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No. 2 May 1996
[Past issues of the Quarterly become available online approximately 12 months after their
appearance in print.
Outpourings of flawless poetry form the supreme truth that is brought to
perfection through the reality of the poet.
Absorbed in meditation, I find harmony in the innermost kernel of my being, by seeking unity with the supreme beauty of the Lotus of Non-duality,
And give it visible form in a poem, arranging it in lines, its essence the grooves of my writing board, as I build my temple of tendrils of verse.
With these words, an early 18th century Balinese poet began his epic poem, Parthayana (`The Journeying of Partha'), by signalling his desire to worship the god of love and aesthetic beauty through the writing of a kakawin poem - his temple of words. This anonymous poet, employed in the service of the ruler of the kingdom of Klungkung, was heir to a literary tradition that stretched back as far as 9th century Java and beyond that to ancient India. Long after his demise, these traditions continued to be a vital part of Balinese intellectual and creative activity. They have remained so until the present.
Bali's rich literary heritage, comprising many styles and genres, is little known outside Bali. It ranges from prose works, grand epics and romances in verse, to philosophical and didactic treatises, genealogical and historical works, liturgical texts and specialist manuals, as well as a vast body of specialist knowledge dealing with metaphysics, religious practice, magic and esoteric lore.
It is written in a variety of languages - including Old Javanese, Middle Javanese, Literary Balinese, Modern Balinese and Indonesian. All of these texts and languages continue to play a role in Balinese artistic and ritual life. Although new genres have arisen over the centuries, older ones have not been displaced. Instead, modern prose and verse forms that owe more to the western literary canon than to Balinese notions have been added to the repertoire. Even the vast social and political upheavals of the 20th century that have seen Bali transformed from a realm of independent kingdoms, incorporated briefly into the Dutch colonial empire and become part of the modern nation state, have failed to repress the vitality of Balinese traditions. The enduring nature of this literary heritage owes much to the fact that it is so intimately bound up with Balinese ritual and religious practice and the construction of Balinese identity. Here it is not possible to deal with all this variety. Rather this essay will focus on the literature known in Bali as kawi literature, the literature that best symbolises both the continuity and dynamic nature of Balinese aesthetic responses.
Literally, kawi means poetic language, although certain prose works are also included in this category. Kawi encompasses three main genres - parwa, koka win and kidung - all of which have their origins in the pre-Islamic Hinduised kingdoms of Central and East Java. Balinese culture is closely linked with that of the neighboring island of Java, and this relationship is an essential component of Balinese literary development. From at least the tenth century, the Balinese were intimately acquainted with Javanese literary production and it was in Bali that most of the pre-Islamic Javanese literary record was preserved. Balinese ideas of the aesthetic therefore developed in parallel with those of Java.
Crucial to the evolution of Javanese and Balinese literary styles, was the spread of Indian civilisation that swept through the islands of the Indonesian archipelago from about the 5th century A.D. In Java, this Indian influence penetrated deeply into all aspects of religious, political and cultural life, and particularly into literary practices. Sanskrit literature provided Javanese and Balinese writers with the heroes and plots for their poems and stories and the moral and social universe in which they were set. Most were derived from the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The oldest extant Old Javanese literary work is the Old Javanese Ramayana, the Javanese kakawin version of the Sanskrit epic relating the story of Rama and Sita. It dates from the late 9th or early 10th century, and suggests a long prior period of literary development in Java of which no further trace remains.
For centuries, Bali's close political and cultural ties with Java ensured a shared cultural and religious world view. Recent archaeological findings suggest that Indian culture may have initially reached Bali independently several centuries before the earliest traces are found elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, perhaps as early as the 1st or 2nd century A.D. On the whole, however, knowledge of Indian traditions in Bali appears to have been mediated through the Javanese courts and religious foundations. Close political and dynastic links between the Balinese and East Javanese rulers began in the 10th century, at which time the chancery language of Balinese inscriptions which hitherto had been Old Balinese, changed to Old Javanese. These links which continued, sometimes intermittently, until at least the end of the 15th century, may only have developed fully during the Majapahit period in the 14th century. Both Javanese and Balinese historical traditions record that, following the conquest of Bali by the famous prime minister of Majapahit in 1343, Bali became an integral part of the Javanese empire. During Majapahit's heyday, the Balinese were said `to conform to all the customs of Java' (Nagarakrtagama 79.3), and the earliest European accounts also hint at close connections between the two neighbouring islands. Javanese and Balinese sources point to a particularly close relationship in religious matters, with the free interchange of religious officials between the two islands and the foundation of religious establishments by Javanese priests and clerics throughout Bali. The historical record has left us with little knowledge of the actual course of events, but the textual record attests to the assimilation of Bali into the Hindu-Javanese-Balinese cultural and literary world.
In later times, particularly from the 18th century onward, links to Java, particularly Majapahit Java, formed the cornerstone of Balinese identity. The majority of Balinese nobility traced their origins to the conquering Javanese from Majapahit in 1343. Balinese courts were modelled on the Majapahit court, and all aspects of Javanese high culture were equally part of the Balinese world. This included both the preservation of this shared Javanese literary heritage and the continuing evolution of these traditions, which in Java itself were gradually replaced by new, Islamic-influenced thought. In Bali, not only were the Old Javanese texts preserved and studied, but they, and the literary genres to which they belonged, were also given new life through an ongoing creative process that saw the writing of new works. Literary practice in Bali owed much to the continued study of Javanese classics, which served Balinese authors as `text-books' - an interest that has continued right up to the present.
With the exception of the Old Javanese Ramayana mentioned above, the Javanese literary corpus dates only from the period after the centre of political power shifted from central to East Java in about 930. The earliest works that survive are the Old Javanese prose summaries (parwa) of several of the books of the Sanskrit Mahabharata written in the late 10th century. It was to these prose summaries, particularly to the first book of the Mahabharata, the Adiparwa, that Balinese poets such as the author of the Parthayana, turned for inspiration in the 18th and 19th centuries. The majority of the surviving Javanese literary works, however, are kakawin. Kakawin are long epic poems written in verse according to set numbers of syllables per line in metrical patterns of long and short syllables that are based on Sanskrit rules of prosody. The beginnings of the wave of Indianisation in the Indonesian archipelago in the 5th century coincided with the flourishing of Sanskrit lyrical poetry, and it is probably no coincidence that it was the epic poem modelled on the classical Sanskriit kavya that was to become the preeminent Javanese and Balinese literary form. Indebted though they were to Sanskrit literature, Javanese and later Balinese kakawin poets did not blindly follow their Indian models. Although the names of the heroes and places were Sanskrit, the poems were set in the poets' own landscapes. As such they are a rich source for the social and cultural history of Balinese and Javanese court society.
The world of the kakawin is one populated with gods, heroes and demons where the affairs of the human, the divine and the demonic intersect. The vast majority of kakawin are tied to the Mahabharata cycle, particularly the adventures of the five Pandawa brothers, Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna and the twins Sahadewa and Nakula, and their battle against their cousins the Korawa. The main purpose of kakawin poetry was to capture in verse the beauty of the natural world. By losing themselves in the rapturous contemplation of beauty, poets also hoped to achieve unity with the god to whom they devoted their work. Poets strove to depict in the finest poetic language the beauties of nature world, and kakawin abound with evocative descriptions of the Javanese and Balinese landscape.
The main thematic concerns of kakawin are love and war. In kakawin imagery, nature is intimately tied with feminine beauty, and poets were equally concerned with the finer feelings of love and romance between heroic princes and their beautiful women. Poignant scenes of loss, separation and longing fill stanza after stanza of all kakawin, although kakawin love is often more sensuous than romantic and earlier generations of Dutch translators, themselves products of their own time, considered the erotic passages to be improper, later interpolations and often left them untranslated.
Juxtaposed to this social realm was that of the battle-field, where heroes could prove their worth, by defeating their enemies and protecting the world from harm. Long, blow by blow descriptions of horrendous battles are incorporated into the poems. Over the nearly 1000 years of its development, kakawin literature remained centred on these themes. The 18th century Parthayana displays the same poetic and thematic concerns as any of its Javanese counterparts. Perhaps even more significantly than the aesthetics and stories themselves, kakawin also contain many didactic and philosophical passages that have ensured their relevance to generations of Balinese over many centuries. Even today the wisdom they contain continues to be important to many Balinese.
The second kawi poetic genre, the kidung, deals with quite different subject matter. Kidung are concerned not with Indian stories and heroes, but with indigenous heroes, and are centred in the pre-Islamic Hindu-Javanese kingdoms. Many kidung relate historical events, others are concerned with the exploits of the hero Panji, as he wanders Java seeking a bride and his rightful place as ruler. Kidung are written in the language most commonly referred to as Middle Javanese, in indigenous Javanese and Balinese metres that are based on a fixed number of syllables and a fixed final vowel in each line. Most extant kidung were probably written in Bali, although the genre is apparently of Javanese origin, and Panji stories spread from Java through Southeast Asia to Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia as well as Bali. The multi-centred polity in which Panji acts was no doubt closer to the Balinese reality than to the Indian ideals of divine kingship that pervade kakawin. Nevertheless, the world of the kidung is also the world of the court.
European interest in the study of Javanese and Balinese literature dates from the early 19th century with the publication in 1817 of an extract from the 12th century Bharatayuddha (`War of the Bharatas') in Thomas Stamford Raffles' History of Java. Kakawin studies, however, soon became the provenance of generations of Dutch scholars whose interest lay mainly in the classics from Java and who saw Bali largely as a museum of a more ancient Javanese culture and preserver of its cultural heritage. But Javanese kakawin make up only a handful of the 100 or more known works, and in the process of this search for antiquity, much of the vitality of the literary traditions themselves was lost, and the Balinese contribution largely forgotten. Nevertheless, even the Balinese themselves take little interest in their own kakawin. In 20th century Bali, the most revered works are the still the Javanese `classics' such as the Ramayana and the 11th century Arjunawiwaha, which tells of Arjuna's marriage to the heavenly nymphs, and is considered to be one of the finest examples of kakawin literature. Kidung remain largely unstudied.
In Bali, as in many parts of Southeast Asia, the principal writing material was the palm leaf or lontar. The lontar tradition still thrives in Bali, although much of it is now aimed at the tourist market. On the specially dried and treated leaves of the tal tree, the letters are carved with a sharp knife, then rubbed with a charcoal dye to make them stand out against the leaves. Although paper was apparently known in Bali, palm leaves were used for both lengthy creative works and day to day administration. It is probable that palm leaves were in use in Bali from the time of the earliest written records. One 11th century inscription from the village of Julah in north Bali, for example, explicitly states that the villagers wished to have their charter transferred from palm leaf to copper inscription in order to preserve it for posterity.
Curiously, there is no mention of palm leaves in the literary works. In the texts, the authors speak of their writing board (karas) and stylus (tanab), the former apparently large enough to afford an unfortunate 12th century poet some protection from the blows delivered by his patron incensed at the poor quality of his poetic efforts. The petals of the pandanus (pudak) scratched with a sharpened finger nail also provided a readily available yet easily disposable material for quick messages and billets-doux sent secretly via maid servants to arrange a lovers' rendezvous. Occasionally messages were written on the panels of pavilions and could lead to misunderstandings. The 14th century kakawin, The Tale of Sutasoma, for example, records the story of an ill-fated queen who came by chance upon a delightful love poem written on the walls of a pavilion and copied it down. When her husband found the copy, he accused her of taking a lover. Although she denied any wrong-doing, when she took him to the pavilion to see for himself, the rain had washed away the text. The poor queen was repudiated and the king stormed off to seek death in battle.
That so many literary works have survived the hazardous process of preservation is somewhat surprising. In the tropical climate of Bali, no lontar manuscript could be expected to last more than a couple of hundred years, so that new copies had to be repeatedly made from the old. And many have survived the journey down through the centuries - not only in single autographs but in multiple copies. For the works written in pre-Islamic Java, this represents a considerable investment in time and labor, and is indicative of a value that extends far beyond the utilitarian.
What factors induced generation after generation of Balinese scribes and copyists to continue the laborious task of preservation? The answer is probably to be sought in the reverence with which Balinese esteem not only the content of the texts, but the texts themselves as artefacts. What evidence there is comes largely from more recent Balinese sources, going back little further than the 18th century, which marks the limits of the textual record, but it is probably not too far-fetched to assume that similar practices and functions had motivated earlier Javanese and Balinese poets and scribes.
We have already seen that in writing their poems, Balinese poets were engaged in the practice of a poetic yoga, in which the creative process was also an act of worship. Moreover, the texts themselves wore and are valued highly, the very letters on the palm leaves are associated with the practice of the poetic yoga hinted at in the introduction to the Parthayana. Letters have divine origin, are sacred and magically powerful, and can be killed if improperly or carelessly handled. In this way, the text as artefact and the text as repository of knowledge combine to create a sacred object. On the anniversary (odalan) of the goddess of learning, Saraswati held once in each Balinese year of 210 days, a special ceremony is held when all lontar are taken out and blessed.
Crucial to the production and preservation of manuscripts was the relationship between poet and patron. Poets appear to have been members of the court, perhaps acting as scribes and clerks, and were reliant on royal patrons for their physical and material well being. Nearly all the Javanese kakawin and a considerable number of Balinese ones are offered in homage not only to the poet's personal tutelary deity, but at the secular level also to a royal patron. The surviving Javanese kakawin, all of which are dedicated to a ruling king, must have enjoyed a special status amongst the many hundreds that would have been written over the period of many centuries. Kakawin writing in particular seems to have been closely associated with the political domain. It seems likely that many were allegorical works in which the all too human Javanese or Balinese rulers were equated with the gods and heroes of Hindu tradition and their deeds linked to their formidable exploits. These allegorical kakawin may later have been incorporated into the physical symbols of royal power, becoming sacred royal heirlooms (pusaka) which, along with royal kris and other weapons, were then passed down from generation to generation. Several 18th century Balinese works specifically state that they are written to serve a ruler as gifts of homage to ensure the victory of the poet's patron over his enemies.
On the other hand, a much wider dissemination of the texts in Bali is indicated by the sheer number of surviving copies of most Javanese and Balinese works. It seems probable that religious officials may have played a dominant role in the spread of literary works. Even in Majapahit times, priests and other religious officials travelled freely between the two islands. With them went the texts they needed, and which encompassed their ideological and religious world-view. In contemporary Bali, brahmana (priestly) and noble households often have extensive libraries of 1ontar manuscripts. Although much literary activity probably took place in the palaces and priestly households, literacy in Bali was not restricted to these groups. Texts circulated through all levels of society, and both men and women were involved in the copying of texts. Many texts contained the esoteric knowledge required by priests and traditional healers and were not to be disseminated to the uninitiated. Others, particularly kakawin and kidung, were allowed wider circulation since they provided moral and strategic guidance to rulers and their subjects, and were the source of decision making in matters of policy and judicial practice. Even the texts that seem to be mere stories were used to guide the social relationships of Balinese and moderate their interactions.
There are undoubtedly complex reasons for the writing and preservation of texts. Some clues are to be found in Balinese textual record, particularly in the opening and closing stanzas of the poems themselves and the brief commemorative notes that are frequently attached to copies of manuscripts. The latter not only indicate the time and place of copying, but also sometimes a little information concerning the reasons that the scribe might wish to copy a text. Most of these sources date from the 18th and 19th centuries. What is clear is that important moments in the life of the state or the individual, both good and ill-fortune, were commemorated through textual activity. Sometimes this memorial involved creative activity - the composition of a completely new work, sometimes it lay in making a new copy of an old work. For example, the Parthayana kakawin quoted above which describes the pilgrimage and marriages of the Mahabharata hero Arjuna, was composed to celebrate a pilgrimage made to Java by the Balinese ruler of Klungkung in 1729-30.
The conquest of the neighboring island of Lombok by the eastern Balinese kingdom of Karangasem in 1740 was also accompanied by the recopying of a number of Javanese classical texts that encapsulated Balinese religious thought and the royal culture that derived ultimately from Majapahit Java. From that time, the Lombok kingdoms formed part of the Balinese world, and, in much the same way as Bali had in earlier times become more Javanese than Java, became flourishing centres of religious and literary life. Over a century later, in 1854, another journey was celebrated in kakawin form with the same story as the Parthayana. In an historical twist, this time it was the departure of the Lombok crown princes to rule over their former overlords in Karangasem, recently defeated by Dutch military power, that was given textual form in both a new kakawin, the Khandawawanadahana (`The Burning of the Khandawa Forest'), and a new copy of the 14th century Javanese kakawin Arjunawijaya (`Arjuna's Victory'). Resettlement was also marked textually, when the last ruler of Lombok commissioned new copies of two didactic treatises in 1877-8 to commemorate the building of his new palace at Cakranagara.
The copying of other texts commemorated both military victories and defeats. A copy of the kidung Wangbang Wideya was made in 1765 after the defeat of the northern kingdom of Buleleng by Karangasem. Similarly, the absorption of the minor royal house of Pagesengan in Lombok into Kadiri in 1804, and the war between Gianyar and Bangli in 1844 were also noted in texts. At the more personal level, rites of passage such as the royal cremation ceremonies in Lombok in 1877, were occasions for new texts. The kidung Smarawijaya (`The Victory of the God of Love') was copied in 1843 by a woman whose husband was travelling in Bali, as she sat by the bedside of her dying child. The salutary power of textual activity continued into the 20th century. Bali's most renowned 20th century poet and scribe, Ida Pedanda Made Sidemen, copied a number of medical texts (usada) during the smallpox epidemic of 1949-50, to which his own grandson fell victim. Pedanda Made also noted the arrival of the Japanese in 1942, the eruption of Mount Agung in 1963 and the killings of the coup of 1965, with the writing and copying of texts.
The temples of words created in homage by Javanese and Balinese poets for over 1000 years have proved more resilient than many a more conventional architectural monument. The traditional literature of Bali remains a dynamic and vital one. Kawi literature continues to provide the narrative base for much of Bali's performing and visual arts - dance, drama, shadow puppets and painting. Texts are still sung and their meaning debated and interpreted in discussion groups throughout Bali. Excerpts from the kakawin and kidung are incorporated into religious rites and ceremonies. The teachings they contain have remained relevant, and in the 1990s as the Balinese Hindu religion, at least at the official level, moves increasingly towards orthodox Hindu beliefs, the world view encapsulated in the literary heritage continues to be accorded a place.
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