Dialogue  July-September  2007, Volume 9  No. 1


Indian Cultural Influences in Indonesia

V. Suryanarayan*

The spread of Indian cultural influences is a fascinating chapter in the history of Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia. Even a casual visitor is struck by the deep and abiding influence India has left not only in the field of religion, polity, art and literature, but even in day-to-day life of the people. Indianised kingdoms like Funan, Sri Kshetra, Pagan, Khemer, Sri Vijaya, Sailendra and Majapahit; the familiar Indo-Sanskritic vocabulary in Thai and Bahasa Indonesia; architectural monuments like Angkor, Pagan, Borobudur and Lara Djonggrang; literary masterpieces like Ramkein, Amaramala, Arjuna Vivaha and Bharata Yuddha; the Wajang Kulit based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata themes; the living Indian traditions in the island of Bali – all these bear testimony to the courage and zeal of Indian princes, priests, poets, merchants and artisans and the ingratiating and assimilable qualities of the peoples of Southeast Asian countries. The greatest of Indonesian nationalist leaders, President Sukarno, wrote in a special article in The Hindu on 4 January 1946, “ In the veins of every one of my people flows the blood of Indian ancestors and the culture that we possess is steeped through and through with Indian influences. Two thousand years ago, people from your country came to Jawadvipa and Suvarnadvipa in the spirit of brotherly love. They gave the initiatives to found powerful kingdoms such as those of Sri Vijaya, Mataram and Majapahit. We then learnt to worship the very Gods that you now worship still and we fashioned a culture that even today is largely identical with your own. Later we turned to Islam; but that religion too was brought by people coming from both sides of the Indus”.

Ramayana is not only the epic of India; it is also the national epic of Indonesia. It had been a perennial source of inspiration in the past and continues to exercise its charm and fascination even today. The simple story of Rama and Sita has been told and retold a million times in innumerable ways in different parts of the archipelago. No doubt, in the process of diffusion and transplantation, the Ramakatha has undergone variations and adaptations. The immense vitality of the Ramayana tradition in Indonesia is a proof, if a proof is necessary, to the aptness of Brahma’s assurance to Valmiki: “And O Great Sage, so long as the mountains stand and the rivers flow, so long will this story of Rama’s heroic deeds be told and cherished on earth”. As a former Indian Ambassador to Indonesia, KM Kannampilly, has written, “For over fourteen centuries now, the Ramayana has continued to be a living force among the people of Southeast Asia influencing their hearts and thoughts, inspiring their artistic creations and forming the mainspring of their cultural life. To them the hero and heroine of the Ramayana have always been models of chivalry, nobility and faithfulness, characters of great spiritual beauty”.              

Even in the world of scholarship relating to Ramayana tradition, Indonesia has played a pioneering role. The Ministry of Information and Culture organized the First International Ramayana Festival in Jakarta in August-September 1971. Scholars and artists from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia participated in this unique seminar, whose objective was “to promote deeper cultural understanding among nations”. Four years later, in 1975, New Delhi picked up the threads and on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitamanas, the Sahitya Akademi convened an international seminar on “Asian Variations of Ramayana”. These and subsequent seminars and published proceedings are significant milestones in our understanding of the many splendid Ramayana heritage.

Vitality of Ramayana

In the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Prof. A A Macdonnel has written, “Perhaps no work of world literature, secular in origin, has ever produced so profound an influence on the life and thought of a people as the Ramayana”. The well-known Indian journalist NS Jagannathan suggests a trivial, but significant, example. The Chennai telephone directory contains 21,000 entries of Rama and its variations like Raman, Ramaswamy and Ramachandran. This does not include Raghava and its variations. Then you have variations of Sita, Janaki etc. Literary manifestations of Ramayana are legion. As Tulsidas has said, Ramakatha kai miti jaga nahi – it is impossible to keep count of the Ramakathas of the world.

Prof. Romila Thapar has given an interesting explanation of the prevalence of many Ramayanas. According to Prof. Romila Thapar, “The Ramayana does not belong to any one moment in history, for it has its own history, which lies embedded in the many versions which were woven around the theme at different times and places”. Not only do diverse Ramayanas exist; each Ramayana text reflects the genius of the people and the place in which they lived. The author is tempted to quote a story, which AK Ramanujan has written. “One day, when Rama was sitting on the throne, the ring fell down. When it touched the earth, it made a hole and disappeared into it. Rama asked Hanuman, his trusted disciple, to find the ring. Hanuman immediately transformed himself into a tiny creature, went down the hole and entered the netherworld. The women in the netherworld caught him and took him before their king. All the while Hanuman was repeating the name Rama, Rama. The King asked him who are you? I am Hanuman. Why have you come here? Rama’s ring fell into the hole. I have come to fetch it. The King brought a platter, in which there were thousands of rings. You can pick up Rama’s ring, the King told Hanuman. All of them were Rama’s rings. Hanuman looked at the platter and said I do not know which is Rama’s ring. The King told Hanuman, there have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you go to earth, you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. And when it is about to be over, the ring falls down. I collect them and keep them. Now you can go”. So Hanuman left. Ramanujan tells this story to drive home the point that for every such Rama, there is a Ramayana. The number of Ramayanas and the range of their influence in India and Southeast Asia are astonishing. Naturally these Ramayanas differ from one another.

I am tempted to narrate two interesting versions of Ramayana. In Adhyatma Ramayana, a later Ramayana, composed in the sixteenth century, there is an interesting story. When Rama is exiled to the forest, he does not want Sita to accompany him to the forest. Sita argues with him. At first, she uses the usual argument, I am your wife, I should share your sorrow and suffering, I should be in exile, when you are in exile and so on. When Rama still resists the idea, Sita is furious and she bursts out, “ Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one Ramayana where Sita does not go to the forest with Rama?” That clinches the argument in Sita’s favour.

Many writers have deconstructed the story of Ramayana and some of them are moving and appealing. The Tamil writer, Pudumai Pithan, has written an absorbing and moving short story, Shapa Vimochanam (Release from the Curse). The story is in the form of a conversation between Sita, who has been exiled and living in Valmiki’s hermitage and Ahalya, years after her emancipation. They discuss the ethics of Rama’s conduct, with Ahalya berating Rama, while Sita is defending him. The story ends with Ahalya’s statement, with her eyes blazing, “I do not want the life given to me by a man of this kind” and wills herself back into stone.

Ramayana in Indonesia

Ramayana and other Indian epics spread in Indonesia along with Brahmin priests, merchants, Kshatriyas, artisans and poets. An Indonesian inscription in Sanskrit refers to Raghava in AD 732, while the old Javanese inscriptions refer to Ravana (AD 824), Lanka (AD 862), Bharata (AD 879), Rama (AD 880), Ramayana (AD 907), Sita (AD 910), Vali (AD 928) and Lakshmana (AD 928). The earliest written version of Ramayana was Ramayana Kakawain by Yogiswara in the 10th century. With the passage of rime, numerous other versions appeared. According to one scholar, there are nearly 1200 versions of Ramayana in East Java alone. One of the Javanese versions, the Serat Kanda, begins with Adam in Mecca and ends with the cremation of Sita and Ravana.

How does one account for the dynamic vitality of the Ramayana tradition in Indonesia? Does it not conflict with the tenets of Islam, the religion which 95 per cent of the Indonesians adhere to?

The explanation is to be sought in Indonesian attitude towards life. The Indonesian mind believes in synthesis and is accustomed to intermingling of diverse and apparently contradictory elements. The average Indonesian finds no dichotomy in his obligations as a Moslem and his continued acceptance of older Hindu and animist practices. As the well-known authority on Indonesia, Prof. JD Legge, has written, “ The propitiation of spirits, the observance of customary rituals surrounding the main stages of life, the resort to magical practices in curing illness may all be accepted by the same person, who is ready to observe the Moslem law in marriage, to accept the Moslem ritual of circumcision, or to follow the daily pattern of prayer, the weekly community worship and the annual month of fasting”.

The first great religion to arrive in Indonesia was Hinduism and it was followed by the Mahayana form of Buddhism. Before the Hindus arrived, the people of the islands were animists. The new religions did not compete for the people’s support; they blended with the native animism and assumed new shapes. Siva merged with the Buddha and the Siva-Buddha cult came into existence. In most parts of Indonesia, the Banyan tree is still considered sacred and never cut down. Similarly, at the time of harvest, each stalk of paddy has to be cut in a different fashion and, as quietly as possible, to avoid disturbing Devi Sri, the guardian spirit of fertility. The belief in magic is common and the Kris, the short ceremonial dagger, is endowed with magical powers and is worshipped every day.

Islam came to Indonesia in the 16th century and it spread throughout the archipelago in the course of the next three hundred years. It was brought by the merchants of Gujarat, Kerala and the Coromandel Coast and already had undergone changes in the direction of mysticism, which facilitated its adoption, and adaptation in the Indonesian setting. As the distinguished sociologist, Clifford Geertz, has written, “Indonesian Islam, cut off from the centers of orthodoxy in Mecca and Cairo, vegetated, another meandering tropical growth on an already overcrowded religious landscape. Buddhist mystic practices got Arabic names, Hindu Rajas suffered change of titles to become Moslem sultans, and the common people called some of their wood spirits Jinns, but little else changed”.

However, it must be pointed out that the impact of Islam was felt in different ways in different parts of Indonesia. As the isolation of Islam broke down with the establishment of contact with centers of Islamic orthodoxy in the Middle East, new groups began to emerge and occasional tensions began to emerge between the “more faithful” and the “less faithful”. Broadly, these groups could be divided into three subvented categories: 1) The Santri, the devout Moslems, who consider themselves as the true followers of Islam, mainly belonging to the trading community; 2) The Abangan, the nominal Moslems, who in their daily lives, lay greater stress on the animistic aspects of Indonesian syncretic religion, belonging mainly to the peasant masses and 3) The Prijaji, who stress the Hindu aspects and belong to the aristocracy in the towns. Numerically, it is the Abangan, who dominate the Indonesian scene and has added colour and richness to the religious landscape. They patronize the Wajang Kulit, while the Prijaji are responsible for the enrichment of the more refined dance-drama traditions.

The Ramayana, along with the Mahabharata, provide the base and has contributed to the efflorescence of Wajang Kulit (the shadow or leather puppet theatre), known throughout Indonesia, especially Central and Eastern Java. The Wajang is not merely a popular form of entertainment; it is an inseparable part of Indonesian life and reflects the social order with all its complexities. Both physical and moral attributes are identified with different characters and, in the final analysis, the Wajang represents the triumph of good over evil. Even the orthodox Moslem Ulemahs could not eradicate its appeal and came to terms with it by declaring that Wajang was the invention of Sunan Kalijaga, an honoured Islamic saint. Though the main themes are derived from the Indian epics, the local genius has introduced many additions, deletions and interpolations in the stories. In the process, the influence of Wajang has not decreased, but continues to be growing.

The Wajang season begins after the harvest and extends till the beginning of the rainy season. The manipulation of the puppets’ movements, the control of the orchestra, and the delivery of the dialogue – all are done by the Dalang, who is at once “the composer, improviser, producer, orator, singer, choir master, dance master and the stage manager”. A good Dalang identifies himself completely with the characters and is able to infuse the nobility of the story to the audience. While keeping within the bounds of Ramayana, the Dalang also varies the presentation to suit the audience and mixes the narration with some earthly wit and humour. So important is Dalang’s role that the Indonesian classic Navaruci attributes divine qualities to him. To quote the relevant passage, “We are just like the Wajang puppets, all our movements are brought out by the Dalang, the world is the stage”. The Wajang Kulit performance is accompanied by the Gamelan orchestra. The performance generally lasts throughout the night, although in urban areas nowadays, it is generally reduced to three or four hours. A Malay scholar on Ramayana has testified to the fact that a good Dalang “can still draw a larger audience than a local open air cinema showing the best in Hollywood Coca Cola culture”.

Ramayana in Prambanan

The very first rendering of the Ramayana in Indonesia appeared in Central Java in the language of stone. It was sculpted into balustrades of two temples, Chandi Siva and Chandi Brahma. They stand in the courtyard of a complex of temples, known locally as Lara Jonggrang. In Chandi Vishnu, the last of the three temples, there are reliefs, which tell the story of Krishna, another incarnation of Vishnu.

The village of Prambanan has lent its name to this sprawling group of Hindu temples. According to Lokesh Chandra, Prambanan is derived from Param Brhama or universal soul. Lara Jonggrang means “slender maiden”, the daughter of Ratu Baka, the king, who was killed by her suitor, a sorcerer’s son. The town nearest to the temple is known as Yogyakarta, which in Old Javanese language is equivalent to Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama.

In Lara Jonggrang, we have complete pictorial representation of Ramayana, from Balakanda to Uttarakanda. Perhaps there is no sculptural depiction of the epic elsewhere in the world during this period, mid-ninth to mid-tenth centuries. Thanks to the pioneering work done by the Indonesian and Dutch archaeologists, the temples have been restored to their original splendour. There are controversies as to who built it, when was it built and for what purpose. It is possible that the construction of these Hindu temples was undertaken in a sort of competition with the Mahayana Buddhist monument of Borobudur. However, it must be pointed out that co-existence between Saivism and Tantrayana Buddhism was the order of the day.

Local population holds the three temples in Prambanan in great veneration. They are the best examples of Indo-Javanese art and represent the apotheosis of Saivism in the archipelago. The Indonesian Government, during recent years, has been sponsoring dance-drama performances in the backdrop of these temples during June-October. During the rule of the Majapahit dynasty, which represented the final phase of the Hindu hegemony in Java, scenes from the Ramayana, especially from the Yuddhakanta, were depicted in the temple of Panataran in East Java. Though the figures are stylized and sophisticated, they are not very natural and do not have the artistic excellence and visual appeal of those in Prambanan.


Over the centuries, Ramayana has inspired and influenced people in different parts of the world. Dr. V. Raghavan, the distinguished authority on Ramayana, has remarked, “It is true many stories and episodes have been added in different versions of Ramayana, especially in Southeast Asia, and in some of them some of the major deviations from the central Ramayana plot of Valmiki occur. But Rama is always the central figure, around whom all the other characters revolve and his story illustrates the triumph of good over evil”.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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