The arched harp in Java

The Buddhist temple of Borobudur (9th century) offers a rich musical iconography. One can even say that it is the most important instrumental heritage of Southeast Asia for this period. The orchestras, directly stemming from the Indian culture, seem to be represented in extenso. There are instruments similar to those of the Khmers and Chams of the time. Concerning the Khmers, let us recall that we know, for the pre-Angkorian period, only three lintels from the 7th century and the exhaustive lists of the orchestra of the temple of Lolei in the 9th century. However, on these lists, several names of instruments could not be identified with certainty at this time.

Among the instruments depicted at Borobudur are harps. Their general shape is similar to that of the Gupta period, especially the bas-relief of Pawāyā

In the high relief opposite, we can see, in the lower register, from left to right, a transverse flute, probably small cymbals and an indeterminate instrument (rhythm stick with bells?). In the upper register, a three stringed lute player and a harpist. The other characters behind these instrumentalists probably play other instruments, replicas of them and/or different ones.


Sarasvati playing the "Makara harp".
Sarasvati playing the "Makara harp".

The tuning of the Borobudur harp seems to be made by eleven pegs, if we refer to the statuette named "Sarasvati playing the Makara harp" showing precisely this device. In any case, these eleven elements, whether they are pegs or decorative elements, indicate a minimum number of eleven strings.

The experimental archaeological work carried out in Cambodia by Sounds of Angkor demonstrates that this number of strings is compatible with the size and technology of this type of instrument shown in pre-Angkorian sculpture.