Introduction
Histories, Mythologies,
and Javanese Tales
In this sense, no text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling-and the story has
no closure, although it may be enclosed in a text. In India and Southeast Asia, no
one ever reads the Ramayana and Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are
there, "always already."'-A. K. Ramanujan
Thus the traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the
potter cling to the clay vesseJ.2-W. Benjamin
~
Ramayana and Mahabharata tales have often been compared with
W
the Iliad and the Odyssey of ancient Greece. But Ramayana and
Mahabharata stories are much more alive in India and Indonesia today
than the stories of Homer are in Europe or America. The stories of the
former are not only performed in human and puppet theatres to celebrate
national and regional holidays, but they are read avidly in novels, ro-
mances, and comic books, and the characters appear in creative and
commercial guises in radio and television programming. Tales of Rama's
battle to regain his wife Sita from the demon king Rahwana (Ramayana) or
the great conflict and war between the Pandhawa and Korawa cousins
(Mahabharata) were already traveling to Java along the trade routes from
the Indian subcontinent by the first centuries c.
E.
and possibly much
earlier.3 By the tenth and eleventh centuries, the stories were sung in Old
1.
A.
K.
Ramanujan, "Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples of Three Thoughts
on Translation," in Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, ed.
Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1991),
p.
46.
Following the late
A.
K.
Ramanujan (ibid., p.
24),
in this book I use the term tellings rather than versions or
variants to indicate that there are no original or primary texts that underpin the stories or
the story cycles.
2.
W. Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken,
1969),
p.
92.
3. This book focuses on Java, one of the major islands that today make up the nation
of Indonesia, which proclaimed independence from the Dutch in
1945
and gained
it
in
1949.
Densely populated, Java is horne to over half of Indonesia's
190
million people.
The Javanese are the dominant ethnic group on the island but there are Sundanese
peoples in the western part and Madurese peoples in the eastern part. Chinese minor-
ities in the urban centers of Java wield significant economic power. The dominant
religion of Java is Islam, which is observed in various ways. This forms a point of tension
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