divine sage (rishi). He is said to have been born in a jar, from the semen of Varuna (the god of water). Many Javanese inscriptions mention Seven Great rishis, as do Indian texts. Different texts give different names. Agastya may feature among the group of seven rishis. He also plays a role in the two major Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira, one of the heroes, tells of how Agastya drank the ocean to help the gods get rid of the demons that were terrorizing the earth and hid the water.

Such legends also found their way to Java. The Tantu Panggeleran, a sixteenth-century East-Javanese text, refers to Agastya drinking the ocean, and the Old Javanese Ramayana text, relates how Agastya lowered the Vindhya Mountains, another story also found in Indian sources.

The Old Javanese Ramayana adds an interesting new element to the story: Java became Agastya’s new residence. In Java, Agastya is specifically connected to the spread of Shaivism to Java, hence his overwhelming presence in the Shaiva temples of Java.

The bull, Nandi

The pilgrim has now completed his/her circumambulation around the temple. After having paid homage to Durga, Ganesha and Agastya, he finds himself back in front of the temple door. Facing the temple was the last sculpture that he was allowed to see, for the innermost chamber was most probably reserved for priests and royals. On a small platform projecting from the temple base stood a large reclining bull, Shiva’s mount. As is still the case in India, it was probably important for devotees to seek the blessings of Shiva’s mount before worshipping his master.

Two large bulls are known from the site of Singosari. One is in Leiden; the other, slightly larger and more elaborately decorated, is in Jakarta. J.L.A. Brandes suggests in his monograph on Singosari that one of these two bulls could originally have been placed on the projecting platform of Candi Singosari. Because the exact original location of these two bulls has not been documented, it is difficult to establish which one. Because the Leiden bull was among the images that Engelhard took from Candi Singosari, it is sometimes suggested that the Leiden bull was the one originally associated with Candi Singosari.

The Leiden image follows the forms of classical iconography. The bull is depicted reclining, legs folded under his body, with the exception of the left one. He is placed on a low oval lotus base. The animal is richly adorned. He has one lotus bud atop the head and one on his back. A necklace of bells hangs down from his neck and a blanket is fixed on his back, tied with three large thongs.

The other Nandi , now in Jakarta, also lies on an oval lotus base. His right leg is half folded back with the left one slightly raised towards the front. The back legs on both sides of the body are facing forward. Around his neck hangs a decorative band with an oval bell on it. There is another band around his neck on which hang round balls. On his head there is a decorative cloth, and on his back a fly swat, the patterned cloth of which has wide ribbons reaching as far as his tail. On the hump there is a rosette of lotus flowers. The ears are folded down, the horns are broken, and the tail is curled around to the left. He wears a necklace of beads and two bands with a floral motif. The whole of this Nandi is elegant and peaceful.

Because of its large size, good condition and its wealth of decoration, this statue has become one of the prima donna relics of the Singosari temple complex, as evidenced by the fact that in 2005 it was included in a joint exhibition on ‘Shared Cultural Heritage’ between the National Museum of Indonesia and the RMV, which was took place in both Jakarta and Amsterdam.  

Most often Shiva’s mount, the bull, is simply called ‘bull’ (vrisha or vrishabha) and the name Nandi or Nandishvara is reserved for a servant of Shiva, and also became the name of a door guardian (dvarapala) at temples for Shiva. Initially the bull and the servant were clearly distinguished in form (one a bull, the other a human figure) and in name (one called vrisha or vrishabha, the other Nandi or Nandishvara), but from the early Indian medieval period onwards, and specifically in South India, the two seem to have merged in a human figure with a bull’s head, with the name Nandi being used for the bull as well. In Old Javanese sources we find Nandaka and Nandini as names for bulls. Although it is therefore not that clear whether Shiva’s bull was called Nandi in ancient Java, the name Nandi for Shiva’s bull has become so common that we retain its use.

The image of the inner chamber

Having paid homage to Shiva’s entourage, the devotee could turn toward the temple’s main entrance and, if the wooden doors were open, get a glimpse of the most sacred part of the temple, the garbhagriha (inner chamber). From the door, a small vestibule – today empty – leads to the temple chamber. The centre of the room is occupied by a broken pedestal. The sculpture that was atop the pedestal has long been lost and its identity is still open to debate. Most probably, it carried a linga, Shiva’s aniconic manifestation, which is his most common manifestation and was also the one most commonly found in Shaiva temples in Java.