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The Sewu temple is an eighth century Buddhist temple complex in Java. The layout of the complex is a Mandala, oriented along the cardinal lines. Using ephemeris software, we discuss a connection of the architecture to the zenithal passage of the sun. Keywords: Archaeoastronomy, Zenithal Passage of the Sun, SunCalc, Photographer’s Ephemeris, Satellite Images.
The Sewu Temple and the zenithal passage of the sun
Amelia Carolina Sparavigna
Politecnico di Torino Abstract: The Sewu temple is an eighth century Buddhist temple complex in Java. The layout of the complex is a Mandala, oriented along the cardinal lines. Using ephemeris software, we discuss a connection of the architecture to the zenithal passage of the sun.
Keywords: Archaeoastronomy, Zenithal Passage of the Sun, SunCalc, Photographer’s Ephemeris, Satellite Images.
The Sewu temple is an eighth century Buddhist temple complex located 800 meters north of Prambanan in Java. The original name of this temple was probably Manjusrigrha, that is, the House of Manjusri, a Bodhisattva symbolizing the "gentle glory" of the transcendent wisdom . Manjusrigrha was the largest Buddhist temple in the Prambanan region, predating the nearby Rara Jonggrang, simply known as Prambanan, by over 70 years and the Borobudur by about 37 years. Prior to the construction of these temples, probably the Sewu temple served as the main temple of the kingdom .
The Sewu temple is located on a plain, between the Merapi volcano and the Sewu mountain range, in central Java. This area possesses many archaeological sites, scattered only a few miles apart. As told in , this fact is suggesting that this land served as an important religious and urban center. For a very long time, the Sewu complex was buried by the volcanic debris of Mount Merapi. Nevertheless, the local people knew its existence, being the ruins of the temple the subject of tales and legends . In 1908, Theodoor van Erp, a Dutch army engineer officer, initiated the clearing and reconstruction of the main temple . Today, the temple complex is not yet completely restored .
Figure 1: The East entrance to the temple complex, guarded by the twin statues of Dvarapala (Courtesy Street View Google Earth).
The Sewu temple complex occupies a large rectangular area with the sides oriented along the cardinal directions. The complex has an entrance at the four cardinal points. The main entrance is located on the east side. Each of four entrances was guarded by twin statues of Dvarapala, armed guardians looking like fearsome giants (Figure 1). In the Sewu temple complex there are 249 buildings, arranged in a Mandala around the main central temple. This layout is displaying the Mahayana Buddhist view of the universe . Along the cardinal north-south and east-west axes of the complex, between the second and third rows of smaller buildings, we find the apit (flank) temples . The complex had a couple of apit for each cardinal direction; only the eastern couple is visible today. The central main temple, which is the largest one, has the ground plan consisting in a cross-shaped 20-sided polygon . The cross-like layout, aligned along the four cardinal directions is made of four structures projected outward the main temple; each structure has its own stairs and entrances, and is crowned with stupas .
Figure 2: Sewu temple seen by Google Earth.
The layout of the temple complex, based on the four cardinal lines, is evident from the Figure 2. In previous papers [3-6], we have shown that some structures, having a rectangular layout with the sides oriented along the cardinal directions, can have references to the motion of the sun too. That is, we can observe alignments along the sunrise and sunset on solstices. In their planning, the architectonic structures become a symbolic local horizon, a microcosm which is representing the apparent motion of the macrocosm that, thorough the year, is revolving about its “axis mundi”, the axis of the universe [3-6].
In the case of the Sewu temple, we do not see an evident alignment to solstices. However this temple has another remarkable alignment, an alignment along the sunrise on the days of the zenithal passage of the sun.
Only in the tropical zone of the Earth, which is located in between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, we can see the sun reaching the zenith. Anywhere outside tropics, this is impossible. Inside the tropical zone then, the sun has, besides the astronomical events of solstices and equinoxes, also two zenithal passages. On the Tropical lines, only one passage is observed, coincident to one of the solstices.
Like the alignments on solstices are relevant in architectures (see for instance [7-11]), we can find in the tropical zone some allusions to the zenithal passage of the sun (see for instance  and references therein). Examples of alignments along the sunrise on the days of the zenithal passage exist in the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia  and in the archaeological complex of Sigiriya, the Lion Rock of Sri Lanka . For Angkor Wat, “from architectural features and orientations to art panels and monuments, the evidence that zenith passage was recognized permeates the entire city" .
In the Sewu temple complex, the alignment is given by the central temple and one of the eastern apit temples. Here in the following two images, the passage through the zenith of the sun on 12 October 2016 is displayed by the SunCalc.net software. We can determine the date of this passage using the Photographer’s Ephemeris for instance, a software used for planning outdoor photography.
Figure 3: The zenithal passage of the sun on 12 October 2016 (Courtesy SunCalc.net). The yellow straight line gives the direction of the sunrise, the red line of the sunset. As explained in SunCalc.net, the thin orange curve is the sun trajectory, and the yellow area describes the variation of sun trajectories during the year. “The closer a point is to the center, the higher is the sun above the horizon”.
Figure 4: The zenithal passage on 12 October 2016 (Courtesy SunCalc.net): a detail.
Figure 5: The solstice and the other zenithal passage on 28 February (or first of March, the Photographer’s Ephemeris is giving for these days the same altitude of the sun).
After the zenithal passage of October, the sun reaches the solstice of December and then it has the other zenithal passage at the end of February (Figure 5).
Let us note that, counting the days between 12 October 2016 and 21 December 2016, inclusive of both these dates, we have 71 days. From December 21 to the first of March 2017, we have a total of 71 days again. From the first of March to June 21, 2017, inclusive of these days, we have 113 days. Let us try to connect these numbers to the number of the temples in the complex. Actually, the first and the second rows of the Sewu temple, those inside the couples of the apit temples, are composed by 72 small ancillary temples (Perwara) (see Figure 6). It seems therefore that a connection of the number of Perwara to the number of the days of the zenithal passage of the sun is possible.
The link between the number of ancillary temples and the number of the days from the zenithal passage of the sun to the June solstice had been proposed for Prambanan . In , it is told that the temple complex of Prambanan has 224 ancillary temples, connected to the number of 112 days after or before the June solstice. In the case of the Sewu temple, it is the December solstice being involved.
It seems therefore that, for the people who built the temples, the astronomical year was based on periods of even numbers of days with an inclusive counting: 72 days from the zenithal passage of the sun to the December solstice, and from this solstice to the zenithal passage of the first of March. Then, there was another set of 112 days, from the zenithal passage to the June solstice, and the same from this solstice to the zenithal passage of October. Adding these periods we have a total of 368 days. However, the counting was inclusive, and then we have to remove some days. For instance, if we start the count from the zenithal passage of the first of March, we have to remove one day for the other zenithal passage and two days for the two solstices. We obtain 365 days.
It seems therefore that the Sewu temple and the Prambanan are linked to astronomy; the Sewu temple is connected to the sun moving about the December solstice, whereas the Prambanan is linked to the sun moving between the zenithal passages about the June solstice.
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Sparavigna, A. (2017). The Sewu Temple and the zenithal passage of the sun. PHILICA.COM Article number 970.