Arts and Culture
The nāga is a very popular motif in Javanese art, in particular during the East Javanese period (920 – c. 1500). A 1176 CE bronze wheel-shaped finial is known as the earliest surviving metal vessel decorated with a new form of East Javanese nāgas, whose ferocious features are distinctly different from those of the Central Javanese period (c. 732 - 928). The transformation of nāga imagery from the Central Javanese period to the East Javanese period is observable, but the reason behind it is still in debate. Was it modelled after a Chinese dragon as Volker Moeller has suggested, or was it simply a reflection of a passage from the popular legend Garuḍeya in Mahābhārata as Jan Fontein proposed?
This paper will first provide a visual survey of various nāga forms in Central and East Javanese art during the 8th - 12th centuries by examining similar design characteristics and their symbolic significance. Subsequently, the historical tribute and trade activities between Java and medieval China during this period will be chronologically discussed. Then, the possible dragon motif transfer as a consequence of material culture exchange will be analysed based on the evidence found in Chinese historical records and relevant material remains. The evidence from the material culture will be presented together with the contemporaneous political-economic background, which reflects the relationship between the Javanese kingdoms and medieval China. Ultimately, the prominent role of this new form of nāgas, which is associated with sovereignty and royalty, will be deciphered.