By Kalinga Seneviratne
The great Srivijaya empire was a maritime and trading kingdom that flourished between 7th and 13th centuries spanning much of Java and Sumatra islands. It controlled the trading routes of the Straits of Malacca and established communities not only on the coastal belts but also rivers that fed into the sea. Being in the middle of the pilgrim routes between India and China, Srivijaya empire became a transit point for Buddhist pilgrims and hence developed a strong Buddhist civilization.
Portibi situated on one of these river driven trading routes in Northern Sumatra was a major trading centre, especially in the 11th to 13th century CE. Many Buddhist temples and stupas traced back to this era have been restored since Indonesia gained independence from Dutch rule. These are now protected by law as heritage sites.
The Candi Bahal temple complexes in the village of Portibi are some of these in Northern Sumatra, about 400 km from Medan and a 3 hours drive from Padang Sidempuan. These are three brick temples, which are surrounded by local indigenous Batak communities who are now Muslims. In fact, right next to Candi Bahal 1 – the biggest temple – is a small mosque.
A few years ago when Buddhists from Medan came to hold a Buddhist ceremony here the locals have come to chase them away seeing them as invaders. But, the Buddhists have gradually engaged the local Muslim community and they now welcome the Buddhists, and they even want to develop the area for heritage tourism.
In August 2016 the local community gave a rousing welcome to over 100 Buddhists from the International Lay Buddhists Forum who visited the heritage site after a conference held at Padang Sidempuan. Local community leader Mr Jalaluddin in welcoming the delegation with indigenous Batak traditional dances performed by local children said that they would like to welcome international visitors to this site in order to support ASEAN community building. “This is an important heritage for the indigenous people here” he said.
Sumatran Buddhist leader Mr Ony Hindra Kusuma explained that Candi Bahal 1 temple is an important spiritual centre for Sumatra Buddhists. They have been coming here since 2000 at least 3 times a year to hold ceremonies, with a big one for Vesak each year when Buddhists from all over Northern Sumatra gather here. He says that Buddhists have made an attempt to explain Buddhism to the locals and impress upon them that this is part of their heritage as well.
The three temples are at walking distance from each other and the locals refer to these as “biaro”, which indicates that these were monasteries. Bahal is also a name used by Vajrayana Buddhists in Nepal to refer to temples and thus these temples are believed to belong to that tradition. But, some of the temple architecture such as brick buildings and lion heads and motifs found on walls hint at a possible Sri Lankan connection, to that of the 11th century Pollonnaruwa period.
Local archeologist Lucas Koestoro says that though most of the people living in the area today are Muslims their cultural heritage is that of a Hindu and Buddhist origin. There are some 30 heritage sites in the area he explains with many having not only Buddhist images but also Hindu.
With almost all the heritage sites located along the Batang Pane river, Koestoro says that people used to trade in forestry material and other goods along the river as far away as the Melacca Straits. Everywhere they stopped for trading they have built temples.
With the decline of the Srivijaya empire after the 13th century and until the 19th century these heritage sites have become ruins and lost into jungles. It was not until the 1980s that the sites were restored by the Indonesian government, and communities established here. Most of the work was done by the indigenous people, and it has taken 8 years to complete the job.
Koestoro points out that unlike Java Temples, which were mostly built with rocks, these temples are all built in red brick. Some estimates even say that these temples may have originally been built in the 7th century.