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I, Clausewitz : A Would-be Conqueror's Diary
Neither holy nor Roman nor an Emperor
Borobudur reliefs as a source for military history(?) 
26th-Oct-2011 04:50 pm
French dragoon
While checking the contents of my digital photo albums, I ran across a series of pictures I took nearly two months ago at Borobudur.

Yes, that ancient Buddhist temple. I came there looking for reliefs that might produce evidence on the equipments and practices of ancient/medieval Javanese archery, and sure I wasn't disappointed. Just look at this one.

The most important insight here is that the bow is depicted as a simple arc, without recurves or set-back grips or anything like that. The length, as far as I can judge from a rough measurement, is equivalent to the distance from the ground to the archer's neck when the bow is at full draw. Of course, the proportions weren't necessarily true to life even when the relief was sculpted, but dubious evidence is more evidence than no evidence at all...

Here's a close-up I took in an attempt to see what kind of draw the archer is using. Unfortunately, the carving is heavily weathered in this area, so I can't really tell whether the sculptor meant to represent a thumb draw (rotated by artistic convention to show all the fingers) or a pinch draw. I can even interpret it as a three-fingered draw with a rather unusual method for tucking the little finger out of the way!

This panel shows a bow in use alongside blowpipes. Evidently, both technologies were known and used in 8th-century Java. One might argue that this juxtaposition didn't necessarily mean that both were used in warfare, though, since in this scene the people are shooting at an "army" of monkeys in a situation that could have been more akin to hunting than to a proper battle.

These two pictures show bows and arrows being carried over the shoulder. Assuming that the lower tip of the bow in the former image hasn't been broken/weathered off, the unstrung bow here appears to be about the same length as the archer's height--putting it on the borderline between a "short" and a "long" bow.

Another point of interest is the depiction of the guardsmen with oval shields and various blades, which also appears in several other scenes.

The last of the four pictures above show the shield being slung from or rested upon the wearer's shoulder when not in use. There are even straps going around the same shoulder on two of the guardsmen, but it's hard to make a clear judgement on whether these were simply sword-suspension straps or if they also had some role in keeping the shield in place.

This scene shows a shield being wielded by means of a center-grip. It's tempting to say that the shield represented is of the same type as the oval shields seen elsewhere, but the difference in size and perspective could just as well mean that the implement in this scene is a small round buckler of a different design. Personally, though, I'm in favour of interpreting this as the same (type of) shield, distorted by dramatic and artistic necessities.

This panel, on the other hand, depicts a genuinely different design of shield: a much smaller oblong buckler. Assuming that there's no size distortion involved, I can't help wondering about what the distinction is intended to imply. A different ethnic group? A different class of troops? A kit for a different combat situation? It's worth noting that similar oblong shields, albeit larger, are still found in the equipment of ceremonial war dances from several regions in Indonesia, such as the Cakalele dance from Maluku.

Now, what about the swords? Some of the images above have already shown a tantalising variety of both straight and concave blades, and that's not the end of it.

In some of the images above, it's hard to tell whether the straight weapons are really swords (with round tips?) or clubs/truncheons, which are also known to have been extensively used in Java. A few also have further depictions of the shields I've discussed before, though either at inconvenient angles or too heavily weathered to let us see any details.

And then, this scene tops it all off with a depiction of the Buddha being assailed with all sorts of weapons:

Weapons were certainly not the only things that mattered in warfare, so let me add two more scenes that may be relevant:

Guys, don't look down. Look up at the banners. This type of long vertical banner with a loose streamer at the top is known as the umbul-umbul in modern Indonesian and Javanese, and is still used as decorations for various festive occasions.

This image shows the kind of carriage that would have been familiar to upper-class Javanese people of the era. I sometimes wonder if the occasional mention of "chariots" in translated Javanese sources--under the assumption that Ancient Indian chariot technology came to Java along with so many other things--is a mistranslation of a word indicating this more sedate type of carriage, since I don't think Javanese has ever had a word that specifically denoted war-chariots.

One issue remains unresolved: how much of the art represents realities of Javanese life and how much were stock depictions copied from Classical Indian art (and how much is somewhere in between). The answer to this would probably require checking out the style of reliefs in Indian and mainland Southeast Asian art up to a century before Borobudur's construction, and at the moment I don't have the time or the money to do that. Might there be anybody inclined to take up the offer?
26th-Oct-2011 01:42 pm (UTC)
Fascinating stuff. Thanks.
4th-Jan-2013 05:40 am (UTC)
Cool, thanks. Anybody have anything on the Moluccans from a similar time period?
9th-Jan-2013 06:43 am (UTC)
I don't think so. Sources on that area are pretty thin on the ground for the period before European contact, especially before the spread of Islam into the region.
6th-Feb-2013 10:28 am (UTC)
The straight weapons looked like a roman spatha, but with a rounded tip. Rounded tip roman spatha were used by cavalry. This is confusing! Borobudur was made during 9th century AD and acehnese people were a direct legacy of arabs, and arabs migrated to Aceh in The mid roman era (3rd-2nd century BC). At that time, the arabs used a spatha-like swords. This is my theory. Btw, I'm greek-acehnese and sundanese.
8th-Feb-2013 01:50 pm (UTC)
There's no need to be confused, since the weapons shown in the reliefs probably bear little or no connection to the Roman-Germanic spatha far out in the West. It's much more likely that the straight swords with rounded points on the Borobudur reliefs were influenced by Indian weapons, and indeed the designs of the hilts tend to hint at some kinship with mainland Southeast Asian swords (particularly those from Annam and Champa, or modern southern Vietnam and Cambodia) as well as certain types of Indian swords with transverse disc pommels.
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