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Journeys, Palaces and Landscapes in the Javanese Imaginary.

Some Preliminary Comments Based on the Kakawin
Peter Worsley

Citer ce document / Cite this document :

Worsley Peter. Journeys, Palaces and Landscapes in the Javanese Imaginary. Some Preliminary Comments Based on
the Kakawin Sumanasāntaka. In: Archipel, volume 83, 2012. pp. 147-171;

doi : 10.3406/arch.2012.4342


Document généré le 14/04/2017

Voyages, Palais et paysages dans l'imaginaire javanais. Quelques commentaires préliminaires
basées sur le kakawin sumanasāntaka
Les épopées kakawin contiennent des descriptions vivantes des espaces architecturaux des
palais, villages, temples et hermitages, des paysages ruraux et de l’espace des régions sauvages.
Dans cet essai on discute comment une lecture du poème épique de Mpu Monaguṇa
Sumanasāntaka (La mort par une fleur sumanasa) peut contribuer à interpréter l’histoire de
l’environnement javanais au début du XIIIe siècle et peut être utile aux archéologues qui tentent
d’interpréter les usages socio-culturels des sites qu’ils fouillent. Ce faisant, nous posons la
question de savoir à quel point un tel poème donne une description fidèle de la vie javanaise de
cette époque, ce qui nous entraîne à considérer deux choses. D’abord la différence entre ce qui
pourrait être le témoignage d’une véritable culture javanaise opposée à une culture indienne et
ensuite si ce poème est un témoignage de la vie réelle et non pas une oeuvre romanesque.

Epic kakawin contain lively descriptions of the architectural space of palaces, villages, temples and
hermitages, of rural landscapes and the wilderness. The present essay discusses how a reading
of Mpu Monaguna’s epic poem, Sumanasāntaka (A Death by a Sumanasa Flower) might
contribute to an environmental history of Java at the beginning of the thirteenth century and be
useful to archaeologists interested in understanding the uses to which the socio-cultural sites that
they excavate were put and the values which ancient Javanese attached to them. The article goes
on to ask to what extent epic poems like the Sumanasāntaka provide a reliable account of
Javanese life in this period. An answer to this question involves two considerations. First, whether
the understanding of the world that the poem represents is Indian or Javanese and secondly
whether it is fictional or not.
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Peter Worsley

Journeys, Palaces and Landscapes in the Javanese

Imaginary. Some Preliminary Comments Based on the
Kakawin sumanasāntaka 1

The recent completion of an as yet unpublished study of Mpu Monaguṇa’s
epic poem, sumanasāntaka (Death by a Sumanasa Flower) provides the
opportunity for preliminary comment on what a reading of the poem might
contribute to the environmental history of Java in the early thirteenth
century. 2 Whatever its value might be for our understanding of the literary
history of the island and its peoples, I hope to call attention to just how
potentially rich a source this work is for a knowledge of how the Javanese
themselves imagined or knew their lived-environment to be. While the paper
focuses upon Mpu Monaguṇa’s epic poem and the early thirteenth century, it
also considers more generally the usefulness of epic kakawin works as

1. Andrea Acri, Peter Boomgaard, Amrit Gomperts, Mark Hobart, Thomas Hunter, Maria
Kekki, Pauline Lunsingh Scheurleer, Douglas Miles, Dominique Renault, Stuart Robson, S.
Supomo and Adrian Vickers have all read and commented on earlier versions of this paper. I
am indebted to them all for their valuable comments and criticisms.
2. This essay was first presented as a paper at ‘Crossing Borders in Southeast Asian
Archaeology’, 13th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian
Archaeologists (EURASEAA 13), 27th September – 1st October 2010, Freie Universität,
Berlin. A revised version was read at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and
Caribbean Studies in Leiden on 23rd November 2010. It is based on the concluding chapter of
Part Four, ‘Myths and Kingship: Journeys, Palaces and Landscapes in the Ancient Javanese
Imaginary’ in Worsley et al. (in the press). Occasionally I shall have reason to refer to the
ideas of the other authors of this study. When doing so I shall indicate their name and the part
of the study in which the cited comments are found.

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148 Peter Worsley

sources both for an environmental history of Java in this period and as an aid
to archaeologists as they interpret the social and cultural uses of the spaces
they excavate.
Epic kakawin provide us with lively descriptions of different kinds of
space, which must have been familiar to the authors and audiences of these
poems – the architectural space of palaces, villages, temples and hermitages,
agricultural and horticultural landscapes, and the space of a natural
wilderness. We shall describe these categories of space, identifying their
architectural and topographical characteristics, the persons and things, the
social usages and emotions which the poem associates with each and identify
the relationship which obtains between these categories. However, we must
also ask just how reliable a witness epic kakawin are of the realities of life in
the period between the ninth and fifteenth century Java. We need to ascertain
what is Indian in epic kakawin and what authentically Javanese and then
query what is ‘fictional’ about them.
I am, of course, not the first to hit upon the need to understand how the
inhabitants of Java in the period between the ninth and fifteenth centuries
adapted to and understood their environment. So let me first briefly
acknowledge the inspiration that the work of others who have researched in
this field in recent times, have had on the present study. Peter Boomgaard’s
contribution has been both voluminous and singularly influential. However,
it was his early agenda-setting writing – in particular his introductory essay
in Paper landscapes (1997) and what he had to say there about ‘Attitudes’ –
that first attracted my attention. Boomgaard’s environmental history of
Indonesia, written in what he describes as ‘the tender age of environmental
history of Indonesia as a discipline’, has been shaped by the analytical
categories of the economic historian. ‘Economic development’ and
‘demographic trends’ in symbiotic relationship with the ‘mentalities’ of
‘hunter-gathering’ and ‘peasant’ societies in the Archipelago were, in his
thinking, the drivers of destructions or preservations of ‘natural resources’ in
the early premodern period.
These were not the analytical categories that I myself used to think about
Javanese epic poems. I worked within a framework of literary and narrative
theory, designed at the time to elucidate Javanese understandings of the
nature of kingship in ancient Java (1991). More importantly economic
history’s categories were strange to the way in which these same epic poems
themselves represented the world that their heroes inhabited. And yet, it was
clear that these poems had much to tell us about the Javanese environment in
the ninth to fifteenth centuries, and about contemporary Javanese attitudes
towards it.
There was common ground, however. In his essay, as in later writings,
Boomgaard gave an important place to the question of peasant mentalities.

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Journeys, Palaces and landscapes in the Javanese Imaginary 149

In Paper landscapes he noted the important distinction Javanese peasants

drew between ‘society’ and ‘wilderness’, and the expectations peasants had
of their rulers to manage the ‘wild’ world of nature which they both feared
and hated. It was on the subject of mentalities that literary and narrative
theory might contribute to the environmental history of Java between the
ninth and fifteenth centuries. 3
Jan Wisseman Christie’s writings about the history of early Java have
made an important contribution to our understanding of the environment of
Java in the early pre-modern period. She, like Boomgaard, has projected the
framework of the economic historian on her sources. She has written about
the economy of ancient Java (2004), the history of wet-rice agriculture in
central and eastern Java (2007), about population growth and urbanization (or
rather its absence) in ancient Java (1991). She has also written about the
history of the state in Java and its management of its landscapes (2001, 2008).
Like Peter Boomgaard, she has also addressed the question of mentalities,
tracing the invention of a cult of royal ancestors linked to mountains and
water in response, she argues, to the evident political and geological
instability of the world over which Java’s kings ruled (2001, 2008).
Nor am I the first to have discovered the usefulness of kakawin epics as
sources of information on Java’s history in ancient times. In 1969 Teeuw et
al. (1969) incorporated descriptions of everyday life in Java in an edition of
an epic kakawin, even if, as Supomo later pointed out, they – and those
others who have followed them down this path – left unexplained the
reasons they have assumed that descriptions of life in epic kakawin are
authentically Javanese (2001). It was Zoetmulder, in his chapter on ‘The
world of the poem’ in his foundational study of kakawin poetry, Kalangwan,
who, although wary of the probable fictional character of these works and
the introduction of elements which were not authentically Javanese, first
convincingly argued that the descriptions of the ‘physical environment of
kraton and countryside, of times and seasons, of flora and fauna’ [in these
poems] might very well represent the realities of contemporary Java (1974).

3. In later publications Boomgaard and his co-authors have discussed indigenous ideas and
beliefs. In smallholders and stockbreeders (2004), for example, while Boomgaard and
Henley do not discuss indigenous mentalities as such, they do talk about indigenous ideas
and beliefs closely related to the categories of their style of economic historical analysis. We
read there about the relevance of ‘local systems of knowledge’ to local adaptations to the
environment, about ideas, beliefs and incentives associated with technological innovation and
the influence of state policies on agricultural and stockbreeding practices. In A world of
water, Boomgaard draws our attention to the place of water in indigenous cosmologies,
beliefs, myths and healing (2007a:2, 4–6, 10). However, in southeast Asia: an environmental
history the same author notes just how difficult it is to document indigenous ideas and beliefs
about the environment, in particular for pre-modern Southeast Asia because of the lack of
research in this field of inquiry (2007b:2, 7).

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150 Peter Worsley

Day has also called attention to the realism of descriptions of landscape

in ancient Javanese literary art. He describes important aspects of the
composition of landscapes in epic kakawin works, discussing what is in fact
just one of the points of view from which the gaze is directed to the
landscape in epic kakawin: the view from above which these works project
on the landscape was, he argues, the view of the gods or those who
commune with them as they meditate on mountaintops. Day also draws
attention to a further important aspect of the account of Javanese landscapes
in these epics: the manner in which temples, monasteries and villages served
as markers of the reach of royal authority in the landscape (1994). We shall
point out later that it is the presence or absence of royal authority which is
the determining criterion of a division of the world made in these works
between society and wilderness. 4
Supomo too, despite his reserve about the authenticity of some
descriptions of contemporary life in kakawin, says of Mpu Monaguṇa’s
descriptions of scenery in the sumanasāntaka that they were so realistic that
they ‘must have been based on views of actual places which he often
frequented [...] in the region of Kaḍiri [...] in around 1200 AD’ (2001).
Creese, in the introductory chapter to her wonderfully insightful book on
gender in ancient Java, also says she has no doubts that kakawin poets set
their ‘fictional’ characters in a recognizable local Javanese environment
(2004:40–41). Finally, and most recently, Amrit Gomperts has ventured the
opinion that descriptions of the Sarayu River in sargas 25 and 26 of the Old
Javanese rāmāyaṇa, describe an aspect of the canalized River Mangetan in
the Brantas river delta. If he is correct then his findings lend further weight
to the prospect that representations of the landscapes in epic kakawin do
indeed depict the realities of Java’s landscape (Gomperts unpub.:8–14).
Preliminary comments
The sumanasāntaka, like other works of the same genre, provides us with a
very particular view of Java’s environment. However the poem may have
been understood by those Javanese who lived beyond palace walls, there can
be little doubt that it was a courtly poem and gave expression to a courtly
view of the world. The poet, his patron, and the poem’s audience, were
courtiers and the poem’s genre and its language the hallmarks of courtly
refinement and expression in thirteenth century Java. Indeed, the subject of
the poem’s narrative, and the myth which shaped it were also courtly.
The myth which gives form to the poem’s narrative – and that of some
other epic works of the same genre – is an account of a journey undertaken by

4. Hunter (Part Three in Worsley et al.: in the press) who also draws attention to the political
and cultural ties which bind royal palace, village and religious institutions in ancient Java.

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Journeys, Palaces and landscapes in the Javanese Imaginary 151

a prince of royal blood. 5 The journey, arranged as a chronological sequence

of events, tells of a crisis in the life of the prince. The prince, in the case of
the sumanasāntaka Prince Aja the son of King Raghu of Ayodhyā, leaves the
protection of his family home and sets out on a journey in the course of which
his mettle as warrior and his poetic and physical ardour as lover are put to the
test. He returns home fit to realize his destiny as ruler of Ayodhyā.
We should note here that in the case of the kakawin sumanasāntaka, Mpu
Monaguṇa is interested less in Prince Aja and more in Princess Indumatī, the
daughter of the king and queen of Widarbha and prince Aja's bride-to-be.
Indumatī is a princess destined to become queen, and the poet’s attention to
her displaces the male-focused myth-bearing narrative we have just
described. Princess Indumatī is separated from her parents – by their death –
and she too undergoes a trial in the form of a swayambara, a ceremony in
which she is given the awesome and unprecedented responsibility of
choosing her own husband from amongst a number of royal rivals before the
assembled court. While the poet’s interest in these events diverts his
audience’s attention from the myth of the prince-who-would-be king, it does
not entirely remove it from view. Something of the integrity of this myth
remains and the poem’s audience is still able to ride and walk with Prince
Aja and his escort from the palace in Ayodhyā across the countryside and
through the wilderness of seashore and forested mountains to Widarbha and
back home again across these same landscapes. When he arrives, tried and
tested in war and suitably married, he is ready to assume his destiny as king
of Ayodhyā in his father’s stead.
The poem’s spatial dimensions
The poem’s description of the world is holistic and describes the spaces
frequented by human beings and gods not as assemblage of different parts
but as an integrated continuum. 6 The poem’s myth-bearing narrative of the
prince’s journey is played out in five spaces: the palace (kaḍatwan), the
countryside (thāni-ḍusun), the wilderness of seashore (pasir) and of forested
mountains (wukir) – together with a fifth, the world of the gods (kedewatan)
for it is in the last that the poem begins and ends the life stories of the two
principal protagonists of the story: they are incarnated from there at the time
of their births as prince and princess and they return there as deified

5. Creese (1998:33–7) and Rubinstein (2000:111–20) have also discussed the symbolic
meaning of journeys in kakawin and Balinese genealogical works about Balinese priest poets.
6. Compare Worsley (1991:169). In Mpu Tantular’s Arjunawijaya the spatial extent of the
political order which is contested in the war between Rāwaṇa and Waiśrawana embraces the

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152 Peter Worsley

In epic kakawin, the first four spaces are understood to form two sets of
related categories: palace and countryside represent two aspects of human
society, while seashore and forested mountain denote a wilderness, a world
beyond human society and the reach of royal authority which in epic
kakawin is the principal marker of the difference between society and
wilderness. 7
Kadatwan/thāni-ḍusun: palace and countryside
The palace and its surrounds
In epic kakawin, palace and countryside together represent the social world.
The palace is the centre of society, home to kings, their kinsmen, and the
courtiers and servants who populate their polygamous households.
Unsurprisingly the poet, Mpu Monaguṇa, has lavished the greater part of his
narrative on events which take place in the palaces of Widarbha and
Ayodhyā and their immediate urban surroundings.
He describes great public spectacles on the palace common (l ěbuh)
outside the walled space of the palace. Within the palace with its lofty
gateways his descriptions include royal audiences and ceremonies held on a
courtyard (natar) in the presence of a select and courtly elite and the leisure
of queens and young princesses and their entourages in the garden (taman),
part of which was occupied by a shrine where deified ancestors were
honoured in daily ritual. 8 He recounts too the intimacies of family life in the
royal apartments (pamrěman). The poem’s account of these different spaces
in the palace celebrates events of great moment in the lives of royal families
– a royal birth, the coming of age of a prince and princess, a marriage and
the installation of kings and queens as rulers, their deaths and their
deification as ancestors.
These events are accompanied by an array of emotional moods: wonder
at the magnificence of the spectacle of royal life; sorrow at the passing of
great kings and their queens; compassion for the intimates of those who had
passed away and were left to mourn their passing; erotic moods of love-in-
separation and fulfilled love, as passion is frustrated by undesired separation
or satisfied in intimate embrace; and finally the comic, as the poem

7. For earlier discussion of these categories see Worsley (in the press). See also Day (1994),
Supomo (1977:49–68) and Aoyama (1992:76–121) and compare Lombard (1986; 1990: III).
See Worsley (1986 and 1988) for a discussion of this same distinction drawn on the basis of
analysis of bas-reliefs illustrating the story of the Arjunawiwāha at the fourteenth century east
Javanese temple, Candi Surawana, and in Balinese paintings with the same narrative theme.
8. On the subject of gardens in royal palaces see Lombard (1986 and 1990: III). Note that
Weatherbee (2011:138) draws our attention to other examples of royal enshrinements within
royal palaces from the Majapahit period. According to the Deśawarṇana (47.3, 48.3), one of
the multiple enshrinements of both Jayanagara and his father, Kṛtarājasa was in the inner

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Journeys, Palaces and landscapes in the Javanese Imaginary 153

celebrates the amusing behaviour of a baby princess, notes the

pretentiousness of some at court or describes the unsophisticated and
sometimes the crude behaviour of country folk who come to witness the
splendour of great events in the lives of those who rule over them.
Thāni-ḍusun: the countryside
Outside the palace and beyond its urban surrounds was the countryside.
Palace and countryside were mutually dependent but the relationship
between them was asymmetrical: the king in his palace, and as he journeyed
about his kingdom, enjoyed the recognition of high social status. His
subjects’ respect for him and awe in the presence of his charisma supported
the ruler as he strove to maintain a prosperous and harmonious social order.
In this task kings displayed both great refinement and a capacity for terrible
violence. Royal princes, heirs to their fathers’ royal office, shared the respect
their fathers enjoyed and displayed the same refined manners and martial
violence. If the rural manners of country folk were out of place in the refined
aura of the court, at home in the countryside, in their villages, even if their
rude ways remained, they are described as industrious and loyal subjects.
The countryside was also the site of a variety of religious communities,
linked culturally to the royal courts. Temples, hermitages and Buddhist
monasteries are described as a familiar sight in areas close to royal capitals.
We are told that on the journey to Widarbha, Prince Aja and his party also
visit hermitages fragrant with the perfume of cinnamon trees and where
wood pigeons cooed with delight (patapan: Sum 27.9). On the return
journey as Prince Aja and Princess Indumatī approach the Ayodhyan capital
they come across an ancestral temple (kabuyutan) on a steep slope
overlooking river flats. Its pillars are painted in a variety of colours and
names cover its roof and walls. When the prince and his party arrive, they
find it crowded with people who had come to make caru offerings. 9 Below
the shrine was a pond with rocky banks and stone steps leading to it and
nearby were planted kapok, kĕpuh, and winöng trees. Further on was a series
of spring-fed pools, segregated for use by men and women (Sum 154.5–6).
The poem gives an impression of one large village on the peripheries of
the kingdom of Ayodhyā where Prince Aja and his entourage spend the night
on the journey to Widarbha. The village is set in a landscape dominated by a
low mountain range, running with cascading streams in deep ravines (Sum
28–29). The village itself was composed of a large number of hamlets and its

9. Zoetmulder and Robson (1982:310) gives only the Sanskrit meaning of caru as an oblation
boiled with milk and butter for presentation to the gods or manes. In Bali caru offerings are
made to the demons always on the ground and may contain raw meat and blood. They are
either thrown away or left for dogs and pigs to eat (Swellengrebel, 1960:48, 99; Hooykaas,
1973:8; Brinkgreven and Stuart-Fox 1992:27–8, 34, 35–8).

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154 Peter Worsley

dwellings conspicuously situated on an isolated ridge. It had a spacious

marketplace where a waringin tree stood. There in the early morning the
prince awoke to the sounds of a potter working and arguing with his wife,
who was washing clothes. He could hear the sizzling of frying food and
vendors arriving in the marketplace to sell it. The region in which the village
was found was not prosperous. The poem notes how tiny its rice barns were
and how small and feeble its cattle and the old ascetic, who welcomed the
royal party to the village, apologises for the meagre ration of potherbs, pork
and mutton available to offer the prince and his party.
In the poem villagers and the inhabitants of the religious communities are
shown always to welcome royal visitors hospitably and generously to
provide them and those who accompanied them with a safe haven, food and
drink, good conversation and entertainment. They also supply vital political
intelligence about threats to political and social stability. In the last resort, of
course, the villagers are prepared to fight by their ruler’s side to remove the
scourge of those who challenged his authority.
Perhaps because the sumanasāntaka narrates the journey of a prince, it
makes little of the generosity for which great and just kings were commonly
famed in kakawin epics (Worsley: in the press). However, the king – in the
sumanasāntaka the prince – reciprocates. In return for the loyalty and
hospitality which his subjects demonstrate, he displays a willingness to
expose himself to great personal danger in the terrible violence of war in
order to defend the harmonious and prosperous social order which his loyal
subjects crave. So long as these mutual but asymmetrical ties of social
relationship remained in place, both palace and countryside prospered and
social harmony prevailed. Where they had broken down, the epic poem
makes clear that social life collapsed and a wild world became the order of
the day.
Everywhere in the countryside there is evidence of human occupation,
rural labour and pious deeds. However, for the royal protagonists, on whom
the royal myth bearing narrative focuses, the countryside was a place of
passage, of brief sojourn and warfare. The poem associates the presence of
royal visitors there with a diversity of emotional moods. In the near
countryside close to royal capitals, where social and political harmony
prevailed, the poem’s descriptions of passing royal cavalcades evoke a mood
of wonder, its account of orderly social life a mood of calm and its
description of feasting a brief moment for the comic. In the remoter
countryside however, where in the badlands social and political unrest were
always imminent, and warfare oftentimes was the order of the day, the
poem’s moods turn to ones of terror, fury, disgust, heroism and wonder, and
even in the midst of war, there was occasion also for a comic turn or two.

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Pasir-wukir: the wilderness of seashore and forested mountain

The wilderness of seashore and forested mountain – pasir wukir – was a
space which lay outside the realm of social relationships and beyond the
reach of royal authority and courtly decorum. In the wilderness there grew a
great variety of trees, shrubs and flowering plants. It was the proper home of
wild animals and birds, 10 and except for a scattering of isolated hermitages,
and occasional fisher folk, 11 it bore only traces of human occupation –
poems and the nom-de-plumes of poets and lovers who had once passed by;
paintings barely visible on the beams and matting walls of collapsed
pavilions; fallen temples and statues of gods and the masts and sails of
shipwrecks at sea. It was also a place of great natural beauty, which, for the
royal protagonists whose tale the poem tells, was a place of leisurely passage
and brief sojourn, as was the countryside.
The poem describes a number of hermitages secluded in this remote
wilderness. The hermitage, which Prince Aja and his companions discover
after they have departed the seashore on the way to Widarbha, is fashioned
in the form of a mountain situated in a ravine and overlooking the sea. In it
stands a bwat halu pavilion in which the remains of a painting of a princess
with a group of nuns can be vaguely discerned. The hermitage is planted
with wruh, sandal, and prih (Urostigma) and the hermits there work rice
fields in the ravine below the hermitage and grow millet, 12 yams and flowers
in its outer gardens (těngö jawa). In the hermitage itself, the hermit is
pictured meditating on a mountain peak above his abode, while other hermits
serve visitors with food and alcoholic beverages, talk freely about the
rewards of a life of asceticism, and others work the fields. Young and
beautiful women, whom the poem likens to heavenly nymphs and the threat
they represent to those who would practise meditation, dwell there too (Sum
Following his abdication from the throne, King Raghu established a
hermitage on a site which overlooked the seashore. It was walled and its
buildings were roofed in sugar-palm fibre. Outside was a pond and beside it
a bwat halu pavilion, facing the gates. The hermitage’s forecourt was planted
with campaka (Michelia campaka), tañjung (Mimusops elengi), and aśoka
(Jonesia asoka roxb.) trees and in the shade of these trees was a paved area

10. The present essay is based on Zoetmulder’s identifications of flora and fauna (1974;
1982). However, there remains a great deal of research to complete on the identification of
the fauna and flora of epic kakawin. See for example Acri’s work on punning references to
Alepaka priests in kakawin (2008; 2010).
11. Fisherfolk appear to be classified with hunters as denizens of the wilderness. It is
remarkable that in the Śiwarātrikalpa, the hunter, Lubdhaka, in all his wanderings passes by
but never enters a village or religious community. See Worsley (in the press).
12. In all likelihood the fox-tail millet (Peter Boomgaard personal communication 26-2-2010).

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156 Peter Worsley

and stone seating. A large waringin tree (Ficus indica) also shaded students
gathered under it and whom the poem tells us danced and sang kidung lyrics
whenever ceremonies were celebrated. Beside these students, the king’s
companions were former court officials and other distinguished persons who
were masters of song and composers of poetical works, which covered the
beams and walls of the pavilions in this hermitage. The surroundings of the
hermitage were planted with coconut palms, which were tapped for their sap
and the manufacture of palm sugar (Sum 159.2–161.3).
Unlike these two hermitages, Tṛṇawindu’s forest hermitage (wanāśrama)
was home only to a solitary world-renouncing hermit, his final goal to free
himself from the human condition and to discover absolute nothingness
(anemwa śūnyatā). This hermitage was also in the mountains, on the
southern slopes of the Himālaya, and overlooked the sea. It too was
surrounded by a forest where there grew wild banana trees, kala creepers,
jangga and gaḍung vines (genus Dioscorea), pakis haji ferns, mimosa,
asana trees (terminalia tomentosa) with their yellow flowers and trikañcu
trees with their yellow black-centred flowers, bamboo, grass and an array of
other flowers. Close to the hermitage was a pond with panggang figs
growing on its banks and white lotus in its waters. 13 The hermitage itself
consisted of a gateway, presumably in a surrounding wall of some kind, a
forecourt with a bukur pavilion, where guests were welcomed, and separated
from it an inner space of some kind, where the hermit conducted his
meditation. There was also a place where offerings were made and a sacred
fire burned. Outside the walls of the hermitage, in the vicinity of the lake
there was also a garden (taman) and a sacred bathing place (tīrtha).
The poem draws a clear distinction between the wilderness of seashore
and that of the forested mountains. They were sites of quite different
fabulous cosmic presences and events. The seashore was where the Great
God Wiṣṇu lay on the serpent Anantāsana with his consort Śrī, arisen from
the milk ocean when the gods and demons churned it and the nectar of the
gods (amrĕta) was produced. The poem refers to this space as a place of
erotic adventure and describes it as a landscape heavy with the sadness
which accompanies the mood of love-in-separation.
The forested mountains, on the other hand, were where Śiwa´s phallus
rose to belittle his rivals, Wiṣṇu and Brahma, and the place of origin of

13. Sri Soejatmi Satari (2008:130) lists other trees and plants, which she has found associated
with hermitages. Those in the Deśawarṇana, are the andong or hanjuang (Cordyline
terminalis), karawira (oleander or Nerium odorum) trees, kayu mas, menur flowers
(Jasminum grandiflora (sic)) and kayu puring with their variegated leaves (Codiaeum
variegatum); in the Kṛṣṇāyana a banyan tree and stands of bamboo are associated with
hermitages and in the Arjunawiwāha, Casuarina trees, Cinnamon or kayu manis. In the sri
tañjung she lists kayu mas, puring shrubs, ivory coconut-palms, pandanus flowers, kamuning
(Murraya paniculata) and betelnut-palms growing in the close vicinity of a hermitage.

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Śiwa´s consort Umā. This was also a place of ascetic endeavour, where the
fragrance of ferns and the view of carpets of flowers, or the sight of young
hermitesses, or even a painting of nuns gathered about a queen, might stir a
young prince’s erotic sensibilities. However, it was, above all else, a
landscape where asceticism triumphed, where ascetics suppressed their
erotic emotion and found, temporarily or forever, the epiphany arisen from
union with their tutelary godhead.
Kedewatan: the world of the gods
Beyond the wilderness and beyond the heavens was yet another world,
where divine kings ruled and deified ancestors lived still accessible to their
successors in the mortal world. As we have said it is here that the poem’s
narrative begins and ends. This is a world which the poem conceives as a
royal world in heaven. Here too there were palaces and secret rendez-vous in
palace gardens and leisurely sojourns by the sea. Human emotions also
motivated behaviour here. Fear of political usurpation, of punishment for
one’s former deeds, fear also, even amongst the gods, of the terrible
retribution which powerful ascetics might visit upon those who disturbed
their dignity, awe in the presence of royal authority, calm consideration of
strategic advantage, and the erotic were all part of life’s experiences here.
Two epistemological issues
The epic poem’s account of these spaces is fulsome and lively. But just how
reliable an account are its descriptions of the realities of life in ancient Java at
the beginning of the thirteenth century? Two matters which have been raised
in the literature need to be discussed. The first concerns what is Indian in
them and what Javanese, the second the status ascribed to them as ‘fiction’.
Indian or Javanese
In his 2001 article, Supomo compares the kakawin sumanasāntaka with
Kālidāsa’s account of King Aja’s life in the raghuvaṃśa, and seeks to
identify those ‘descriptions of events and activities and environment’ in the
sumanasāntaka which were authentically Javanese and which were not.
With good reason, he questions the grounds on which some commentators 14
have simply assumed that descriptions of life are authentically ‘Javanese’ in
epic kakawin. For he, like Zoetmulder, was wary that not all was
authentically Javanese in these epic poems, especially when we knew for
certain that passages in kakawin bear a fairly close resemblance to their
Sanskrit sources.

14. Such descriptions were first introduced in Teeuw et al. (1969).

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158 Peter Worsley

Supomo’s doubts about the authenticity of descriptions of contemporary

life in these poems, however, do not extend to all aspects of life in these
works. On the one hand he is convinced, as Zoetmulder was, that
descriptions of the ‘physical environment of kraton and countryside, of times
and seasons, of flora and fauna’ might very well represent the realities of
contemporary Java. However, Supomo had his doubts about other aspects of
the poem’s world. In particular, like Zoetmulder, he questioned whether one
could argue on the basis of the description of the swayambara in the
sumanasāntaka that the self-choice of a future husband by a princess from
among a number of royal suitors was actually practised in early Java or that
the circumambulation of the sacred fire was a key element in the marriage
rituals of the day. 15 Supomo goes on to propose a method to identify the
authenticity of representations of Javanese life in these works: those
depictions of events or scenes with no correspondence with events or scenes
in Indian source works might, in the first instance, he thought, be accepted as
representing the Javanese author’s observations of his surroundings, while
those events and scenes which did [my emphasis] have correspondences in
the Indian sources might be presumed not [my emphasis] to represent the
author’s observations of his contemporary world unless support was ‘found
in other reliable sources’. On this basis Supomo argued for the authenticity
of the poem’s description of a number of events – for example its account of
Princess Indumatī’s childhood and the piḍuḍukan, tawur, praspas and
kraban kalasa rituals in its account of the marriage of Prince Aja and
Princess Indumatī (Supomo 2001:113–15; 122–28). 16
Supomo’s attempt to identify what is authentically Javanese in the
sumanasāntaka and what was not, and the way in which he has established
the hybrid character of the work seem self-evident to us and the legitimacy
of his analysis is given added weight because we know that the poem’s
author, Mpu Monaguṇa, was himself aware that the source of his narrative
was Kālidāsa’s raghuvaṃśa.
However should we not pause to ask whether Mpu Monaguṇa and his
audiences imagined or knew their world in the same terms as we do? Does
not doing so run the risk of conflating the terms of our colonial and
postcolonial understanding of the world with that of courtly Javanese of the
early thirteenth century? Did Javanese of the time think of Mpu Monaguṇa’s
poem, and others works of the same genre, as a hybrid cultural form,
excitingly interesting because of its descriptions of the ‘exotic’? 17 Should we

15. Supomo 2001:122 and Zoetmulder 1974:187–214.

16. See Creese (2004), Chapters 4 and 5 in particular, for an account of each of these rituals.
17. Hobart in an unpublished paper, ‘Understanding a thing: some problems in Balinese

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not consider whether they thought of these epic poems as something

thoroughly Javanese and intensely interesting for what they said about the
contemporary Javanese world in which they lived and breathed? To seek an
answer to this question is not to suggest that the issue of what might be
Indian and what authentically Javanese in the poem is not a legitimate
inquiry, nor to deny that Mpu Monaguṇa himself was not aware that
Kālidāsa’s raghuvaṃśa was source of his narrative. That would simply be to
deny the obvious. There is, however, good reason to believe that authors and
audiences of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century regarded the
sumanasāntaka, and other epic kakawin, as thoroughly Javanese, and their
cultural style ‘courtly’ rather than ‘Indian’.
Before proceeding one note is in order. The world of India and Southeast
Asia in the early thirteenth century was not divided between an Indian
cultural centre and multiple Southeast Asian peripheries. Rather what existed
by this time – and probably much earlier – were complex networks of
important and less important political, economic, religious and cultural
centres across the entire region and that the exchange of ideas and practices
took place between them. As Pollock describes the creation of a Sanskrit
cosmopolis across South and Southeast Asia in the early first millennium CE
and the process of vernacularization that followed in the early second
millennium it seems certain that Sanskrit, its grammatical and literary
theoretical works and its epic and kāvya literature were widely known across
the entire region. In these circumstances it seems likely that particular works
in Sanskrit would have been regarded as part of this shared heritage. 18 This
point is perhaps too simply made. In the end of course only further research
can reveal the detailed configuration of these networks and the nature of the
exchanges across them.
In the case of the sumanasāntaka we can be certain that Mpu Monaguṇa
composed his epic poem confidently in command of a poetic idiom, which,
while it had much in common with Indian Sanskrit epic and kāvya literature,
was nevertheless distinct from it. His vernacular rendering of Kālidāsa’s
work was neither intended to be a translation of the Sanskrit poem, nor a
slavish rendition of its narrative. Mpu Monaguṇa authored his poem

naming’, draws attention to the dangers which the assumption of an isomorphism between
categories and perceptions has had for the treatment of names in anthropological literature.
He highlights the assumptions made by anthropologists when discussing naming amongst
Balinese and how the analysts’ and indigenous terms and concepts have been conflated. He
points out how easy it is ‘to miss the cultural assumptions underlying our own knowledge
and to confuse these with ‘science’ ’(9–10). Compare Hobart (1985).
18. Pollock (2006) argues convincingly that the vernacularization which was widespread
across South and Southeast Asia by the second millennium CE had little to do with religious
change. Nor was it a popular phenomenon, he argues, but one that was thoroughly courtly.
See Shulman (2007) for important comment on Pollock’s book.

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160 Peter Worsley

exploiting his Sanskrit source narrative in a manner that enabled him to

describe and comment upon the Javanese world of the early thirteenth
There is, however, a distinction about which the sumanasāntaka is much
more self-conscious than its Indian origins and which is therefore more
germane to a recognition of cultural differences in early thirteenth century
Javanese society and to consideration of Mpu Monaguṇa’s poetic project:
that is the distinction between the categories ‘courtly’ and what we might
refer to as ‘rural’ or ‘commoner’. 19 There are passages in Mpu Monaguṇa’s
poem that draw attention to this distinction. 20 While there are times when the
poet pokes fun at the affectations of the elite, 21 his most barbed moments of
comic appeal are reserved for a description of the comportment of
commoners from the countryside. 22
Hunter has described the process by which a prestige dialect of Old
Javanese came into being in association with the emergence of local centres
of economic and political influence ‘that were open to – and indeed
welcomed – enrichment [...] from [...] particularly Sanskrit [...]’. 23 The
existence of such linguistically sophisticated works as the Arjunawiwaha,
Bharatayudha, Ghaṭotkacāśraya, smaradahana and sumanasāntaka in the
eleventh to early thirteenth centuries, I believe, is evidence enough that a
prestigious dialect, adapted to courtly and literary use, well and truly existed
in Java in association with a by then equally well established social
distinction between courtly and rural commoner culture. In such
circumstances, the distinction between ‘courtly’ and ‘rural’ may well have
overtaken any self-consciousness about what was ‘Indian’ and what was
‘Javanese’. Our poem, and other works of the same genre, would have been
thought to be, by their nature, simply Javanese and ‘courtly’.
What are we to make of those identifiably exotic elements that
Zoetmulder and Supomo have pointed to in kakawin epic poetry? Let us

19. The distinction in cultural styles between alus and kasar (‘refined’ and ‘rough’) to which
attention is drawn here has a long history in Java, Bali and the nation state of Indonesia. For
Java see Geertz (1960: chapters 17–18), Peacock (1968:7–8), Hatley (2008:41–8).
20. See Sum, 29.2–4, 52.7–10a, 113.3–17, 146.1–13, 148.2 and 149.23–5.
21. See Sum, 127–130, 149.22–3.
22. In each of them there is a particular interest in the spoken language of everyday
exchanges between commoners. These provide the poet with the opportunity to contrast the
unmannered and sometimes crude character of verbal communication between rural folk with
the refined and poetic expression of sentiment that mark exchanges among the courtly elite of
the poetic world and the diction of the epic poem itself. A good example of the latter is the
welcome given Prince Aja and his escort in a distant village by a one time courtier who had
become an ascetic and who was said to have ‘expressed himself beautifully in kakawin verse’
when he spoke (Sum, 28.10–27).
23. Hunter (2009:5-6).

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consider the example of the swayambara. If it was unlikely that a princess in

ancient Java was ever to choose her own husband in such a manner what did
a thirteenth century poet and his audience make of such an event? 24 The first
thing to note is that the poet has not made just passing reference to the
institution of the swayambara. He has given this narrative moment
considerable prominence, devoting some 55 cantos and 199 verses to its
description – more if we take into account the poem’s descriptions of the
preliminaries to the event itself. Furthermore the account of the swayambara
is integral to the poem’s myth bearing narrative. As we have already said, it
describes the trial which Princess Indumatī must undergo on her progress to
womanhood and her role as queen. Left alone before the gathered court she
must choose her life’s partner in the absence of her deceased parents and her
brother’s unwillingness to make the decision for her. The poem itself signals
just how unusual an event it was. The poet, in his account of the princess’
piḍuḍukan prenuptial rites on the evening before the swayambara, tells his
audience that not only has Princess Indumatī herself never before
experienced a swayambara but that this is the first occasion on which one
has taken place, a point to which he adds further weight with the words he
puts into the mouth of Princess Indumatī:
[...] Have you ever heard told that someone like me shall choose a husband before an
assembled court?
Should there be such a one, she would certainly have been as embarrassed as I.
Sum 42.11–12

We might conclude then that the poet well understood the exotic nature of
the custom of a princess choosing her own husband but nevertheless has set
about integrating it fully into his account of the life story of Princess
However the matter cannot end with this observation. The poet is not just
interested in the swayambara as an institution of marriage, describing its
participants and procedures. Nor is his account of it a slavish rehash of the
account of the description in the raghuvaṃśa. Instead he seizes the moment
to describe a display of poetic virtuosity in which one suitor after another

24. We note here that references in Zoetmulder and Robson (1982:1888) to swayambara are
to be found only in four ancient Javanese works, the Adiparwa, Udyogaparwa, the rāmāyana
and the sumanasāntaka. However, Zoetmulder and Robson (1982:1888) do not cite the use
of the word in the fourteenth century kakawin sutasoma. There Princess Candrawatī, making
a direct reference to Princess Indumatī’s swayambara in the sumanasāntaka (63.1),
complains that her brother, Daśabāhu, king of Kāśī, has not agreed to a swayambara, during
which she could choose a husband from among suitors come to solicit her hand in marriage.
She is told that her brother was following the wishes of her deceased father who had ruled out
a swayambara because he had decided she was to marry her cousin Prince Sutasoma from
Hāstina (Sut 58.2–65.2). For the edited text of the kakawin sutasoma see Soewito Santosa

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162 Peter Worsley

gives expression to erotic emotion, in particular of ‘love-in-separation’. The

swayambara is not just a swayambara. The poet has transformed it into
something else apparently more attuned to the literary and perhaps social
expectations of his Javanese audience.
There is a second remark to make at this point. Berg (1938b), and
following him, Robson (1983), have argued that these epic poems were
composed and read as allegories, alluding to events in the social and political
world in which they were written. 25 All that is possible to say at this point in
time with respect to the sumanasāntaka is that the choice of an elaborate
account of an exotic ceremony and the unusual circumstances of the Princess
Indumatī’s choice of marriage partner – just as later, the account of her
premature death – may well have been intended to alert the poem’s audience
to events which had taken place in the courts of eastern Java at the time and
with which they would have been well acquainted. I shall come back to this
matter when I discuss the ‘fictional’ status ascribed to epic kakawin works
below. 26
Epic kakawin and the question of their fictionality
Historians have on the whole avoided epic kakawin works 27 as legitimate
sources for their histories of ancient Java. The reasons for such reluctance
are not difficult to discover. These works have been and still are thought to
be ‘fictional’, ‘little more’ as Creese puts it ‘than fictional representation of
the adventures of Sanskrit heroes and heroines, set against an Indian
background.’ 28
Zoetmulder and Creese have challenged the idea that epic kakawin were
fictional works and in doing so identified another kind of hybridity in epic
kakawin, one that we might term ‘fictional verisimilitude’. For both it is
clear that these poems presented their readers with a historical reality, not of
the India of Sanskrit heroes but of the Javanese world in which the poets
who authored these works lived and breathed. Creese writes that ‘kakawin
provide more than literary imaginings [...] they involved their fictional
characters in recognizable social and cultural practices and set them in their

25. Compare Pollock and his account of allegory in the context of the creation of a vernacular
Kannada literature (2006:360–62; 388).
26. A Balinese painter in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century also lavished
attention on the same two ‘exotic’ descriptions in the epic poem identified by Zoetmulder and
Supomo: the swayambara and the circumambulation of the fire. See Part Five in Worsley et
al. (in the press).
27. With the exception of the kakawin Deśawarṇana, a work which I do not include in the
genre epic kakawin.
28. N.J. Krom, Donald Weatherbee, and most recently Jan Wisseman Christie are good

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local [Javanese] environment’ (2004:42). 29 However, both Zoetmulder and

Creese are just as certain that these works were ‘fictional’. Zoetmulder
thought “the poet [...] could take his own liberties and, having made no
promise to depict the Java of his day, did not feel himself bound by its
reality” (1974:188). And Creese comes to the conclusion that ‘her study’
does not, and cannot, seek to describe the ‘real’ experiences of ‘real’ women.
Her intention, she says, was ‘to examine discourses about them
[...]’(2004:42-43) so that in the end we are left with only the
‘representations’ which constitute the world of ancient Javanese epic poems
to consider. The ‘fictional verisimilitude’, which these two commentators
have attached to epic kakawin, seems entirely self-evident to us. However,
what might the poets and their audiences in ancient Java have made of this
talk of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’?
Did Javanese poets and their audiences in the early thirteenth century
allocate epic works such as the sumanasāntaka to a category ‘fiction’, – to
the realm of the fantastic, the unreal, of possibility, of the utopic? We know
next to nothing about how ancient Javanese might have answered this
question, even whether the question of the epistemological status of the
poem’s narrative content was a matter that exercised their minds at all.
Certainly I am unaware of ancient Javanese writings to which we might turn
when considering the epistemology of epic kakawin.
To attempt an answer to this question, I shall turn to another of Supomo’s
writings on ancient Javanese literature, in which he discusses what he terms
‘the functions of kakawin writing’. Building on the work of Berg (1938a)
and Zoetmulder (1974), he argues that kakawin epics had four functions:
they are temples, sites where the poet worships and seeks unity with his
tutelary deity; they are allegories and allude to the contemporary world in
which they were composed; they are didactic, and recount moral tales or
expound important doctrines; and finally, they are intended to soothe the
emotions. 30
In his comments on the first of these functions, Supomo describes the
conditions under which kakawin epics were composed. He makes reference
to both the spiritual state in which the poet composed his poem and the
linguistic materials which the poet manipulated when doing so. Supomo
argues that poets authored their kakawin epics in a state of ecstatic rapture
(alangö) induced by apotheosis with their tutelary deity. What a poet wrote

29. Compare Zoetmulder (1974:188).

30. Supomo 1996:23–7. See also Creese’s discussion of these same issues (2004:17–43). See
also Rubinstein’s discussion of Balinese poetic ideas and practices (2000:69–126) and her
comment on the disagreement between Berg and Zoetmulder on the question of literary
magic (2000:123–24).

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164 Peter Worsley

was imbued with the authority of this deity. From this sublime vantage point
poets were able in their mythic narratives not just to represent contemporary
Java but also to represent the world as they would have it be, modeled
according to an exemplary heroic world. More than this, their poems were
caṇḍi bhasa, ‘temples of words’ – yantra or maṇḍala to put Sanskrit labels
to them – filled with the presence of the poet’s tutelary deity and built of
letters (akṣara), each one saturated with the divine power of a god or
goddess. Kakawin poets were, to use Berg’s expression, ‘priests of literary
magic’ whose purpose was to influence their contemporary world – at least
those aspects of their contemporary world designated by the allegorical
references woven into the fabric of their poetry.
Epic kakawin were allegories which referred to circumstances and events
which took place in the real world. In the case of the sumanasāntaka it is not
clear what these circumstances and events were, but the poem does draw its
audience’s attention to two unusual political events which may well refer to
the historical circumstances which gave rise to the poem. The first concerns
the swayambara and the manner in which Princess Indumatī chose her
marriage partner. Weatherbee has pointed out that in the courts of ancient
Java royal power was thought to be incarnate in the person of the queen who
was identified with the goddess Śrī-Lakṣmī. Just as the power of a god was
embodied in the person of his consort, so the power of a king was embodied
in his queen. 31 The manner in which Princess Indumatī chose her marriage
partner was perhaps calculated to recognize the special status of a princess as
the future source of a king’s power – an idea referred to on several occasions
in the poem – notably in the context of its account of the swayambara. 32 The
second event was the circumstances of Queen Indumatī’s premature death
which both deprived her king of the source of his royal power, leading to his
suicide, and also confronted their newly crowned son with the prospect of a
politically uncertain future. In the case of the sumanasāntaka, it appears that
the poem’s allegorical references both memorialized important events in the
reign of a previous king and queen and recorded the circumstances of a
political crisis – contemporary with the writing of the poem – which the
deaths of the king and queen left in their wake.
If our poem referred allegorically to unusual historical circumstances, in
which political authority was threatened, what purpose did the poem serve?
To answer this question I want for a moment to step back from the poem and
refer to a broader religious and intellectual outlook in which these epic
poems were authored, recited and understood. A wall-poster which I came

31. Weatherbee (1968:397–456).

32. The sumanasāntaka refers to the queen as hyang ing nagara (Sum 4.8a), lakṣmī ning
nagara (Sum10.18d), rājalakṣmī (Sum74.3a, 74.3d) and lakṣmī ning nagarī (Sum 116.1c).

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across in the exhibition, life, Death and Magic: 2000 years of southeast
Asian Ancestral Art, which Robyn Maxwell presented at the Australian
National Gallery, in Canberra, while it talks more of village culture across
Southeast Asia, suggests to me the kind of cultural milieu in which our epic
poems were authored, recited and understood: 33
The ability to communicate with the spirit world is a significant path to power within a
community. The precarious physical environment is further complicated by souls of the
dead, ancestral spirits and nature deities interfering either benevolently or malevolently in
human affairs. Communities rely on individuals with powers to communicate beyond the
mortal realm in order to see, predict, mediate and control these uncertainties. Throughout
Southeast Asia village priests, seers and shamans are highly esteemed and also feared for
their extraordinary powers which are channeled to secure harmony and ward off disaster.
[...]Priests and shamans require potent tools and medicines [...] essential means of
maintaining the cosmic order, capturing lost souls, ensuring fertility and protecting
villages against crop failure, war, epidemic and other disasters.

Is it not possible that our poet priest was considered to be just such an
individual ‘with powers to communicate beyond the mortal realm in order to
see, predict, mediate and control’ the uncertainties of life and his poem, his
means of ‘maintaining the cosmic order, capturing lost souls, ensuring
fertility and protecting’ the kingdom ‘against crop failure, war, epidemic and
other disasters’?
Maria Kekki in a recent paper comments on fourteenth to fifteenth
century Lanna inscriptions from northern Thailand. What she has to say
about them also seems applicable to inscriptions in Java of the third to
fifteenth centuries and to epic kakawin as well. Inscriptions, she argues were
not just chancellery documents intended by their authors and understood by
their audiences to proclaim the provisions of royal donations and other
administrative and political decisions. They were also ‘objects of power’.
The power they possessed derived from the very fact that they were written,
and written on a material – metal or stone – also thought to be power-laden.
They were powerful also because they mentioned kings and other
meritorious and powerful personages involved in their commission. They
were ‘ontological markers’ – enduring memorials to the meritorious actions
of the donors mentioned in them. The power with which they were imbued
derived also from their ritual consecration before witnesses on an auspicious
occasion carefully calculated and elaborately recorded in the inscriptions,
and because they were protected by powerful curses against any who would
contravene the provisions they contained.
Of particular interest in the context of the present discussion of Javanese
kakawin epic poetry is what she has to say about inscriptions as saccakiriyā

33. The exhibition was held between 13 August – 31 October 2010. See also Wisseman
Christie (2008) on the subject of the link between the uncertainties of nature and kingship.

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or ‘truth acts’. Any truthful statement, especially when uttered aloud, she
says, ‘has power in itself, and when combined with an intention or a wish,
has the power to make that wish come true’. In the context of Theravada
Buddhism about which she writes, saccakiriyā, transformed into pathannā,
are used to perform miracles which are found recorded in Sri Lankan and
Thai chronicles and in inscriptions. Kekki points out that association with
the merit of the person making the act of truth enhanced the efficacy of such
truth statements: the greater the merit of the person the more efficacious was
the saccakiriyā or pathannā. She points out that there is always a statement
and a wish in inscriptions. In the case of inscriptions the ‘statement consists
of the name of the commissioner of the inscription and the description of the
merit made, while the wish specifies what was hoped to be gained through
the meritorious actions [...]’: most frequently, prosperity and happiness in
this life, wisdom and omniscience, the sharing of merit, the attainment of
Nibbāna, that the teachings of Buddha would be long-lasting and most
particularly that the meritorious deeds explained in the inscription would
endure. 34
In the case of epic kakawin poems too, there is a statement, which
consists of the name of the author of the poem – announced in the case of the
sumanasāntaka in the penultimate verse of the poem as Mpu Monaguṇa
(Sum 183.1) and the allegory-bearing narrative. The poem’s final verse
(Canto 183.2) declares the poet’s wish for the wellbeing of the world in
which he lived:
May the readers enjoy long life and the love of their fellow man and may they be able to
make those who wish to understand pay attention.
May there be no hindrance to the listeners. May they obtain all that they wish for and may
they find favour.
May the King look kindly on all those who possess the sumanasāntaka.
May the copyist imitate the accomplishment of the priest of the sharpened pencil. May the
holy man succeed in all he strives for.

As Kekki has told us the miraculous effect of a ‘truth act’ is enhanced by

the merit of the person making it. In the case of our epic kakawin, the first
verses of the poem tell us that the poet authored his work in a state of
epiphany: filled as it were with the power and omniscience of his tutelary
godhead, he spoke through his poem the words of that deity. Furthermore he
reminds us in the first verse of the final canto of the poem that he authored
his work under the guidance of yet another powerful and meritorious
personage, his royal patron and teacher of poetry, Śrī Warṣajaya.

34. Maria Kekki, ‘Curses, truth and the coming of Maitreya – Lanna inscriptions as objects of
power’, paper presented at ‘Crossing Borders in southeast Asian Archaeology’, 13 th
International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists
(EURASEAA 13), 27th September – 1st October 2010, Freie Universität, Berlin.

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If our poem belongs at home in the kind of religious and intellectual

environment we have been describing, we might argue that the world which
these poems describe was understood to be more than just a fictional
verisimilitude of contemporary Java: kakawin poems described a hyper-
reality, in which consciousness joined ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’. They described
a world that was a representation of Java’s past so that it might transform the
contemporary world of crisis into a future world in which rulers, fearful of
political and natural threats to their authority and power, so proved
themselves the equal of past heroes, that they would be invincible and
possess the capacity to rule over a kingdom that was socially cohesive and
There may yet be a further dimension to this hyper-reality which we have
not yet considered: that the Javanese rulers and their courts in the early
thirteenth century may well have thought of the heroes of the poem not as
fictional characters at all but as their own heroic ancestors. Van der Molen,
in his recent inaugural lecture in Jakarta, reminds us that later kings of
central Java traced their genealogy from Adam on the one hand and the
Pandawas on the other and that, while Javanese kings of the eleventh to
fifteenth centuries may not have been familiar with the story of Adam, they
were certainly acquainted with the Mahābhārata and its tales of the
Pandawas. The first recorded evidence we have of the idea that Javanese
kings considered themselves descended from the Pandawas, he claims, is the
reference in the Wirāṭaparwa to King Dharmawangśa Teguh’s recognition of
King Janamejaya as his ancestor (ādimūrti ra putu). 35 If Dharmawangśa
Teguh, Java’s ruler in the late tenth century who was responsible for the
translation of the parwas of the Mahābhārata into Old Javanese, thought of
the parwas as ‘the history of his forebears,’ it is not too far fetched to think
that later rulers shared this idea. This in turn may be the reason why the
sumanasāntaka describes with some care – as part of its allegorizing
function – the natural and ritual circumstances of the deification as ancestors
of the kings and queens whose life-stories it narrates, thus enhancing its
purpose as a statement of truth and its efficacy as a means of maintaining a
prosperous order in the world.
We have come now to the pedagogic and emotional functions of the epic
poem. In the light of what we have been saying these poems were intended
to school their audiences’ moral understanding of the world and their
emotions so that they could first imagine the world as it might be, and then
behave in a manner that would make them fit to live in a world which took
its example from the heroic ancestral world described in the poem. It is a
truism to say that skilfully composed poetry holds the prospect of altering

35. Van der Molen (2010).

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168 Peter Worsley

consciousness. In the courts of ancient Java epic kakawin poetry may have
been understood to achieve something greater than altering the
consciousness of its Javanese audience. Imbued with the authority of a poet’s
tutelary deity, under the guidance of his royal patron and teacher of poetry
and spoken truthfully, our poet and his Javanese audiences in the early
thirteenth century imagined or knew that epic kakawin poetry held the real
prospect of ‘magically’ transforming the world over which Javanese kings
The English philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood wrote that ‘The
question whether a man’s views are true or false does not arise until we have
found out what they are’. 36 Exploration of some of the presuppositions
which the epic poet’s craft enacted in early thirteenth century Java suggests
that epic kakawin were intended as ‘truth acts’. We have proposed that the
truth, which Mpu Monoguṇa spoke in his sumanasāntaka, rested on the
authority of the poet’s tutelary deity and its poetical persuasiveness on that
of his royal patron and teacher of poetry. In his poem he memorialized the
past and put on record the circumstances of a political crisis which was
contemporaneous with the authoring of the epic poem. If the audiences were
to be able to understand the value of epic kakawin as statements of truth and
they were to be efficacious, the epic kakawin necessarily contained
identifiable references to historical and contemporary circumstances. In
circumstances in which poets acted truthfully when they spoke, there is
every chance that their descriptions of life in kakawin epics may well have
been as ‘truthful’ as any description we read in inscriptions and a work like
the Deśawarṇana.

36. An essay on Philosophical Method quoted in Nielsen (1981).

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