The Ramayana in Indonesia

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About the Book

 

Beginning with a chapter on the role played by the Ramayana in India and the various forms it acquired in the land of its birth, the authors shift focus in the subsequent chapters of this book to Indonesia. They examine the creative manner in which Indian cultural elements were absorbed and moulded in Indonesia through a process which began nearly two thousand years ago, a process in which the Ramayana has had a vibrant presence for much of the time. Indeed, a central theme of the book is that the Ramayana is as much the property of Indonesia as of India.

 

The authors provide a comprehensive view of the spheres that are touched by the Ramayana in Indonesia - in literature, the plastic and performing arts, in moral and political philosophy, and the variety of Ramayana tellings in the region. These range from the millennium-old sculptural masterpieces in the temples of Lara Jonggrang (Prambanan) to the spectacular enactment today in an open air amphitheatre with the same temples illuminated in the background; from the poetic rendition of the late ninth-century Old Javanese Ramayana Kakawin to the allegorical use of the Ramayana themes in the overthrow of President Suharto.

 

The book draws upon the work done by scholars of many nations, not all of which is readily accessible; and while it is designed primarily for the general reader, specialists too will find it extremely useful. The volume is enlivened by over 100 plates, of which 23 are in colour.

 

About the Author

 

Malini Saran holds a post-graduate degree in art history. Now a resident of Delhi, she has lived for more than ten years in Southeast Asia, of which five were in Indonesia. Vinod C. Khanna was educated in Bombay and Oxford and is a former diplomat. He was India’s Ambassador in Indonesia from 1985 to 1988 and is the co-author of India and China: The Way Ahead.

 

Preface

 

The idea of this book grew from the interest which we developed during our stay in Jakarta (Saran from 1982 to 1987; Khanna from 1985 to 1988) in the broad theme of the impact of India on Indonesian civilization. We decided to focus our study on the role of the Ramayana in the cultural history of Indonesia, both because of its continuing vitality in the archipelago and because of it being, in many ways, paradigmatic of the larger phenomenon which has been called, somewhat misleadingly, ‘Indianization’:

 

The years spent in Indonesia enabled us to see, study and enjoy the numerous Indonesian works of beauty inspired by the Ramayana. We came to realize that a true understanding of the role of the Ramayana in Indonesia through the centuries requires that it be seen in its local setting as part of a distinct cultural entity, an organism with a life of its own.

 

The role which the Mahabharata has played in the cultural history of Indonesia is as significant as that of the Ramayana, but attempting a study of both the epics would have been too ambitious a task for a single book. The choice of the Ramayana as our theme is primarily a matter of personal preference. But the fact that some of the most outstanding achievements in more than one field of Indonesian culture were inspired by the Ramayana suggests that this is not an idiosyncratic choice.

 

To get a true idea of what the Ramayana has meant to the people of Indonesia over the last thousand years or so, we feel it is necessary to take an integrated look at all the cultural spheres which the Ramayana has touched -literature, the plastic and performing arts, political and moral philosophy. When we could not find any single study with such a comprehensive view of the subject, we decided to attempt it ourselves. In doing so we have not confined ourselves within the limits of any particular academic discipline; we have given ourselves the licence to move freely between various related fields to see how one illuminates the other. While the work is designed primarily for the general reader, it is hoped that specialists too will find some merit in this approach.

 

We have profited from a great deal of excellent work done by scholars from many nations. Not all of this is easily accessible, being buried in a variety of scholarly journals and books now available only in specialized libraries. Subject to our linguistic limitations we have tried to take into account all the major works on the topic. At the same time, several of the hypotheses and interpretations offered by the earlier authors have been rendered obsolete by subsequent discoveries and the emergence of new methodologies.

 

The first two chapters of the book put in historical perspective the journey of the Ramayana to Indonesia. Chapter 1 begins by looking at the role the Ramayana has played and the multiple forms it had acquired in India itself, the land of its birth. In Chapter 2 we briefly examine the creative manner in which Indian cultural elements were absorbed in Indonesia through a process which began nearly two thousand years ago. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were vibrant ingredients in the process.

 

Chapter 3 is devoted to the study of the earliest surviving depiction of the Rama story in the archipelago. It was etched into the friezes of the Shiva and Brahma temples of the Lara Jonggrang complex in Prambanan, Central Java, built probably in the late ninth century. A comprehensive account of this sculpted Ramayana is presented here.

 

Almost contemporary with the Prambanan reliefs, and a product of the same Central Javanese cultural ethos, is a literary masterpiece written in Old Javanese, known as the Ramayana kakawin. As we shall see in Chapter 4, it is perhaps the most impressive retelling of the Rama tale beyond the shores of India. We critically examine here the estab1ished views about the nature of the relationship between this Ramayana and the Sanskrit poem Bhattikavyam, on which it is based.

 

In the middle of the tenth century, the centre of political power in the region moved to East Java. The religious and artistic links with India remained uninterrupted though attenuated. Chapter 5 shows how Ramayanas continued to be narrated in Java, adjusting to the distinctly Javanese flavour which marked the religion, the arts and literature of this period.

 

The decline of the Majapahits, the last major Hindu-Buddhist Javanese empire, in the fifteenth century, and the emergence of Islam as the new great political force did not see the end of the Ramayana story in Indonesia. In fact, it was in Islamic Java that some of the most interesting new chapters were written in the adventures of the Rama tale, and it is to these that we turn in Chapter 6.

 

In contemporary times, it is primarily through a variegated performing arts tradition that the islands of Java and Bali pursue their continuing fascination for both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Chapter 7 endeavours to give the reader a flavour of this in Java. We also touch upon the innovative use of symbols drawn from the Ramayana during the popular upsurge which overthrew President Suharto, dramatically illustrating the continuing powerful presence of the Rama tale in the Indonesian imagination.

 

Chapter 8 takes a look at the artistic tradition of Hindu Bali, where a know