Indonesia’s History of Fruits, Carved in Stone
In Indonesian art, the fruit motif appears in various forms. It may have appeared in various geometric textile or woodcarving motifs across the archipelago. However, due to the rather plain circular or rounded forms of fruits, its depiction in the geometric patterns in textiles, the fruit motif is not readily or easily recognized.
The fruits themselves are often used as the main elements of decoration. The decorations of the main entrances to wedding venues are supposed to consist of various fruit and vegetable arrangements, including pisang raja, kelapa gading, kluwih, and nanas. In Bali, the towering offerings that women carry on their heads to the temples, consist of fruit such as manggis, jambu, sawo, salak, jeruk, pisang, mangga and even jeruk Bali and semangka.
The clearest depiction of fruits are in the stone carvings of Java and Bali. The famous Buddhist stupa-temple Borobudur are filled with relief panels that include depictions of fruit and fruit-trees.
While some reliefs of the Borobudur are renditions of idealized figures, artifacts, and environments, many reliefs are derived from actual natural environments. Hence, many of the plants motifs on the reliefs can be identified. Cammerloher (1931) identified seven types of fruit trees: banana, mango, durian, nangka, coconut, pinang and lontar.
The banana tree is identified from the long and slender shape of its leafs. Its leafs portrayed in a unique circular pattern, the mango is recognizable from the comma-like shape of its fruit. The large durian and nangka are easily identifiable from their fruit shapes.
According to the shape of their leafs, the three types of palm found on the relief of the Borobudur can be divided into two types. In the “feather” shaped leaf group, the fruit of the Areca palm is much smaller than the large round fruit of the coconut. Meanwhile, the palmyra palm can be recognized from the characteristic “fan” shape of its leaf.
A relief on the Borobudur (1 Ba 196) shows two monkeys congregating beneath a mango tree. One of the monkeys sits with two mangoes in his hands, while the other seems to offer him a bowl of mangoes.
Fruits also appear as part of offerings on the reliefs of the Borobudur. One famous relief, Borobudur shows a stupa honored with offerings of incense, fruits and flowers (II 96). The fruits on this relief are shown merely using circular shapes of different sizes, without any attempt of depicting a particular kind.
In Mendut, a smaller temple near and believed to be related to the Borobudur there are also a number of reliefs that include depictions of fruit. On the left wall in front of the entranceway to the inner chamber of a famous panel depicts Hariti, a child devourer turned protector of children.
The tree, near which Hariti sits, has large and ripe fruit—which appear to be mango. The children are shown playing around the tree; one boy can be seen sitting in one of the tree branches while another attempts to climb the tree. To Hariti’s left, another tree, which have leafs similar in shape to the one on the other side of the panel, is filled with many small round fruit. A boy can be seen picking fruits of this tree and handing them to another who is climbing the tree, while another supports him. The tree and the fruits they bear in this relief, seem to be not merely pictorial in nature, but appear to have some symbolic significance. It seems like the tree represents the aura of Hariti’s compasssion which brings prosperity to the environment.
Fruits also appear frequently in the famous Rama reliefs of the Prambanan. One relief shows Rama displaying his omnipotence by shooting an arrow striking a row of seven coconut trees, a scene matching the relief of Sakyamuni on the Lalitavistara series of the Borobudur. Although overall the panel seems quite refined, the sculptor whimsically includes a touch of humor into the scene. The trees, arranged in a tight linear cluster, seem squat in appearance. Each are characterized using different stem patterns, and six bird stands on top of the leafs of the trees. Meanwhile, a squirrel attempts to climb the branch of the first tree in the row.
Art historian Thomas Hunter relates the scene to verses 157-8 of the Sixth Canto of the Kakawin Ramayana:
"He (Sugriwa) wished to know about the power of Lord Rama,
Wise was he, Raghusuta (=Rama), and shot straight through tal trees
The number of those pierced by his arrow was seven tal (=lontar) (trees)
Sugriwa was amazed as he looked at the tal trees."
Hunter went on to predict that the Borobudur scene is a likely source of inspiration for the Prambanan scene, which in turn may have found its way into the Kakawin, but refrains from drawing a definitive conclusion before a much more thorough research is conducted.
The manggis is seen in many indonesian artifacts, including Javanese gold. Often featured in sirih sets prepared as bridal gifts, it is said that manggis is considered a fruit that does not lie. The number of inner segments of the manggis always correspond to the number of hard petal-like marks which appear on the bottom of the fruit. Due to its inherent "honesty", the manggis serves an appropriate symbol of auspicous contract.
In support of this notion, the figure of Bima, portrayed in the Candi Sukuh, wears manggis shaped earings, symbolic of his frank and honest character. Hardjonagoro remarked that the manggis fruit represents integrity. Like the Dwiwarna, the national “Two-Colored” flag of Indonesia, the dark red rind of the fruit symbolizes brevity, while its white flesh symbolizes purity.
The depiction of fruits in the art of Indonesia, particularly of Java, are often not merely decorative in presence. In many cases, they contain symbolic significance, perhaps meant as reminder of humankind’s most revered characters. Although many of the pieces have been carved in stone, quietly much can be learned from them.