The sea stories and stone sails of Borobudur

Dublin Core


The sea stories and stone sails of Borobudur


The most profound examples of ancient Southeast Asian ship iconography are found on the walls of the 9th century Borobudur monument in central Java. As the contemporary assemblage of nautical iconography from Southeast Asia is limited, the ship reliefs play an important role in debates over trade and expansion in India, Indonesia and mainland Southeast Asia.

The Borobudur ships are technical depictions, and contain data about rigging, rope use, rowing configurations and outrigger construction. Elements in their design have persisted independently as Indonesian watercraft evolved, including outriggers, bipod masts, canted rectangular sails, and quarter rudders. Discussion has focused on construction features, and scholars have made various assertions about how the vessels might have been built, how they were used, and their origin.

The vessels' artistic context is often ignored. The ship reliefs are part of a religious narrative which directly influenced how the panels were designed, how the ships were portrayed, and how we should ultimately interpret them. The stories provide important clues as to where each vessel was headed, who was aboard, and what is happening on deck. Despite their detail, the Borobudur vessels should be interpreted cautiously, and not as ancient blueprints. They are artistic renditions that were never meant to float - they were meant to inspire.


Douglas Inglis, in Van Tilburg, H., Tripati, S., Walker Vadillo, V., Fahy, B., and Kimura, J. (eds.)





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