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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Turtles of Borobudur

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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:
-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candi_of_Indonesia (Wikipedia entry about the candi, or temples of Indonesia. Includes sections on Borobodur and Candi Mendut.)
-http://www.heritage-history.com/www/heritage-books.php?author=babbitt&book=jataka&story=_front (Online edition of Ellen C. Babbitt's 1912 book Jataka Tales.)
-http://snowglobeoftheworld.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/before-borobudur-the-purifying-candi-mendut/ (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.)