Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Turtles of Borobudur

The world's largest Buddhist temple is the Borobudur temple in the city of Magelang in central Java, Indonesia. This temple, which was built between AD 750-842, is decorated with 2,672 relief panels consisting of many different scenes from ancient Javanese life, spiritual beings from Buddhist mythology, plants and animals of Java, and more.

One of the animals that can be found in these reliefs is the turtle! Turtles make at least several appearances in the Borobudur reliefs, as well as in the nearby temple complexes of (Candi) Mendut and Pawon. Many of these reliefs depict stories from the Jatakas, which are fables based on sacred Buddhist texts about the life of Buddha.

The relief on the right is located at the Candi Mendut temple complex, which is near Borobudur. This relief depicts the story from the Jatakas of the turtle who couldn't stop talking. In the most common version of this tale, a turtle became friends with two ducks and wanted to fly with them to their home. Since turtles don't have wings, the ducks carried a stick and told the turtle to bite it and hold on. They warned him that no matter what happens, he must not open his mouth or he will fall. On the ground, some children in a nearby village looked up into the sky and saw the turtle biting on for dear life. They pointed at him and made funny remarks about a turtle flying through the sky. The turtle lost his temper and fired back at the children. Forgetting about the stick, he fell to the ground and was killed.

At the Borobudur complex itself, there are at least several turtle reliefs. One series depicts the Kaccapavadana, which is the story of the Bodhisattva's past life as a tortoise. While a tortoise, the Bodhisattva, along with a group of fish and other turtles, rescued some merchants stranded on a boat who were about to be devoured by a sea monster.

                           After rescuing the merchants, the Bodhisattva brought them to shore.

After reaching the shore, the tortoise took a nap. When he awoke, he overheard the merchants debating whether or not to eat him. Thinking only of their needs, the Bodhisattva selflessly gave his life so they could eat him and live.

These turtle reliefs date back some 1200 years, but they are still as timely as ever and tell some very timeless legends!

For more about Borobudur (or any of the other temples of Indonesia) or the Jatakas, be sure to see the following:
- (Wikipedia entry about the candi, or temples of Indonesia. Includes sections on Borobodur and Candi Mendut.)
- (Online edition of Ellen C. Babbitt's 1912 book Jataka Tales.)
- (Very interesting blog entry from The Sapphire Suitcase about Candi Mendut and the turtle relief.)

Image Credits: Borobudur: Dimas.yusuf. Candi Mendut relief: Gryffindor. Borobudur reliefs: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT). All images used via Wikimedia Commons.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Minogame in Japanese Culture

Painting by Nagayama Koen (1765-1849) depicting Urashima Taro with a minogame. (
Japan is a country that has many different traditions and legends of turtles. One of its most famous is the mythological giant turtle known as the minogame (蓑亀, or 'straw raincoat-turtle' due to the tail resembling a farmer's straw coat). The minogame is regarded as a very auspicious creature in Japanese culture and has made appearances in arts, crafts, and even in modern-day popular culture!

The minogame is said to live at least a thousand years (with some living up to 10,000 years!) and have a long, hairy tail, which is actually seaweed and algae that have grown on its shell due to its ripe old age! It has very similar to the real-life common tortoise, which can live for hundreds of years. In Japanese culture, the minogame represents longevity and wisdom, and is a long-revered symbol of both. In art, it is often shown with other gods and symbols of longevity, such as the crane, or Taoist deities such as Jurōjin. The minogame is also depicted with the Three Jewels, which represent fortune.

Unlike the minogame's highly-fictitious cousin Gamera, the minogame has its basis in real-life tortoises and turtles. In fact, other than the tail and its very long life span, it's almost indistinguishable from a regular tortoise! It has been said that tales of the minogame were created from ancient Japanese watching real-life turtles in their everyday environment. While swimming around in rivers, ponds, and the ocean, turtles tend to get seaweed stuck to their shells. Hence the minogame's "hairy" tail was born! Also, according to some sources, the minogame has its origins in attempts by artists to draw turtles with seaweed stuck to their shells.

The most famous minogame in Japan is that from the legend of Urashima Taro. In some versions of the legend, a minogame, rather than a regular tortoise, is said to have taken Urashima to the Palace of the Dragon God after having rescued the smaller turtle (which was actually the princess Otohime) from the children who were tormenting it.

Print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) depicting a group of men inspecting a minogame. (
The minogame has long been depicted by Japanese artists. Many have depicted Urashima Taro's famous undersea voyage, or have otherwise been inspired by it. Minogames have been the subject of sculptures, ukiyo-e prints, surimonos (color paintings), and all other kinds of art forms over the centuries, both past and present.

Just the same, Japanese artisans have made minogame crafts and toys for many centuries. Minogame dolls, candy molds, netsuke carvings, pottery and ceramics, katana (samurai swords), and other handicrafts or hand-made items have been popular in Japan for centuries. The minogame's connotations with longevity (and the fact that it's just plain cool!) make it a very popular motif on handicrafts!

In modern-day Japan, the minogame - or characters based on it - can be found in various anime and manga, tattoos, toys, and elsewhere. Of course, it can also be found where it has always been over the millinea: In the country's arts, crafts, and legends!

There are different mythological turtles in Japan, but the minogame is possibly the most interesting of them all!

For more about the minogame, be sure to also have a look at:
- (Blog entry from The Glyptodon about the Minogame.)

Welcome to "The Turtle Cove"!

Hello and welcome to "The Turtle Cove"! This is the blog dedicated to one of the world's oldest animals: The turtle. Turtles have been a part of legends, folklore, and art all around the world for many thousands of years.  They are a part of our own modern-day pop culture (i.e. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Their wisdom, solitude, steadfastness, and durability continue have never failed to inspire us over the millinea.

In this blog you'll read about the turtle from the ancient legends of old up to the modern day. You'll also read about how the turtle is depicted in legend, art, and more from countries ranging from Japan to North America, Europe, and beyond.

So please read on, enjoy, and thanks so much for your visit! If you have any feedback, feel free to drop a line or two. I appreciate any and all questions, comments, and suggestions.