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Erasure of an Aboriginal temple


'Aboriginal temple' by Chris JohnstonFor thousands of years there was a sylvan temple on the banks of the river near where I was born. I have never seen the temple because most of it was destroyed before I was born, but I know what it looked like because it was described and sketched by an early ethnologist travelling in the area.

It had a mile long avenue of trees carved with serpents, forked lightning, meteors and various hieroglyphs, leading to an earth-walled circular space where a giant human figure, also made of earth, reclined.

You might imagine from the temple that I was born in Greece, or Egypt, or perhaps India, but the fact is I was born and grew up near the Macquarie River in central west NSW.

The sylvan temple, as described by the ethnologist, John Henderson, was the largest and most important sacred site for the Wiradjuri people along the river. Like all temples, it was used for protecting and conveying secret spiritual knowledge to the initiated and people came from hundreds of miles to be part of rituals and ceremonies.

It was as important as the Acropolis or the temple of Horus, but it no longer exists. Worse, perhaps, the temple was forgotten, or deliberately not spoken of.

So complete was the erasure that I didn't even know the temple had ever existed until a few years ago when I was researching my hometown. I had spent my entire childhood in the area, roaming the hills and looking for treasures and adventures, but no one had mentioned this extraordinary place.

In the midst of my research at the Mitchell Library, I opened a dusty old book I had ordered from the stacks, not expecting much. I was overwhelmed to discover Henderson's detailed description of a temple and his meticulous drawings of carvings on each tree.

By now I recognised the temple as a Bora ground, an initiation site for young men but in design and function it was a temple. This beautiful and powerful place had existed so near my home, yet no one had even spoken of it.

Years later while I was living in Paris, I saw an Aboriginal painting in the Musée du Quai Branly. It was called Le Temps du Rêve, The Time of the Dreaming. The painting had a yellow ochre background and was covered in swirls of tiny red ochre dots. When I saw this painting in the post-modern museum on the banks of the Seine, I felt proud. This was a thing of beauty from my place being honoured here in Paris!

Through the long narrow windows I could see the museum garden and the pearl sky, one window revealing the severe beauty of the Eiffel Tower. I realise now that it was the pride of a colonial child, pleased that her parents approved enough of her new home in the Antipodes to display her art in their elegant house.

But then I thought of the bora trees at Wellington. All that is left of them are the drawings of the carved patterns sketched by Henderson in 1829.

The sketches are of a ground plan of the temple and of the avenue of 28 tree trunks, each one carved with different symbols. Most of these are recognisable from other works of ancient and contemporary Aboriginal art — wavy lines, dots, semi-circles, and concentric rings. But there were other less-used symbols such as rectangles and V-shapes and what look like human parts — a heart and a vulva.

The patterns were beautiful. I couldn't stop staring at his drawings, even though I knew Wiradjuri women were not allowed to see the original carvings.

I wished helplessly that the bora trees had not been destroyed. I wished I could see them. They were gradually chopped down, then burned, the last one, I believe, within my lifetime.

I suddenly knew that if offered a choice between the carved trees standing on plinths, uprooted and alone, open to every gaze in the Musée du Quai Branly thousands of miles from home, and what actually happened to them  — burned to ash — I would choose the indignity of them being transported across the world.

It feels wrong to wish that, but I do. It's this kind of thing which makes me realise that my mind is European, the mind of a thief. But it doesn't matter anymore — it's too late now even for thieving. The temple is gone. 

Patti MillerPatti Miller has taught writing for over 20 years. Her many books include The Last One Who Remembers, Whatever the Gods Do and The Memoir Book. Her latest book The Mind of a Thief is released this week. Patti teaches at the Faber Academy in Sydney.

Topic tags: Patti Smith, Indigenous affairs, Aboriginal art, temple



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Existing comments

Do you not recall the "Artist's Protest"?...We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower...No, it is the painting of "The Temps du Reve"-The Time of Dreaming, within the walls of The Musee du Quai Branly- that brings unmentionable beauty and honour to Paris.

Myra | 30 April 2012  

Thank you for sharing this story. I had no idea of the existence of this place. What a tragedy it is no more! I wonder if there are other temples which were destroyed?

Moira | 30 April 2012  

This pieces raises so much grief as well as questions about the 'lesser evils' of the european mind's capacity for appropriation. I live in France and am constantly astonished and surprised by the reverence with which Australian indigenous culture is held here - although this has its own problems - it reminds me how much we Australians have lost in our continuing quest to conquer the land and its original people. We know not what ruins we stand upon - temples of an altogether different kind - ones that we sorely need right now.

Bronwyn Lay | 02 May 2012  

You've pushed me back just a little Patti with this evocative piece.
Gosh..! It would be simplistic to say simply your essay has challenged me. It’s not enough to tell you I’ve had tears in my eyes reading what you’ve written. That would be an abdication of my own responsibility.

Perhaps it's because I know so well the region you describe, a place where I left a part of my own heart while living in Orange.
But I rather feel it is because of your lyrical writing that has prompted me toward better decision this day about so much that is similar,
surviving, and elsewhere in Australia.
Places like Oodnadatta, Milparinka, Mataranka and other parts closer to 'sub ubi' urban Oz have similar riches I've encountered on clay misted mornings.
And you've now firmed my resolve to neither disclose nor describe them too graphically.
Thank you for a splendidly crafted piece, and a timely reminder.

Theo. Bennett | 02 May 2012  

A tragic story, beautifully told. It also reminds us how far we still need to go for true reconciliation in this country. How do we ever make amends for the destruction of something that is, essentially, priceless?

Joseph Vine | 03 May 2012  

An insightful article Patti -we really dont know what we have destroyed.

brendan Stuart | 03 May 2012  

No Patti, the temple is not gone. It lives on in your mind, and now even more so in your book. All praise to John Henderson, and to you, Patti, for resurrecting his work. Thanks to you it has been planted in the minds and imagination of your readers. I was fortunate last year to visit the Australian Aboriginal Art Museum, "La grange", in Motiers, Neuchatel, Switzerland. Never heard of it? Neither had I. But it is a must-see for anyone interested in Art who visits Neuchatel. Ironically, for me anyway, "La grange" is a harmoniously renovated annex of the Chateau d'Ivernois, a jewel of 18th century French architecture. And yet here it was housing the art of a nomadic people who had no permanent residences; for whom the earth, the rivers, and the sky were inhabited by spirits; and for whom the invasion they suffered in the 18th century by Europeans was no sparkling reward for millenia-long stewardship of the land. A reverend silence permeated the little gallery, interrupted occasionaly by the recorded droning of a didgeridoo and the laughter of a kookaburra. For a moment in time it was a temple dedicated to the Aboriginal Spirit.

Joe Quigley | 03 May 2012  

I''m sorry! On behalf of those who tore down that temple: I'm sorry. But are we sorry enough to stop future destruction? Please God that there will always be someone strong enough, courageous enough to see the harm we do and stand up against such desecration of sacred sites. And Chris's drawing nearly makes me cry. Thank you both for speaking up.

glen avard | 03 May 2012  

It's not just the temple which is lost, but also the ecological functioning of sylvan glades along all our rivers. Across this nation, it is past time we restored the native forests that once lined, and shaded, keeping the precious water cool and clear, providing corridors for native animals to go about their business. Our governments pride themselves on what they call "full" employment, when what they really mean is that there is insufficient work for fully 1 in 20 Australians to even work one hour per week. Much as mediaeval Europe's workers and artisans were put to the great tasks of building basilicas and cathedrals, surely Australia's underutilised workforce could be engaged in restoration and refurbishment of our life-sustaining riverbanks and river plains.

David Arthur | 03 May 2012  

Thanks Patti for such a fine and emotive piece. It makes me wonder what else has been lost and whether the destruction of such sacred 'architecture' was deliberate.

chris g | 03 May 2012  

Patti, you might be interested in reading Major Thomas Mitchell's journals of his expeditions through and around the central west in the 1800s. He describes amazing Aboriginal burial grounds, gardens and homes - with beautiful drawings. The 2 volumes are available as e-books or can be ordered in hard print from London. Well worth a read from a colonial man who grieved for the loss of worlds for the Aboriginal people, and his part in it.

Toluana | 03 May 2012  

Wow... I have grown up on the banks of the Macquarie and canaoed along this river... how amazing would it be if it was there still... :-(

Macquarie River Girl | 03 May 2012  

What a pity we cannot replant and try to reclaim that piece of our history - whether we are anglosaxon or any other. Maybe there is an elder around who has enough of the oral history that this is an achievable goal.

jean Tait | 03 May 2012  

Patti, if you are describing your own mind as being 'The Mind of a Thief' it must be a very sad and self-condemning book indeed. I don't think you can blame yourself for where you were born, or for what others did to Aboriginal Australia for whatever motive. We are surrounded by the remnants of Aboriginal culture, and whatever the virtues were of pre-European Australia, it was clearly unsustainable; particularly given the rapid economic, scientific, techical and cultural ferment taking place on the Eurasian landmass. Unless of course, the 'thieving mind' belongs to someone other than you.

Ian MacDougall | 03 May 2012  

The Culture that is unsustainable is our culture Ian.We have destroyed and continue to destroy the environment that supports and sustains us. Aboriginal people cared for their land which was their mother. Their connection to country was deep. We have to much to learn from the way they were connected and struggle to this day to maintain those connections.

terry fitz | 03 May 2012  

I too lament the destruction of such a sylvan temple, for whatever reason. But just a question: if the avenue of carved trees stretched a mile ("mile-long") but only had 28 trees, then each of the 14 trees on either side would have had to be on average 125 yards apart, more than the length of a football field! And, unless the avenue stood in an otherwise treeless area - my first thought was that if "sylvan" it was within a forest - one could not only begin to see how it would not have been recognised but could ask, how did John Henderson do so? It would be fascinating to see his sketch plan.

Stephen Kellett | 04 May 2012  

To answer Stephen's question: Henderson was shown the bora ground/temple by an Elder (a punishable offence), he didn't find it himself. And perhaps his 'mile' was a rough figure... I have a copy of his sketch but even though one can find it in Henderson's journal in the Mitchell Library easily enough, I would rather not share it publicly without specific permission from present day Wiradjuri Elders.

Patti Miller | 04 May 2012  

Terry: What was unsustainable was the Aboriginal monopoly occupation, ownership, possession (call it what you like) of this whole continent. It ended unsurprisingly, at the close of the 18th C. If the British had not ended it, then sooner or later the French, Germans, Belgians or other European colonial power would have. Otherwise, the Javanese, Arabs, Chinese (who very nearly did) Japanese (who also nearly did), etc, etc. The sustainability of the Aboriginal management of the land was something else again.

Ian MacDougall | 04 May 2012  

Thanks for the wake up call, Patti. These days we are thankfully reminded a lot of how much of aboriginal culture and art we have destroyed in the past, but the art you describe must have been a revelation of something more in aboriginal art we had not seen before.

Tony Santospirito | 05 May 2012  

Is it "desecration" to destroy an object associated with a religion that nobody believes in any more? (Remembering that the proportion of people of Australian indigenous races who are Christian is far higher than the proportion in Australians as a whole. Also a significant minority are Muslim who have a particular horror of pagan icons especially those depicting human and animal forms.) Was it "desecration" when Christians in the 4th to 15th centuries destroyed old pagan temples and shrines so that they could re-use the buildings or materials for practical uses especially building churches? Again remembering that the trees "destroyed" in the supposed "Aboriginal temple" were almost certainly used for building, energy source and other useful things, not simply wanton vandalism as the article fondly imagines. And apparently the people who "destroyed" them didn't even realise that they had any religious/cultural significance. "a thing of beauty from my place" in Paris? Hardly. The dot-painting style is native to the area around Alice Springs (about 2000 km away). You won't find much red and yellow ochre on the banks of the upper Macquarie.

Sharon | 21 May 2012  

Most of the trees for the Wellington Bora are still alive and completely overgrown. I am 1 of 4 who know its location and protect it

Brad | 22 June 2017  

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