Indic Ornaments on Javanese Shores: Retooling Sanskrit Figures in the Old Javanese Ramayana.

AuthorBronner, Yigal
PositionCritical essay


In recent decades, a number of scholars have highlighted and mapped cases wherein cosmopolitan cultural models travelled and productively engaged with a variety of local vernaculars. In particular, in the wake of Sheldon Pollock's 2006 Language of the Gods, much attention has been paid to Asia-wide processes of literization, philologization, literarization, and finally translation or vernacularization, when local "languages of the place" came into contact with global "languages of the road," such as Sanskrit, Arabic, or Persian. (1) Despite this initial wave of thought-provoking studies, there is still much we need to learn about the process of cultural negotiation between prestigious universal models and evolving local ones, especially in cases that do not exactly replicate Pollock's typical model. One such case is the island of Java, where a flourishing literature that later spread to Bali did not seem to involve, at least at first, the production of a large library of theoretical treatises on grammar and poetics. (2)

In what form did knowledge about cosmopolitan codes arrive on new shores, how was it unloaded, mediated, and decoded, and how did it come to be adopted, adapted, and "owned" by local agents? Such questions, relevant to every case of cosmopolitan vernaculars, are particularly pertinent to Java, with its relative lack of interest in formal poetics (especially in the narrow sense of treatises on figuration)--a culture, that is, that offers plenty of prayoga (practice) but much less written sastra (theory). Here an important study by Thomas Hunter provides a key insight. For Hunter, the Javanization of Sanskrit literary models comprised two contrasting modes that underpinned the prose and poetic (kakawin) traditions respectively. (3) Within this framing, the Javanization of prose works involved a commentary-like process developed initially in religious institutions wherein an original text was taken apart, and each of its constituting elements received exposition, expansion, and a local flavor. This process partly replaced, pedagogically and institutionally, the codified grammars familiar from Sanskrit and other parts of the large world interacting with it. To account for kakawin literature, Hunter then posits a second poetic mode of transcreation that drew on the resources of kavya to produce an indigenous literary form.

The purpose of this essay is to peek behind the scenes and deduce the protocols that guided this process and to suggest that, rather than two contrasting modes, the commentarial tradition operated, at least in some cases, in tandem with the poetic mode in the composition of kakawin literary works. For this purpose, we provide a microlevel analysis of a selection of verses from a text that is particularly suited to this task: the Old Javanese Ramayana (hereafter OJR).

The OJR is the cornerstone of the kakawin literary tradition and of the entire project of poetic interchange between ancient South Asia and the Indonesian archipelago. This text stands near the beginnings of recorded kakawin literary history and is the sole survivor from the Early Mataram period (ca. 730-928 CE), which came to an end when the center of political power shifted from Central to East Java. (4) It is also one of the few Old Javanese kakawin poems for which a clear Sanskrit source can be identified. This source is Bhatti's Ravanavadha (ca. 600 CE) also known as Bhattikavya (hereafter BhK), a work that is distinctive in offering, in addition to the story of Rama's exploits, a comprehensive teaching of grammar and poetics, two of the main building blocks of Sanskrit literary culture. This means that this work, even more than other Sanskrit poems, necessarily anticipated a commentary that would unpack the formal teachings its poet interwove into the narration. (5) Therefore, it may have been of particular interest to Javanese pedagogues and translators. Naturally, it is also of interest to us.

Despite the long history of examining the OJR, the BhK, and their interrelations, there is more that can be said about the specific interaction that took place between and around them. In this essay we offer a new comparison of chapter 10 of the BhK and chapter 11 of the OJR, the two chapters that offer a methodical presentation of figures of speech (Skt. alamkara, or "ornaments"). Our main argument is that the Javanization of Sanskrit ornaments was not by chance or random but rather was the result of a careful and studied approach on the part of the OJR poet (or poets) to grapple with the complexities of Sanskrit ornamental principles and to make them his (or their) own. (6)


The understanding of the early analysis of ornaments in Sanskrit is hazy in several ways. First, from the period before 600 CE, we know the names of only a handful of texts, practically all of which have been lost. (7) Second, the earliest extant works are rather uninformative about the framework in which ornaments are to be understood: what defines them, how essential they are, what explains their charm, and how they differ from the related category of "poetic virtues" (guna) are questions that rarely received attention in this phase. It is likely that much of this discussion took place orally in gatherings of literati (sabha), and it can be said more generally that Sanskrit poetics was slow in becoming an academic discipline, certainly in comparison with other fields. (8)

An important watershed in this early period is Bhamaha's Ornaments of Literature (Kavyalamkara). (9) The author discusses a large set of nearly forty ornaments, far more than the mere handful mentioned in the foundational treatise on dramaturgy, the Natyasdstra, and likely more than in any other forerunner. Bhamaha, moreover, takes credit for a "law of ornaments" (alamkaravidhi), namely, that all ornaments entail intensification (atisaya) and hence indirect or nonfactual (vakra) expressivity. (10) He goes on to use this criterion to reject some ornaments that he believed lacked it. (11) It is probably in recognition of such achievements that his work became the standard textbook for poets and the standard reference book on poetics for intellectuals from other disciplines. (12)

Indeed, it can be stated more strongly that all the extant works from the early phase of Sanskrit poetics share a very tight kinship with Bhamaha's Ornaments. This is certainly true of Dandin's famous Mirror of Literature (Kavyadarsa), in which the author engages in a detailed and conscious response to his predecessor (whom he never names), (13) and the same can be said of the BhK. Bhatti's tenth chapter offers an illustration of ornaments that is extremely close to Bhamaha's discussion in selection and order and sometimes even in imagery and vocabulary. (14) In fact, readers of both Bhatti and Dandin have often read their works along with Bhamaha's. This is particularly apparent in Jayamangala's commentary on the BhK (date unknown), in which he systematically cites Bhamaha's definitions for every relevant ornament and shows how they apply to the illustration at hand. (15) It is easy to imagine that these three texts--Bhamaha's Ornaments, Bhatti's BhK, possibly with a commentary such as Jayamangala's, and Dandin's Mirror--travelled together not just in South Asia but also to Java along with other scholarly treatises (on grammar, prosody, lexicography, astral sciences, dharma, and other subjects) and other works of literature that are represented in the later Old Javanese tradition. In fact, it is impossible to make sense of Bhatti's poem as a whole and of its tenth chapter more specifically if it is read in isolation, and it is hard to imagine a massive and creative work like the OJR without its author's full mastery of this larger discourse.

Little scholarly evidence has been adduced thus far to explain how or why the kakawin genre emerged at this historical moment, but it is clear that the OJR can hardly have arisen spontaneously and must instead belong to a tradition that is far longer and deeper. Indeed, although Bhatti has long been known as the main influence on the OJR, at least to the end of chapter 16, (16) there are certainly other influences that reflect the broad translocal spectrum of Ramayana traditions that flourished in mid ninth-century Java. (17) There is a growing body of evidence that the OJR drew on a number of other sastric and literary sources from both the Sanskrit and the Old Javanese traditions, including written and oral commentaries.

Although the Valmiki Ramayana does not appear to have been a direct source for the OJR, echoes of its influence have been traced in certain episodes. From the Prambanan complex temple reliefs we also know that the Valmiki Ramayana was independently well known in Java at the time at which the OJR was written. In addition to the BhK and the Valmiki Ramayana, however, there is a long list of major Sanskrit works whose footprints can be traced in the OJR and other literary and artistic works from Java. These works may have included the Bhagavadgita, the Manusmrti, and verses from Kalidasa's poetry. (18) Indeed, as Hunter observes, there are a number of shared features between the OJR and the Lalitavistara, an early Sanskrit Buddhist work that is copiously illustrated on the second and earlier great architectural monument of Central Java, Borobodur, built ca. 760-850 CE. (19) To this list we can also add the well-attested presence in the Old Javanese and Balinese textual corpus of Kamasastra, legal, and religious traditions. (20) There is also clear evidence in later periods of the influence of specific literary works, such as Bharavi's Kiratarjuniya on the eleventh-century Arjunawiwaha and Kalidasa's Raghuvamsa on the thirteenth-century Sumanasantaka. (21)

In short, there is every reason to believe that the creation of the OJR did not happen in a vacuum, and evidence, both direct and conjectural...

To continue reading

Request your trial