Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

On The Ramayana Trail III: Shadow Play

On The Ramayana Trail III: Shadow Play

June 11, 2010

An exploration of the influence Ramayana has had in the world's largest Muslim country.

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.

Click below to read the rest in the series:

On The Ramayana Trail: Hey Ram

On The Ramayana Trail II: Reamker

On The Ramayana Trail IV: A Filipino Twist

On The Ramayana Trail V: Alive And Kicking


  • adikc
    09.02.12 09:51 PM
    I'm Indonesian and correct what you analysis based on observations during your visit to Indonesia (Java). Although I am Muslim, I really liked the story of Ramayana & Mahabharata, I even memorized the story.
    For me this story -mainly Mahabaharata- is the pictures of human character in the world until end of the world ..
    Some differences happened in past when some characters appears (Semar, Punakawan) and also some distorsion with the original story, for example : In Indonesia Dronacharya is the bad character while in India, he is the good character.
  • Jantine
    30.12.10 01:12 AM
    Hi, I have in my lab two Indonesian shadow puppets to restore. The support structure of them is broken. I like to send you some pictures and ask you if you know which character they are depicting?
    Please e-mail me ASAP.
    Best regards,
  • Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    16.06.10 07:06 PM
    @ Murali - You've hit the nail right on the head. The fact is that we look at our epics as religious icons rather than cultural ones. Thank you for reading and commenting and please do stay tuned for the rest of the series.
  • Murali
    12.06.10 08:33 PM
    An excellent post. I author a blog ( that focuses on lesser known incidents, characters and stories from the Mahabharata; and when I search for pictures and media to accompany my posts, more often that not I come across some gems outside india - Such as the bas relief depicting the Kurukshetra war (in the temple of Angkor Wat, Cambodia), or the statue of Arjuna and Krishna in a chariot fighting an enemy (outside Bali Airport, Indonesia). There are many such statues of Krishna & Arjuna, & even Bhima in Indonesia, as symbols of cultural heritage.

    For Indians, I don't think it is an issue of us letting the icons stand as human beings than religious icons - it is something more fundamental, which is reflected in what is seen as 'secular behaviour' by the media and politicians.

    Imagine the ruckus it will create if our government were to spend money to install a statue depicting a scene from mahabharata in a traffic circle in Delhi, or allot land and construct a temple (which was anyway normal for our Kings to do in the past).

Leave a comment