Ram, Sita, Hanuman and other characters from the Ramayana walk amongst us in the streets of Indonesia. Well not literally, but definitely in spirit. They look down at us from the name boards of banks, grocery shops, cloth stores and even as cut-outs prominently displayed in the front of travel agencies. As my husband and I walked the narrow and winding lanes of Yogyakarta, it was easy to forget that we were in Central Java, the heart of the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia. In a country where the Ramayana has clearly dominated the social customs and local culture, it’s clear for all to see that the epic has quite a different role here than the sectarian one accorded to it in India. Here the epic is not a Hindu tale of an Indian prince but is an Indonesian classic instead.
Which is why it is not uncommon to see Indonesians irrespective of their religion urge you to see Prambanan, a ninth century Hindu temple compound and world heritage monument. On the walls of one of the temples here, we get to see the episodes of Sita’s abduction, the gathering of the monkey army and other familiar incidents from the Ramayana engraved in stone as bas-reliefs. Does this mean that the story is the same as the Indian version? Well not really.
The Ramayana made its way into the islands of Indonesia around the eight or ninth centuries. Making itself popular as the Ramayana Kakawin, the first half of the story is very similar to the Indian Ramayana. You get a glimpse of all your favourite stories with even the familiar Parasuram making an appearance as Ram Parasu. Yes, there are minor phonetic differences with Raavan becoming Rahwana and Lanka becoming Langka, but even then it’s easy to see from where the story originates, if you read the first part of the Ramayana Kakawin. But it’s the second half where it acquires a distinctly Indonesian flavour. Enter the guardian god of Java, Semar and his four misshapen sons known as the ‘clown servants’ and the end result is something totally unrecognizable from the familiar story of the prince fighting the demon king to win his wife back. And this is the story that made it to the international cultural stage as it was told and re-told many, many times by Indonesia’s very own Wayang Kulit or the shadow puppet theatre.
Made of leather and painted brightly with colours that show off the characters, the puppets were not always shadows. Puppeteers carried them throughout the land centuries ago performing tales from Hindu epics when Buddhism started to spread rapidly. Yet when Islam became the law of the land, the puppets were banned all together as the display of Gods in human form were prohibited. So as an alternative, the puppeteers decided to go behind screens and tell the story with the shadows instead. And the Ramayana and other stories from the Hindu epics were reborn in the country. Yet what is most intriguing is that the families of puppet makers who painstakingly craft these puppets of Rama and Hanuman and others from the Hindu pantheon are all Muslim. It is indeed inspiring to see them explain the Ramayana story and the message of good against evil, to foreign tourists.
So if the Ramayana has managed to transcend ownership by a particular religion in Indonesia, why is it so hard for us to look at it that way in India? Why cant the characters just stand proud as ideal human beings and not religious icons?
We will continue to ponder on these questions as we continue to trace the Ramayana’s journey across South-east Asia in the faith section here. And meanwhile we would love to hear what you think.
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