The trend of events in the past one year involving Lord Ram has been very interesting starting from the verdict on Ram Mandir to the very recent statement given out by the Nepalese Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli on the Hindu god. His statements have caused a furore in South Asia that even Hindus in Bangladesh held a protest march against Oli’s remarks at the Dhaka Press Club on July 17, 2020. The Bhoomi Pujan for Ram Mandir is the very significant date of August 5, 2020. Let’s also remember that Nepal is the only Hindu country in the world and Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, is also situated in this Himalayan country!
The writing of a travelogue was long pending. Thanks to the recent controversy in the Indian sub-continent which has caused a trigger, I now finally get a chance to write about the Ramayana Ballet! I also write this as a tribute to all the women who took part in a play some 22 years ago during our brief stay in the Oil township of Moran in Upper Assam. My mother had played the role of Sita.
The story of Ramayana being told through the performing art of Ballet is very unique, a thing one gets to witness in the open-air theatre behind the huge Prambanan Temple in the Special Region of Yogyakarta, in the island of Java, Indonesia. Candi Prambanan (Prambanan Temple), as it’s called in the language of Bahasa, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is one of the largest Hindu Temples in South East Asia. It is situated along the Opak River and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Tim Hannigan in his book, A Brief History of Indonesia, talks at length about the influence of religion, culture, trade, etc. on South East Asia’s largest nation.
It has been deemed to be the land of the Sultans, Spices and Tsunamis. The influence of Hinduism, the transition to Hindu-Buddhism, the arrival of Islam, the invasion of Dutch traders until the establishment of modern-day Indonesia; it has been a long and colourful journey. Many would find it similar to the history of India or South Asia in general. The arrival of Islam has not necessarily been equated to invasion as it’s done in the Indian context. The arrival of Europeans has however been described as a Spice invasion owing to their history of establishing a monopoly in an emerging capitalistic world!
But, what intrigued me was the syncretism of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism; hence, one of the timelines in Indonesia’s history is described as Hindu-Buddhism. The construction of the Prambanan Temple was started by Rakai Pikatan of the Sanjaya dynasty around 856 CE. Historians suggest that it was probably an answer to the construction of the massive Borobudur Temple, which was constructed by the Buddhist Shailendra dynasty. The Borobudur Temple complex is massive and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site situated along the Progo River.
I was fortunate enough to visit these two world heritage sites along with a couple of other friends from college when we were on a study trip in September 2017 to Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, which is independent Indonesia’s first university. Gadjah Mada literally translates to Elephant General, who was a powerful military leader and Mahapatih or prime minister of the Majapahit Empire. I was so impressed by the art and architecture of Indonesia that I ended up visiting the Prambanan Temple twice. The first time was to watch the Ramayana Ballet that happens in the evening and the second time to explore the temple complex at length during the daytime.
The island of Java is specifically known for its wooden artefacts; henceforth one can buy the wooden masks depicting Ram and Sita from outside the temple complex. All of this is sold by Muslim shopkeepers today. It is important to note that the story of Ram, who is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is being depicted through the Ramayana Ballet within the complex of a Shivaite Temple in a Muslim-majority country, which otherwise is quite rare.
The only issue was, I could not click great pictures or shoot videos because my phone battery had drained out. In fact, my friends’ phones and the camera also died out midway while the ballet was on. I have a deep satisfaction that it is intact in my visual memory and even pictures don’t justify the beauty of the Ramayana Ballet. It is close to a two-hour performance in a massive open-air theatre with traditional Indonesian instruments being played in the backdrop. The most prominent instrument is the Gamelan that is used widely across Indonesia during various feasts and festivities.
One needs extreme patience to be able to understand this art form as it is very slow. The hand gestures or the entire sequence of dance-drama could be quite difficult to understand if one does not know the story of Ramayana beforehand. The way Sita was dressed was very different from the Indian imagination of the Goddess. When we were handed out pamphlets before the show began, the spellings of the characters confused us. For instance, Sita was written as ‘Shinta’ or ‘Dewi Shinta’, Lanka was written as ‘Alengka’; Ashok Vatika was described as ‘Argasoka Garden’; Ravan as ‘Rahwana’ and Bali as ‘Subali’. Hanuman was particularly described as the White Monkey.
I personally enjoyed the performance of ‘Mareech’ as the golden deer jumping gracefully with full stage utilisation. The fight sequence between ‘Jatayu’ and ‘Ravan’ was equally engaging. Watching the Kingdom of Lanka being set on fire by Hanuman got me goosebumps. The images are forever etched in my memory. We did manage to click a few selfies with Ram, Sita and Lakshman after the performance was over. If I have to make a comparison, I found it very similar to the Manipuri Classical dance or the Manipuri Raas Leela. It felt very spiritual!
Another important art form in Indonesia is the shadow puppetry most famously known as Wayang Kulit. It is a storytelling technique and depicts episodes from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. It has been promoted extensively by Indonesia that today Wayang Kulit is designated as one of the masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Although the politics of religion has strained many relations between countries across the world, yet it is this soft power of language, culture, food, art and films that unites us as a global community! So, next time you are in Indonesia (in a post-pandemic world), make a plan of visiting Yogyakarta and watching the amazing performance at the Prambanan Temple. Here is the full performance of the Ramayana Ballet that I found on YouTube. Give it a watch, it is extremely beautiful!