Languages and Literatures:
Panji : the Great Indonesian Hero

One of the most popular and enduring of Indonesia's great works of literature is the tale of Panji. Unlike many other works of Indonesian literature, the Panji tales are a product of indigenous inspiration, rather than the reworking of themes borrowed from elsewhere. The story originated in Java, but became popular over a wide area of western Indonesia, Borneo and as far north as Thailand. There are a large number of tales in the Panji story cycle, and the genre's wide distribution and frequent appearance in old manuscripts provide strong evidence of their former popularity.

The stories are set in ancient Java, and involve the relationships between four kingdoms. The basis of the tales is Panji's search for his lost love, which leads him into battle against hostile kings, as he conquers many obstacles. After many twists and turns, the lovers are reunited and married, and Panji returns home to succeed his father as king of Kunipan.

The stories are set in the second half of the 11th century, but it was probably not until the Majapahit period (13th-15th centuries) that they became popular, and began to be regarded as a recognised literary form. The kingdom of Majapahit was, by this time, prosperous and powerful, and Javanese culture, along with the Panji tales, spread to the nearby islands.

Bali was the first place where the story was developed, and was recorded on palm leaf manuscripts (lontar). The story was expanded, reaching its longest form in the 18th century poem, Malat. The Panji tales were also carried to the Malay-speaking areas of southern Kalimantan, south Sumatra, and to the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, to Kelantan where they were written as hikayat, a Malay prose form intended for recitation to an audience by a storyteller. In Java they exist in Middle Javanese in a form called kidung, which has been preserved in Bali; and in classical Modern Javanese, the macapat verse form.

a mask of Panji, from an old Jogjakarta set of masks now in the National Museum, Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Tara Sosrowardoyo

The Panji literature also finds expression in various dramatic forms, where episodes are performed; the shadow play (wayang kulit); dance drama (wayang wong); and classic drama of Bali, the gambuh, for example. Scenes are depicted artistically in the wayang beber and on temple reliefs. Many of the manuscripts in which the Panji stories are written are also beautifully illustrated.

by Sian Jay

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