Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 5, May 2001
Images of Women and Embodiment in Kakawin Literature

Helen Creese

  1. Gender roles in Southeast Asia both historically and in contemporary contexts have been depicted as essentially complementary. Like their counterparts elsewhere in the region, Javanese and Balinese women, both past and present, have been characterised as enjoying high status and being economically, ritually and sexually autonomous, particularly in Western academic discourse.[1] In contrast to this outsider's view of the 'Other', the dominant Javanese (and indeed Indonesian) cultural ideal has remained that of the refined Javanese aristocratic girl, whose grace and modesty are imbued with an inherent fragility and dependence.[2] The same ideal prevails in Bali.[3] This representation of the beautiful, submissive girl is one that stretches back to the earliest written records from the Indonesian archipelago, namely kakawin poetry, the classical epic poetry produced in the Indic courts of Java and Bali between the ninth and twentieth centuries. The study of this poetry offers insights into the historical and cultural construction of gender in the Indonesian archipelago.[4]
  2. Representations of women in Java and Bali have ranged from the sequestered to the sexually autonomous, from powerless victim to powerful agent. The reality of these contradictory images has only recently begun to be challenged. An increasing number of cross-cultural studies of gender have now attested to the complex and multi-faceted roles of women in contemporary Indonesia. This growing recognition of the cultural construction of social values and the fluidity of gender stereotyping has led to a reconsideration of the position and roles of women. As scholars have come to recognise that notions of power, prestige and agency are culturally and historically specific, the discussion has moved beyond narrow Western paradigms. Some of the apparent contradictions between representation and reality can be better understood in the light of insights into the nature of power and prestige in the Indonesian archipelago. A number of studies have revealed that in Java and Bali, prestige and status are conferred as much by inner spiritual strength and tranquillity as by the concepts of economic and political autonomy lauded in Western society.[5] Interpreting the prominent role of women in the marketplace as a sign of economic 'independence', for example, ignores the underlying cultural belief that to distance oneself from the mundane and tedious world of commerce is a mark of power – one that usually privileges men. Similarly, contradictory views of female sexuality may hide crucial class differences. There is little evidence in indigenous literary sources of the female sexual autonomy first reported by early European visitors to the archipelago in the sixteenth century. However, indigenous sources embody only the idealised behaviour of the ruling court elites, not those of the wider population, while Western perceptions can, at least in part, be explained by the limited access European males had to elite women. The 'reality' probably lies somewhere in between.
  3. Most studies on gender in Indonesia have looked at contemporary society. From time to time, the boundaries have been pushed back to earlier periods, but historical studies remain the exception. By deconstructing the images and looking beyond the stereotypes, seemingly powerless female archetypes from the Indonesian past have been imbued with a degree of autonomy and agency. In certain specific historical contexts, the traditional image of the Javanese princess has been called into question. Both the women of Javanese shadow theatre and performing arts, and real women living in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Javanese courts, for example, have been shown to have played considerably more active economic and political roles.[6] It has even been suggested that the image of the Javanese princess – the 'simpering Raden Ayu' herself – owes more to Dutch colonial writers than indigenous Javanese conceptions.[7]
  4. For earlier less well-documented periods, however, the issue of gender has remained largely unexplored. A newly-published collection of essays Other Pasts: Women, Gender and History in Early Modern Southeast Asia is the first to address specifically questions of gender in the Southeast Asian context in the early modern period. As the editor, Barbara Andaya, notes in the introduction, mainstream academic interests in the post Second World War period have centred on nationalist history and development issues, leaving the consideration of the historical experiences of Southeast Asian women largely marginalised.[8] Apart from this shift in academic focus, perhaps equally critical for the neglect of Indonesian social history is the fragmentary nature of the indigenous historical record. Epigraphical sources dating from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries do exist, but they are concerned largely with tax concessions and the granting of freeholds to religious foundations. Women are mentioned only incidentally in these.[9] There are few narrative histories, and no official records or censuses before the colonial period. Nor are there the personal accounts, diaries and other documents such as letters that have allowed women's history in Europe to be partially recovered. Moreover, outside the Malay- and Indonesian-speaking areas of the archipelago, the study of indigenous sources requires mastery of one or more regional language.
  5. Anthropologists have generally been less reluctant than historians to tackle gender issues, not only in contemporary contexts but also in earlier periods. Recent anthropological-historical work on Southeast Asia and the Pacific has sought to unlock the differences between Western and indigenous notions of desire and social practice by analysing the 'structures of conjuncture', those historical moments at the 'confluence of cultures' where interactions between European and Indonesian cultures can be documented.[10] Although new understandings of indigenous concepts of gender have been generated by this research, their value remains somewhat circumscribed, because, in the absence of adequate indigenous evidence, they necessarily privilege Western sources. However, as the essays in Other Pasts attest, focusing the attention of historians on women's issues has led to some fruitful new research directions.
  6. Kakawin poetry is a largely untapped resource for the study of gender in the Indonesian archipelago in the period before European contact. Kakawin were produced at the royal courts that flourished in Java from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, and in Bali from the ninth until the early twentieth century.[11] From at least the fifteenth century, Javanese court culture was influenced by Islamic religious thought but in Bali, as in parts of mainland Southeast Asia, there was no obvious hiatus or change in religious, economic and political conditions until the mid nineteenth century. There is therefore an unbroken indigenous cultural tradition spanning more than one thousand years.[12] Yet few students of modern Indonesia are probably aware of its existence. Although the academic study of Old Javanese literature began in the early nineteenth century, it has never found a place in mainstream studies of Indonesian history and culture. The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex and include the post-Independence focus on development and contemporary Southeast Asian society noted earlier. In Indonesian studies discipline boundaries between literature and history have also remained impenetrable.
  7. Throughout most of its history, the field of Old Javanese literature was based on classical philological methodology with its focus on textual reconstruction. The nineteenth century Orientalist roots of the discipline ensured that the prime concern of scholars was the search for links to ancient, preferably Sanskrit, originals. Intertextual elements, the intentions of individual texts, and, not infrequently, even the content itself were deemed of secondary importance.[13] For the study of gender issues there have been additional constraints. In the first place, the field has been almost exclusively male. In spite of the centrality of women in kakawin works, only passing references are made in the scholarly literature to women, generally within the limited discussion of plot outlines. For earlier generations of scholars, the explicit sexuality of the descriptions of women also presented moral problems for it was inconceivable that great poets should concern themselves with such base matters. This combination of puritanical distaste and the difficulty of the interpretation of the language in the sensual descriptive scenes allowed passages focusing on women to be easily dismissed as 'interpolations' and thus ignored, or passed over in silence. Since gender emerged as an analytical category in the early 1970s, few studies of Old Javanese literature have been completed. Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that feminist readings of this corpus have really only just begun.
  8. In dealing with kakawin material, there are considerable problems in defining a theoretical framework that might be useful for illuminating the literary texts. The central problems in dealing with this material are the mythical and fictional nature of the texts themselves and the absence of supporting documentation. The main inspiration for my analytical framework has been provided by feminist historians of classical and early medieval European history. The limitations of kakawin sources are in many ways similar to those presented by sources for the study of the ancient world. Both sets of sources are products of patriarchal social systems, representing the interests and ideas of educated male elites. Most are written by men. Like the women of every age and place there is 'a profusion of discourse and imagery' about kakawin heroines, and they too are 'more likely to be "represented" than to be described or to have their stories told – much less be allowed to tell their own stories.'[14]
  9. Kakawin are most certainly not about the reality of women's lives. Individual kakawin works provide images of fictionalised noble women who served as models in the construction of idealised images of women in general. More importantly, kakawin 'affirm what ought to be known and believed [about women]; ... impose a set of exemplary images; [and] ... describe what society wished and what it ought to be'.[15] There can be no doubt that this role is one of the primary functions of kakawin literature. It must also be stressed that the textual sources are concerned almost exclusively with elite women, women of the court. Nearly all kakawin heroines are noble, and even where female commoners, servants and retainers enter the story, they do not represent the lives of ordinary women, but of those who belong to the world of the court. It is difficult to gauge the extent to which ordinary Javanese and Balinese men and women actually embraced or typified the images that pervade the literary and performing arts. Yet, because kakawin were also performance texts, intended to be sung aloud rather than silently read, the audience for kakawin was probably considerably larger than the court elite. The same norms and values pervaded other dramatic forms, particularly the wayang (shadow puppet theatre) and dance dramas. Through performance the images of the dominant group were able to permeate all levels of society.
  10. For gender studies in Indonesian contexts, feminist anthropology has offered the most interesting analytical models for considering cross-cultural questions of agency, social practice and power. The difficulty in adapting them to the kakawin materials rests in the fact that anthropology deals with real people and real situations in contemporary, observable sites. Even though the analysis of gender issues in kakawin might be described as 'literary ethnography', the geographical and temporal diversity of the texts, as well as their fictional character, makes the application of existing theoretical models rather hazardous. Nevertheless, I have borrowed eclectically from a wide range of gender-based anthropological studies in my analysis of the sources. I have, however, avoided drawing directly on contemporary social theoretical practices to illuminate textual themes.[16] As Barbara Andaya has noted, the gap between contemporary conditions and our ability to reconstruct the past remains almost unbridgeable.[17] At this stage, our knowledge of the Indonesian past simply does not allow for generalisations about agency or practice. There would be little to gain from reifying institutions and practices in the past for which the evidence is inadequate, simply because they seem familiar in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, those involved in the study of contemporary societies in Indonesia, may find the material presented here broadly supportive of their own ethnographic case studies. At the very least it may serve to provide evidence for how deeply culturally embedded are the gender stereotypes in contemporary societies in Indonesia. I will turn now to the kakawin sources and return later to a reconsideration of the theoretical aspects.

    Women in Kakawin Literature: Roles and Context
  11. Kakawin are epic poems written in Indian-derived metres, which relate the adventures of the Indian gods and heroes of the Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The literary works belonging to the kakawin corpus have a wide geographical and temporal spread, stretching from the ninth century Central Javanese courts, through the East Javanese and Majapahit periods of the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, to the Balinese courts of Bali and Lombok in the nineteenth century. Kakawin divide chronologically into two distinct groups representing a Javanese period from the ninth to fifteenth centuries and a subsequent Balinese period that has continued until the present.[18] Kakawin were written and preserved on palm leaves and relatively few have survived the journey down through the centuries. There are fewer than twenty surviving examples from more than six centuries of Javanese kakawin writing. Over one hundred and fifty works belonging to the Balinese period remain. The kakawin referred to in this article are listed in Table 1, together with the time of their composition.

    Name of Work Explanation Time and Place of Origin
    Ramayana The Tale of Rama 9th century Java
    Arjunawiwaha The Marriage of Arjuna 11th century Java
    Hariwangsa Hari's Lineage 12th century Java
    Ghatotkacasraya Ghatotkaca to the Rescue 12th century Java
    Bharatayuddha The War of the Bharatas 12th century Java
    Sumanasantaka Death by Sumanasa Flower 13th century Java
    Bhomakawya The Tale of Bhoma 13th century Java
    Kresnayana The Tale of Kresna 13th century Java
    Arjunawijaya Arjuna's Victory 14th century Java
    Sutasoma The Tale of Sutasoma 14th century Java
    Parthayana The Journeying of Partha 18th century Bali
    Abhimanyuwiwaha Abhimanyu's Marriage 18th century Bali
    Table 1. Old Javanese Kakawin

  12. Old Javanese kakawin poets took as their literary exemplar the Sanskrit mahakavya, or epic court poem. The kavya was a highly stylised genre both in form and content, and its Javanese manifestation, the kakawin, took on many of the characteristics of its Indian model. Indebted though they were to Sanskrit literature both for their literary form and the stories of their poems, Javanese kakawin authors did not blindly follow their Sanskrit models, however, but produced a style of Old Javanese poetry with its own characteristics that represents Javanese interests and values. Those familiar with Indian literary traditions will undoubtedly recognise the broad parallels with classical Sanskrit tropes and metaphors, but in Java and Bali these parallels were mediated by many centuries of indigenous cultural adaptation and evolution.
  13. In the Indian sources from which most kakawin literature is drawn, and particularly in the earliest Old Javanese prose versions of Sanskrit literature to which many later poets turned for themes and characters, little attention is given to women. Yet kakawin literature abounds in female characters, many of whom have no counterparts in other sources, either Sanskrit or Old Javanese. Their main purpose seems to be to allow poets to incorporate scenes that centre on women. Some of these female characters, who appear to have made their debut as kakawin heroines, later became as much a part of the Javanese and Balinese literary and cultural heritage as other more well-known figures from Indian traditions.
  14. Kakawin provide a rich resource for the discussion of many issues relating to the representation of women. Not all of them can be discussed here, and the following sections are concerned specifically with the embodiment of ideals of femininity and the portrayal of gendered bodies. Women in kakawin are depicted in three main contexts. First, as the embodiment of all beauty, they form the core metaphor of the many descriptive passages of the natural world through which the characters move. Secondly, they are partners in sexual relationships, usually within marriage. Finally, they are portrayed as loyal wives making the ultimate sacrifice by choosing to follow a husband or lover to the afterlife following his death in battle. In each of these contexts, the poet is concerned with the physical description of the women – the imagery of the female form, the seduction and rape of the virgin bride and the bloody, ritual deaths of the widow.

    Metaphors of embodiment
  15. Despite the marked Sanskrit influence, in their emphasis on the scenes depicting women Javanese and Balinese poets developed their own poetical conventions, and kakawin its distinctive style. Although poets did not neglect the other requirements of epic court poetry, particularly the long, detailed and bloody descriptions of battles and conflicts, the kakawin genre evolved into a kind of epic romance in which women were incorporated and the feminine, particularly in its association with the natural world, was enmeshed and personified. So pivotal is metaphor to kakawin idiom that the missionary and scholar Friederich, who visited Bali in the mid-nineteenth century, noted that the Balinese considered 'the meaning of kakawin to be "to make comparisons", "to speak in comparisons". This is the mode in which poetry is formed; comparisons are the ornaments and marks of poetry.'[19]
  16. If war and the glorious deeds of heroes are the dominant narrative themes of kakawin poetry, its core aesthetic is undeniably feminine beauty. Metaphorically women's bodies and the natural world are reflections of each other. Women's bodies evoke the natural environment: their eyes, teeth and gums mirror particular kinds of flowers, their limbs and waists are slender vines and creepers, their shapely calves are reminiscent of pandanus flowers, their breasts are ivory coconuts. Poets and wandering lovers enraptured by the beauty of the world around them see nature as a representation of ideal womanhood, and in turn beautiful women represent all the glories of the natural world, as can be seen in the following extract from a fourteenth century Javanese kakawin, the Arjunawijaya ('Arjuna's Victory'). In this scene the demon, Rawana, comes by chance upon a beautiful anchoress named Wedawati in a sacred grove. Awe-struck by her beauty, he addresses her:

    O my dear lady, O anchoress,
    Tell me why you became an anchoress,
    For you are of such inconceivable beauty,
    That all your doings are like those of the goddess of the splendour of flowers.

    All kinds of beauty are within you:
    Young asoka leaves merge with your waist,
    The beauty of ivory coconuts is that of your breasts,
    The swaying of the tender shoots of the gadung vine is that of your arms.

    Blue lotuses are your sparkling eyes;
    Swarms of bees mistake your lovely calves [for pudak flowers];
    Your gait is the movement of all kinds of flowers blown by the breeze,
    It seems that you will slip from an eager embrace;

    The evening moon looks like being overtaken by daylight
    Because of your beauty, and pines for its [lost] light.
    It would take too long to depict your beauty,
    No matter how many poems one composed, there would never be sufficient.[20]
  17. As Zoetmulder has noted it is difficult to make sense of the imagery of kakawin poetry without a knowledge of the Javanese natural world.[21] While there can be no doubt of Rawana's meaning in the passage quoted above, it helps to know that the asoka is famed for its supple boughs, that the gadung is a delicate trailing vine, that the blue lotus is the darkest of the lotuses and thus a fitting comparison for eyes and that the flower of the pandanus, the pudak, is shaped like a calf. Nature and female beauty are so closely linked that the mere mention of an element of either in a line or stanza subtly conjures an image of the whole.

    Figure 1. Heavenly women displaying their charms in the garden. Illustrated Balinese palm leaf manuscript (prasi) depicting a scene from the Arjunawiwaha ('The Marriage of Arjuna') [author's private collection].

  18. Women in kakawin are most often depicted against the backdrop of nature in parks or gardens which serve both to highlight and illuminate their own beauty. Just as the sight of a beautiful woman instantly brings to mind the beauties of nature, kakawin heroes wandering through the mountains and along the seashore are reminded of the women they have left behind: trees tossing in the wind are the sighs of the beloved left behind, bamboo weeps like an abandoned lover, and boughs droop with dejection. Nature is also often depicted as hiding its beauty coquettishly behind a veil of mist or under overhanging branches. Frenzied nature can also be gripped by uncontrolled emotion and reach out in longing as the hero passes by. Nature itself may even become a metaphor for female beauty:

    The firmament was like a young girl:
    the stars, like a string of pearls were her girdle.
    Full of desire for her, the mountain
    reached up towards the heavens.[22]
  19. Occasionally the natural imagery of kakawin idiom is used to effect by transporting it outside its familiar discourse. At a picnic held on Mount Raiwataka described in the eighteenth century Balinese kakawin, the Parthayana ('The Journeying of Partha'), traditional male and female domains are reversed when the palace women are described as warriors, armed with flower-weapons, violating the flowers:

    Indeed they were lions in battle, like bees thrusting eagerly, wanting only to be
    one with the fragrant flowers.
    And so they all joined in laying waste to the flowers, carrying them off by
    force, plucking them all without pause.[23]
  20. Similarly, the description of Satyawati's journey around the battlefield in search of her husband, Salya's, body in the Bharatayuddha ('The War of the Bharatas') is transformed metaphorically to a wooded shore-line, where the scenic images become even more powerful amid the carnage of the battlefield:

      Wearily she sat down to rest on a dead elephant that looked like a rock sculpture on a flat stone, and there, at the edge of the river [of] blood, she dangled her feet into the water up to her calves, deeply confused.

      The flags that were left behind on their standards sheltering her from the sun, she took to be trees on the mountain slopes; she regarded the sound of crows cawing to each other as the singing of cuckoos comforting her; the stench of stinking corpses, she believed to be the fragrance of flowers; the breathing of wounded warriors, with their blood still flowing, she considered a gentle breeze.

      Even the lapping sea of blood she likened to an enchanting ocean; the weapons to its islands a[nd] the fluttering flag[s] to the blooming flowers on them; the metal-plated jackets to the gleaming fish, the armlets and necklaces to the himi-himi and getem crabs; and the blades of the projectiles were likened to prawns in the crevices along the crag, crawling one after another along the coral of daggers.[24]

  21. In contrast to their interest in the female form, kakawin poets are never overtly concerned with the bodies of men, apart from an occasional reference to their preparations for battle, when their splendid ornamentation and gleaming armour may reflect their majesty and heroism. Men, however, are caught up in the imagery of nature in their relationships with women. Kakawin depict men and women as complementary halves of a single entity. In the imagery of the relationship between the sexes, botanical metaphors again predominate and highlight the natural pairing of male and female. Many a kakawin lover, seeking to woo his beloved beseeches her to be the asana flower or lotus so that he, as the bee, can always be with her. Together, male and female are sea and mountains, the gadung vine twining around the asoka tree, the tadaharsa bird pining for the moon, the soaring hawk yearning for rain. The metaphor that encompasses the ultimate intimacy, however, is the lover's desire to become items of apparel and ornamentation so that he can remain physically close to his beloved even if they are forced to part. Arjuna tries to persuade his wife, Citragandha, that he will die if she continues to refuse to bestow her favour on him, and declares:
  22. But even if I, your brother, were to die, I could become your eye-black,
    your ear-ornaments, your breast-band, your robe.

    What pleasure I would know in heightening the beauty of your heart-melting glance,
    or drawing near in homage to your fragrant ear.

    On the couch I could caress your breasts, marked with the scratches [of lovemaking]
    and enclose your beautiful, lustrous waist.

    My darling, what joy would be mine if I were thus allowed to inhale
    the scent of your beauty.'[25]

    Figures 2 and 3. The text of Parthayana ('The Journeying of Partha'), Canto 19 Stanza 3, in Balinese script and romanised transliteration.

    Love and Longing
  23. Love is not only a physical but also an aesthetic experience, an emotion that is both aroused and soothed by nature. Unrequited love and desire both find their expression in the beauty of nature, while nature itself is essentially female and evokes the same responses as the sight of a beautiful woman. Both the experience and emotions of love in kakawin are sensual and eroticised, and are closely linked to the metaphors of the poetry in which they are expressed. Even the words used to define and express love, beauty and poetry are the same; each of these concepts is encapsulated in the concept of langö 'aesthetic experience, romantic feelings, the raptures of love; all that is beautiful or lovable, beauty, in particular: poetic beauty, poetry'.[26]
  24. The laments and poignant pleas of separated lovers are the hall-marks of kakawin poetry. Poetry, particularly kakawin verse, plays a central role in the discourse of separation and seduction. Carried away by feelings of love or overwhelmed by nature's beauty, would-be poets and parted lovers jot down their poems on any available surface. Pavilions, roof-beams, the petals of the pandanus flower are all used for inscribing love poetry. Kakawin verse is also the vehicle par excellence for lovers' messages. The lover who is skilled in composing verses to win his lady can expect to gain the victory. In frustration poets and lovers throw away their writing boards when they are unable to find the words to express their feelings. Husbands attempt to woo their wives by murmuring kakawin and kidung as a preliminary to lovemaking. The rejected suitors at Princess Indumati's bride's-choice ceremony (swayambara) in the Sumanasantaka ('Death by Sumanasa Flower'), voice their despair in verse form.[27] Love-sick women give vent to their feelings in poetic form, by writing of their feelings on the pudak, the petal of the pandanus, which they can then cradle like a doll and sing of their sorrow at being separated:

    One girl, sitting there forlornly on the floor with her hair unbound,
    swooning, was pitiful in her dejection,
    Writing of her desire on a lovely sumanasa flower, turning her
    longing to letters,
    As she whispered to her serving girl, telling of the pain of her love-sickness,
    Heart-brokenly giving voice to her sorrow in a charming lament.[28]

    Other women, hearts filled with love, were talking quietly, in sweet discussion.
    Such easy prey for the God of Love were they, that their hearts were the
    target of passionate desires.
    Her feelings of love leaving her weak, one girl went to lie down with
    a kakawin scribbled on a pudak.
    As she read her poem aloud by the light of the moon, she was so painfully
    affected that in trying to keep secret her longing, she fainted away.[29]
  25. Just as nature and women's bodies are metaphorical reflections of each other, the plant world also displays human emotions. Separation from a beloved is portrayed in terms of withered plants and flowers deprived of rain. Casting oneself like petals into a river is the metaphor for the ultimate self-sacrifice for love. Plants and flowers reach out to attract the passing hero or exhibit real or feigned indifference. Nature too experiences the confusion of yearning. Like kakawin princesses, plants may seek to move aside to escape the tendrils of creepers reaching out to them and shy away from the embrace of luxuriant undergrowth. More worldly creepers on the other hand, become limp with desire, seeking passionate embraces, tossing restlessly and rustling in anticipatory sensual delight; or reach out to the hero as he passes by to invite him to share in their physical charms. Here the ocean seems unable to bear being parted from the glorious mountain setting:

    The manifold beauty of the mountain brought delight to all who beheld it.
    Religious foundations, temples, monasteries, hermitages and communities were
    laid out in correct position.
    In every direction, they looked down over the city of Hastina.
    A thin grey mist, like a filmy breast cloth, shyly spread over all.

    It was set in a beautiful location where the ocean caressed it,
    The waves constantly lapped as if to embrace it,
    Then suddenly receded from sight in the distance, undulating like
    a green firmament,
    Coming to a halt on the horizon like a lover abandoning his beloved.[30]
  26. The physical perfection of the heroine, with the splendour of the natural world as her setting, is only one aspect of the kakawin depiction of women. Kakawin are concerned to portray the feminine ideal not only in corporeal terms, but also as the ultimate reflection of moral power and spiritual strength. However, the two are closely intertwined for it is in outward behaviour that the inner being is revealed. Control over the emotions is applauded, but the power of love and desire is sometimes almost overwhelming. Thus, kakawin poets in depicting the emotions and effects of love, and indeed the act of sexual intercourse as well, do so by emphasising the physical display of inner conflict. There are appropriate modes of behaviour for all those who people the kakawin world. Kakawin heroines are no exception – whether in the garden, in the bridal chamber or as they take their lives on the battle-field – their reactions are described in terms of their bodily responses and reactions. Self-control is the ideal. Implicit in this is the notion that intense emotion, whether desire, grief or unrequited love, anything that results in lack of control is potentially dangerous. Lack of control is always manifested in inappropriate physical reaction.
  27. The female characters in kakawin reflect the dichotomy between controlled and uncontrolled emotions and by extension controlled and uncontrolled bodies. The essential divide is between the behaviour of noble princesses on the one hand and the hazy, often nameless female companions and servants on the other. The arrival of a hero at court typically provokes a startling reaction in most of the palace women. They stream from their homes, half-dressed, in order to cast themselves before him, hair hanging loose, clothes in disarray. Grandmothers forget their age and even maidens who have never before been aware of such feelings find themselves overcome by unexplained yearning. In this description of King Rajasanagara's tour through his domains in fourteenth century Majapahit, the poet Prapanca describes such a scene:

    Let us speak of the people in the streets, lining the roads row on row,
    Crowded in the shade awaiting the moment when the King would pass.
    Excitedly the women came out to the gates, noisily pushing for a place,
    And there were those whose breast-cloth came off, they ran so impetuously.

    Those whose houses were further off jostled for places in tall trees,
    And maidens young and old hung dangling in bunches from the branches.
    There were coconut-palms and sugar-palms there – these they climbed without reflecting,
    Simply forgetting they could be seen – all they thought of was getting a view.[31]
  28. Love and desire are inseparable and evoke confusion, heartache and apprehension in women. In gardens, in the cool of evening, groups of palace women sit and gossip with each other on the pleasures of love and fantasise about the joys of giving themselves to the hero of the text. Explicit, though whispered, discussions of lovemaking take place among the older women. Hot and restless, they are filled with an intense yearning that seeks physical release.
  29. Female desire, at least for women of lesser rank, is depicted in kakawin in terms of uncontrolled and uncontrollable emotions rather than as sexual aggression. Love and longing are powerful emotional states, and the pleasures of love are to be enjoyed equally by both women and men, although wantonness is never condoned. When, for example, Rawana's sister Surpanakha disguises herself as a beautiful woman and seeks to win the favour of both Laksmana and Rama, she is described in strongly disapproving terms:

      You are a young girl, still a virgin but you act like a widow not an innocent girl.
      That is why you are not shy, and do not talk to me in a respectful way.[32]

  30. The responses of the palace women throw into relief the very contained and controlled reactions of the true kakawin heroine – the princess or queen. In contrast to their companions, kakawin princesses never join in this frenzy. Wan-faced and silent, they become withdrawn and pensive, troubled but not controlled by emotional turmoil. In a society in which self-control and restraint are prized, the ideal kakawin noblewoman is again upheld. Only in the ultimate emotional throes of final separation in death is uncontrolled behaviour condoned, only then do heroines unbind their hair, rend their garments and throw themselves on the ground. Control of desire is even more idealised for the heroes of kakawin. Only men of true spiritual power and moral virtue are fitting to rule the world. Within kakawin this is demonstrated most often by the ability of the hero to withstand sensual and sexual temptation. In the Arjunawiwaha ('The Marriage of Arjuna'), Arjuna is performing such powerful meditation that the gods become anxious for the safety of the world and send the most beautiful heavenly nymphs to tempt him. In spite of their many charms, all their efforts fail and Arjuna only agrees to give up his quest for spiritual power when he is reminded of his duty to render assistance to the gods in their fight against an evil demon. In scenes of courtship, poets commonly measure the virtue and beauty of kakawin princesses through their ability to 'defeat' a spiritually potent hero by making him fall in love.

    Figure 4. The heavenly nymphs tempt Arjuna. Illustrated Balinese palm leaf manuscript (prasi) depicting a scene from the Arjunawiwaha ('The Marriage of Arjuna') [author's private collection].

  31. The emotional responses of women to the physical experience of sex follow predictable patterns. Appropriate to them are an innate shyness, a coy and modest withdrawal that needs only skilful handling by a male partner to be turned to pleasure. It is striking that even women long married are depicted in the same emotional terms. They are as instinctively shy and modest as their virginal counterparts who are on the brink of their first sexual encounter, although their indifference and aversion is often feigned, an expression of displeasure at some slight, rather than the apparently real reaction of fright manifested by newly-wed brides.

    Love and Marriage
  32. Marriage is one of the dominant themes of kakawin poetry and kakawin provide a wealth of material on the cultural practices of marriage among the Javanese and Balinese court elites. Within these descriptions, poets have two main concerns, namely the acquisition of marriage partners, often through force, and the wedding night, particularly the consummation of the union. Marriage is a marker of adult status for both men and women. Many kakawin marriages involve abduction, allowing poets to combine romance and violence. Marriage by abduction, the most common form of marriage alliance in kakawin, symbolises political control. It is the means by which kakawin heroes can demonstrate their prowess and prove themselves worthy to govern the world.[33] At times marriage is a compromise reached to make the best of a potentially awkward situation in which the ardent bridegroom has first carried off his bride by abduction, even snatching her from the brink of a disastrous marriage to another unsuitable partner. Because the world of the kakawin is not merely populated with mortals, such unions are often reunions, bringing together once again divine couples separated by fate in earlier incarnations.
  33. Through lengthy descriptions of sexual intercourse within marriage kakawin poets are able to satisfy the poetical requirement of including a description of the enjoyment of lovemaking. In these kakawin descriptions, which are often quite explicit, the poet constantly evokes the bodily reaction of the woman:

    Bewildered and wan, the beautiful girl grew ever more afraid, and moaned,
    Bending gracefully aside when he tried to seize her waist, moving away,
    warding him off.
    Overwhelming sadness totally crushed her heart into little pieces,
    And tears of honey suddenly welled up in her eyes, as she arched her
    brows threateningly.

    His heart beating wildly, the prince became more and more passionate.
    Clearly he was the embodiment of honey, blended with sweet syrup,
    Akin to the thunder of the fourth month that lightens the suffering of
    those overcome by the pains of love.
    And his words, droplets of sweet delight, were the essence of love.[34]
  34. Poets emphasise the fragility and helplessness of the girl, her wan face and weariness. Powerless to resist, the bride is always portrayed as a victim and her defloration becomes a metaphorical defeat at the hands of the male. The imagery of war carries over into lovemaking. When honeyed words and poems in praise of her beauty have failed to persuade the princess, the husband, overwhelmed by his passions, then launches into the attack with all the strategies and ruses required of a commander in battle. Force is the ultimate weapon. The bed chamber becomes the battlefield, in which the girl is 'killed' by the love arrow of the prince, left wounded and bleeding, lying inertly on the bed like a battle casualty.
  35. Intent on his purpose, unable to restrain his mounting excitement,
    The prince abandoned himself to the overwhelming force of his boundless desire,
    quite without mercy.
    For it so assailed him that, in the end, he ravished the beautiful princess,
    Pressing down upon her trembling breasts, now laid bare, filling her with fear and aversion.

    After being thus deflowered, the weary maiden was completely devastated,
    Like a pale leaf that has just withered away.
    Gasping for breath, deprived of all strength, she rose and stumbling
    to the foot of the couch, sank down there,
    Her embroidered, fragrant robe stained with blood, glistening wet.

    Aghast, she readjusted her clothing
    For fear of again being forced to make love.
    She went dejectedly from the fragrant boudoir,
    A sudden frown on her face at seeing the blood trickling to her feet.[35]
  36. Again and again the poet draws attention to the female body, while the male is barely described. Her breasts and waist, her pale face, her tears, her eyebrows arched in a frown, her clothing in disarray, all become the focus of attention. Her confusion and fear is visible in her face as she turns aside, trying to avoid his caresses. The act of sexual intercourse leaves her weak and distressed. In these scenes, the prince constantly whispers the sweet words that are designed to win over his reluctant partner. Because the two lovers are destined to be united, eventually reluctance and aversion are overcome and both partners come to know bliss. Even in kakawin in which the couples are already married, lovemaking scenes of this kind are enacted, although naturally without the defloration of the bride.
  37. Sexual pleasure is not merely an end in itself. Tantric influences in Javanese and Balinese religious practices also ensure that sexual union unites more than human bodies. Through the correct application of the yoga of love, it is possible for the lovers to achieve union with the deity. Although the procreation of children is occasionally mentioned in passing as inherent in the duties of married couples, kakawin poets are little concerned with fecundity and rarely depict the domestic affairs of their characters. Nor is much attention even paid to the political and dynastic links forged through these unions. Mothers and daughters are incidental and nearly every kakawin woman of any importance is portrayed as a young woman of marriageable age, or a woman, who although already married is in her prime. Eroticism and aesthetic pleasure remain the central motifs.
  38. Just as the imagery of battle is taken up in the descriptions of sexual union, the imagery of the bed-chamber finds an occasional echo in war, as in the description of Abhimanyu's heroic battle against the Korawa forces, in which his armour is likened to the wedding raiment of the groom, and his attack to that of an ardent lover:

      His assault could be compared to the performance of a youth deflowering a maiden, the quivering of his sharp arrows resembled her frowning eyebrows. When he saw the arrow wounds on his chest, he thought that they were the scratches from the maiden's nails, and he mistook the clamour of the elephants, horses and chariots for her moaning.[36]

  39. The imagery of the bridal chamber so pervades kakawin literature that it is taken up in many descriptions of the natural world. In the following extract from the Bharatayuddha, for example, sunset is likened to the deflowering of a bride:

      Let us now describe how the sun set. The mist spread enchantingly, the sky resembled the gold-flowers of a bridal couple to be united in marriage. Long streamers of clouds blended into the glowing red of the horizon like blood soaking the red garment of the bride being deflowered.
      The moon rose – a splendid half moon that had no lustre on one side, like the face of a woman spying on the newly-weds from behind the half-closed door. The gadung flowers were as fragrant as the bride's garment loosened by the groom; the jasmine pointed to the stars were as pale as the bride before her groom.[37]

    Love and Loyalty
  40. For kakawin lovers the ultimate separation is death and this is the second major dramatic context in which kakawin women are portrayed, namely as faithful and loyal wives, those who are willing to follow their husbands into the next world. The depiction of widow sacrifice, and the expression of the desire to follow a husband in death are frequent enough to conclude that this kind of scene may have also been seen as an essential part of kakawin poetical practice. Kakawin depict two kinds of widow sacrifice. The first involves death by fire, a possible reflection of the Indian practice of sati. This is the form described in some of the earliest kakawin such as the Ramayana ('The Story of Rama') and Bharatayuddha. The second method depicts death by stabbing with a dagger (kris) while leaping into the fire. This is the form most commonly depicted in kakawin, and appears to be a specifically Javanese and Balinese form of sati. There is sufficient historical further evidence to indicate that the forms of widow-sacrifice depicted in kakawin reflect actual social practice. It was practised in Bali until the early twentieth century.[38]
  41. Some of the most poignant scenes in kakawin are the laments of newly-widowed women. In the Bharatayuddha, in which so many heroes die and so many widows and mothers are left alone, there are a number of scenes in which women express their desire to follow a loved one in death. When Arjuna's son Abhimanyu is killed in battle only his younger wife, Ksitisundari, can follow him in death because his other wife, Uttari, is pregnant and thus must wait behind.[39] In the Arjunawijaya, Queen Citrawati, tricked by Rawana into believing that her husband Arjuna Sahasrabahu has died in battle stabs herself with her kris without a moment's hesitation.[40] When Arjuna returns unharmed to the river bank he finds only her lifeless body. In this case there is a happy ending when the gods intervene and restore all the fallen to life. So powerful is the ideal of the proper conduct for the wife of a hero that even Queen Marmmawati, a character in the Sutasoma ('The Tale of Sutasoma') who has been cast out by her husband, takes her life when he is slain in battle.[41]
  42. It is not only wives who choose to display their love and loyalty in this graphic way. Mothers too are unable to live without sons, daughters without their parents. Hidimbi follows Ghatotkaca into the fire in the Bharatayuddha, while in the Sumanasantaka, Indumati, although still a child, wishes to follow her parents in death until her brother Bhoja dissuades her.[42] Servants and confidantes are equally involved in the kakawin concern with loyalty and devotion, for just as princesses are prepared to follow their husbands in death, faithful companions do the same for their mistresses, choosing to remain in their service in heaven rather than remain alone on earth.
  43. For a true kakawin heroine there can only one solution, that is to follow her husband in death. The author, Panuluh, describes Satyawati's suicide at length in the Bharatayuddha:

      Satyawati was unable to speak, as she trembled with sorrow. Blinded by her grief, she was bewildered and oblivious of her surroundings. As she fainted, she was unaware of her lamentation of the attendants and the cries of her companions....

      She regained consciousness after some assistance and put to rights her lower garment that had slipped down. She paid no mind to her loosed hair, for she insisted on joining Salya's body on the battlefield. She held the kris with which she would end her life so that she could be together with her beloved husband ... when she had almost reached the centre of the battlefield, the chariot suddenly broke as if to aggravate her plight, and so she had to travel on foot, stumbling along, leaning on her maid servant.

      ... How could she bear to look at all those horrifying sights – she who was accustomed to having all her wishes fulfilled and to having people attend upon her? Now everything she saw and heard was terrifying and repulsive, yet she forced herself to go on, for she was eager to find and see Salya's body with her own eyes.

      She was utterly exhausted , her feet were trembling, and time and time again she stumbled on slimy corpses and fell on her knees.

    At last she finds him and, having reproached him for leaving her alone:

      Her deep sorrow became intolerable, and as there seemed nothing else to wait for, she hurriedly prepared herself for death. She drew the dagger she had been holding all the while, which sparkled now taken from its sheath. She then threw herself fearlessly on it, and her blood gushed forth like red mineral.[43]

  44. For Javanese poets and their audiences, kakawin poetry is the proper vehicle for extolling the virtues of the loyal wife, for exemplifying the heroism that is fitting to be displayed the sacrifice of the wife on her husband's funeral pyre. Two heroines in the Bharatayuddha, Ksitisundari and Satyawati, ask that their deeds be recorded in kakawin verse in order to bring tears to the eyes of all who hear of their sad plight. Satyawati, is the ultimate role model for kakawin women who are faced with this situation. As the poet notes she 'is a worthy example to be followed and praised by other virtuous women'.[44]

    Agency, Nature and Gendered Practice
  45. Kakawin depict an idealised chivalric love, loyalty of an extreme kind, and an acceptance of duty and fate. As a genre of epic poetry, kakawin literature is concerned with grand themes – conquest by prowess in battle or through marriage. Within this male-dominated realm, kakawin women have little agency. Instead they are depicted as fragile, weak and dependent on men for their emotional, material and spiritual welfare. They enact passive roles, their destinies are guided by husband, father or brother. Protests voiced at the regulation of their lives are little more than opportunities for poets to elaborate the duties of daughters, sisters and wives, namely absolute adherence to dharma or duty, a powerful force that regulates social and personal relationships but which allows little freedom to women. Even within the wedding night scenes, the bride's change from aversion to pleasure is underpinned by the notion that once married her main duty is to serve her husband. There is, in fact, little trace of the autonomous women of Western descriptions, nor of the powerful female rulers and leaders of the Javanese and Balinese pasts.
  46. Unlike their male counterparts, kakawin women are free to act only within the social realm. They occupy the palaces, usually the innermost chambers, a secluded and self-contained world. Rarely do they venture out. At most they are found in company with other women, suitably chaperoned and guarded at recognised public events, such as life-rituals, picnics and festivals. Only an occasional magically-powerful woman – a holy nun, a demon, an incarnation of a deity – may belong to the world beyond the confines of the palace or city walls. Kakawin heroes on the other hand, who are engaged in the quintessential pursuits of heroes, namely war and the search for spiritual well-being through asceticism, are able to roam at will in the liminal zone between the social and the divine realms, traversing dangerous ravines, mountains and desolate areas where human affairs are ordered by forces beyond the control of mortals.
  47. Women, however, do serve to draw men back to the social world, providing the essential link for the continuance of social relationships, particularly as marriage partners. Wives form an important resource in the accumulation of potency for 'men of prowess'.[45] Women also play an important role as the motivation for heroic quests, as, for example, when Rama in the Ramayana hunts the golden deer for Sita; when Samba wanders in search of Yajnawati in the Bhomakawya ('The Tale of Bhoma' ) and Abhimanyu pursues Ksitisundari in the Ghatotkacasraya ('Gatotkaca to the Rescue'); or when Kresna takes up arms in his quest for Rukmini in the Hariwangsa and Kresnayana ('The Tale of Kresna').[46] Thus, like the heroines of European fairytales, the women in kakawin are 'victim heroes'. Although they are protagonists and have a role to play in narrative events, unlike proactive male heroes, they have little scope for initiating action. Instead they are drawn into the action by virtue of the bad things that happen to them.[47]
  48. Kakawin representations of women lend little support to the received notion of gender complementarity in Southeast Asia. From a feminist perspective, the central question may well be whether the lack of agency granted to women in kakawin should be read as evidence for the universal subordination of women. The dominant image of women in kakawin poetry, that of the beautiful woman, is a somewhat abstract ideal of feminine beauty and decorum. At the same time love is always sensual and the descriptions of love, women and the natural world which they inhabit are caught up in a metaphorical discourse that focuses almost exclusively on women's bodies. This voyeuristic interest in women's bodies calls to mind the debates concerning the universality of male dominance and the validity of the female is to nature as male is to culture dichotomy proposed (but later reconsidered) by Shelley Ortner.[48] In spite of the emphasis on the female form, there is no clear cut evidence that the representation of gendered bodies in kakawin can be situated within the context of a nature/female culture/male binary system.[49] It is true that the physical appearance of men is rarely a focus in kakawin. Poetical depictions of men, as rulers and warriors, highlight their bravery and prowess, as evidenced through their conduct rather than their physical form. Poets are also concerned with the acquisition of spiritual power by kakawin heroes through asceticism and self-control. The emphasis is on moral issues and right conduct, but these are not exclusively the prerogative of men. Women too, in the responses they display to their life experiences as daughters and wives, are portrayed as equally capable of participating in the spiritual and moral dimensions of their society. Women in kakawin are never reduced to mere physical beings. Striking in this context also is the almost complete disinterest in reproduction in kakawin discourse.
  49. This is not to suggest that the interest in kakawin in women's beauty is unmarked by gendered discourse. Although it is not possible to detail the evidence here, overall it seems probable that the depiction of women, at least in the kakawin discussed here, represents the male gaze. Zoetmulder's extensive studies of the Old Javanese poet indicate that the majority of extant kakawin poems are the work of male court poets, whose duties appear to have included various scribal and clerical tasks as well as accompanying their royal masters on tours of their dominions and even into battle.[50] Internal evidence from the opening eulogies and epilogues of various kakawin also supports this view. There is, however, also internal textual evidence for women's literacy so female authorship cannot be entirely discounted.
  50. Kakawin represent a 'practice (of power)'.[51] Kakawin poets and their royal patrons were complicit in the production and maintenance of discourses of power that lent support to hegemonic hierarchical and patriarchal social values. Every kakawin condoned the idealised construction of a politically powerful, predominantly male, court elite, one with close links to the institutional forces of religion and kingship. It is possible that these core hegemonic concepts remained unchanged during the long period of over one thousand years in which kakawin were produced. However, because there are no more than three or four extant works for each century, it is equally possible that these ideals and representations of women were shaped and reshaped many times. The scarcity of data may serve to mask these differences and give a misleading impression of continuity. Thus it is impossible to ask 'to what degree [kakawin] texts successfully impose[d] themselves on real people ... in real time.'[52] The resilience of similar images and ideals in contemporary Java certainly suggests kakawin encapsulate 'a formulaic representation of a dominant and normative world view, one that constitutes a reality if not the reality ... a prescription for rather than of reality'.[53] Whatever its history, the image of the shy, self-effacing Javanese girl nevertheless, has remained a powerful force even in modern Indonesian society.
  51. Perhaps one of the most significant benefits of making use of kakawin sources is that they reflect indigenous discourses of power. Because they predate European contact, they are on the whole 'untainted' by later, Western notions of sexuality and gender. Nonetheless, in viewing gender through kakawin literature, there is a very real risk of presenting a generic and ahistorical view of women in the courts, simply because the sources are too fragmentary to allow historical specificity. Ultimately, then, it is important, not to ask too much from kakawin as sources. At best, the handful of extant works bears witness to certain resilient cultural practices concerned with gender. The intersections of the idealised images and historical reality have yet to be fully explored, and the historical and cultural processes through which these images of women have been constructed may always remain irretrievable.


    Title Image: I Wayan Turun, Arjunawiwaha, 1974.

    This article forms part of a larger work in progress, a major study of women in the Indic courts of Java and Bali from the 9th to the 19th century. In it I consider not only the representations, images and gendered discourse of kakawin texts, but also the institutions of courtship, marriage and widowhood.

    [1] The high status of women has been reiterated in historical and anthropological studies since the first studies of Southeast Asia appeared just after the Second World War. For a recent overview, see Barbara Andaya (ed), Other Pasts: Women, Gender and History in Early Modern Southeast Asia, Honolulu: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Hawai'i, 2000, pp. 1-7. See also the essays in Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia, ed. Jane Monnig Atkinson and Shelly Errington, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990; Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, ed. Aihwa Ong and Michael Peletz, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, and Women of Southeast Asia, ed. Penny Van Esterick, Dekalb, Illinois: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University, revised edition, 1996.

    [2] Barbara Hatley's study 'Theatrical Imagery and Gender Ideology in Java', in Power and Difference, ed. Atkinson and Errington, pp. 177-208, remains the most important exploration of this issue in the performance arts. For a contemporary, ethnographic account of gender stereotyping in Java, see Susan Brenner, The Domestication of Desire: Women, Wealth and Modernity in Java, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

    [3] Lyn Parker has discussed the resilience of Balinese ideals of femininity in two unpublished papers, 'Flowers and Witches in Bali: Representations and Everyday Life of Balinese Women', Unpublished paper presented at Third Women in Asia Conference, Melbourne, 1993, and 'Conceptions of Femininity in Bali', Unpublished paper presented at the International Bali Studies Workshop, Sydney, 1995.

    [4] I have recently attempted to demonstrate the relevance of literary sources in a discussion of the representations of women in another poetic genre prominent in Balinese royal courts, the kidung. Kidung do not share the kakawin emphasis on the female body, but many of the roles and representations of women are similar to those discussed below. See Helen Creese, 'Inside the Inner Court: The World of Women in Balinese Kidung Poetry', in Other Pasts, ed. Andaya, pp. 125-46.

    [5] The standard work on power in Java is Benedict Anderson, 'The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture', in B. Anderson, Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 17-78. Some of the more important studies focusing on power and gender include Shelley Errington, 'Recasting Sex, Gender and Power: A Theoretical and Regional Overview' in Power and Difference, ed. Atkinson and Errington, pp. 1-58; Ward Keeler's two articles, 'Villagers and Exemplary Centre in Java' Indonesia 39, (1985):111-40, and 'Speaking of Gender in Java' in Power and Difference, ed. Atkinson and Errington, pp. 127-52; and Susan Brenner, Domestication of Desire.

    [6] Recent studies include Peter Carey and Vincent Houben in 'Spirited Srikandhis and Sly Sumbadras: The Social, Political and Economic Role of Women at the Central Javanese Courts in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries', in Indonesian Women in Focus, ed. Elsbeth Locher-Scholten and Anke Niehof, Leiden: KITLV Press, 1987, pp. 12-42; Helen Pausacker, 'Srikandhi and Sumbadra: Stereotyped Role Models or Complex Personalities' in The Art and Culture of Southeast Asia, ed. Lokesh Chandra, New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1991, pp. 271-97; and Ann Kumar, 'Imagining Women in Javanese Religion: Goddesses, Ascetes, Queens, Consorts, Wives, in Other Pasts, ed. Andaya, pp. 87-104.

    [7] Carey and Houben suggest this in 'Spirited Srikandhis'. Nevertheless, their argument is somewhat problematic because it lends so much agency for the development of Javanese gender ideology to Europeans. As the kakawin sources used here indicate, the submissive aristocratic girl is an ancient image in Java. What appears to be a more recent 'invented tradition' may simply reflect patriarchal perceptions about women common to Indic, Islamic as well as European discourses of power.

    [8] Andaya , Other Pasts, p.2.

    [9] Primary epigraphical sources are discussed in Antoinette Barrett-Jones, Early Tenth Century Java from the Inscriptions, Dordrecht: Foris, 1984, and Nancy Van Setten van der Meer, Sawah Cultivation in Ancient Java: Aspects of Development in the Indo-Javanese Period, Canberra: ANU Press 1979. Gender has never been used specifically as a category of analysis for Indonesian epigraphical sources, as far as I am aware.

    [10] The literature on this topic is extensive. Some recent, relevant works include Ann Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things, Durham: Durham University Press, 1995; Sherry Ortner, Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996; especially Chapter 6, 'Making Hegemonies', pp. 139-72; Lenore Manderson and Margaret Jolly (eds.), Sites of Desire Economies of Pleasure: Sexualities in Asia and the Pacific, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    [11] The standard reference for Javanese kakawin literature remains P.J. Zoetmulder's Kalangwan: A Survey of Old Javanese Literature, Nijhoff: Leiden,1974. For an overview of the Balinese kakawin tradition, see Helen Creese, 'The Balinese kakawin Tradition: A Preliminary Description and Inventory,' Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 155, 1 (1999):45-96.

    [12] Although the Javanese and Balinese manuscript traditions do not actually overlap, there is evidence to suggest that Bali and Java belonged to the same cultural and religious world from at least the eleventh century until the Javanese courts became Islamic in the sixteenth century. Kakawin were produced only in pre-Islamic Java until the fifteenth century, but were preserved in Bali. While it seems probable that there was an independent kakawin tradition in Bali prior to the seventeenth century, no trace of it now remains. I have discussed the links between the Javanese and Balinese traditions in 'The Balinese kakawin Tradition'.

    [13] For a more detailed discussion of Old Javanese historiography, see Helen Creese, 'Old Javanese Studies: A Review of the Field', Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 157, 1 (forthcoming, May 2001).

    [14] Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot (eds.), 'Writing the History of Women' in A History of Women in the West 1: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, Cambridge, Mass. and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992, p. x.

    [15] This apparently universal function of premodern literature is noted by Duby in his discussion of a number of real but fictionalised literary women in twelfth century France, including Eleanor of Aquitaine. Georges Duby, Women of the Twelfth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997, p.2.

    [16] In particular, I have found Sherry Ortner's work, recently brought together in a single volume (Making Gender), extremely helpful. Many of the other studies cited above have also shaped the questions I have asked of the kakawin materials. I deal with the theoretical issues more comprehensively in my forthcoming book on kakawin women, but I have opted not to detail them here to allow for more discussion of the source material.

    [17] Andaya, Other Pasts, p. 5.

    [18] There is no convenient term to encompass the kakawin source material produced in Java until the end of the fifteenth century and then in Bali from the seventeenth century onward. All kakawin are products of court-based societies in which certain ideals of Indian kingship were incorporated and where Indian religions were practised. Terms such as 'Indianised', 'Hinduised' and 'Indic' distort the indigenous character of both the poems themselves and the societies that produced them, and are in any case inappropriate for Bali from the sixteenth century onwards; 'preIslamic' works for Java, but not for Bali, while 'precolonial' means the sixteenth century for Java but the twentieth for Bali. This broad scope also presents certain problems for the analysis of the representations of gender over such a long period of time. Nevertheless, my earlier studies (Creese, 'Balinese kakawin Tradition', 'Inside the Inner Court') do suggest that it is possible to speak of a 'kakawin world' even if this does necessitate a geographical leap from Java to Bali from the sixteenth century onwards and occasionally glossing over the analytical obstacles.

    [19] R.H. Th Friederich, The Civilization and Culture of Bali, translated by E. R. Rost, Calcutta: Susil Gupta, [1849] 1959, p. 5.

    [20] Arjunawijaya 12.4-12.7, S. Supomo, Arjunawijaya: A Kakawin of Mpu Tantular, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1977. There is a remarkably similar passage in the eighteenth century Parthayana (4.6-4.9); see Helen Creese, Parthayana - 'The Journeying of Partha: An Eighteenth Century Balinese Kakawin, Leiden: KITLV Press, 1998, p. 169.

    [21] Zoetmulder, Kalangwan, pp. 196-97.

    [22] Ramayana, 11.54, p. 302, Soewito Santoso, Indonesian Ramayana, 3 vols, New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1980.

    [23] Parthayana 39.10, Creese, p. 291.

    [24] Bharatayuddha 44.8-44.10, S. Supomo, Bharatayuddha: An Old Javanese Poem and its Indian Sources, New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1993, pp. 240-41.

    [25] Parthayana, 19.3, Creese, p. 22.

    [26] P.J. Zoetmulder, Old Javanese-English Dictionary, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1982, pp. 976-9.

    [27] Sumanasantaka, pp. 66-101, see Zoetmulder, Kalangwan, pp. 151-3.

    [28] Parthayana, 14.2, Creese, p. 205.

    [29] Parthayana, 35.19, Creese, p. 277.

    [30] Abhimanyuwiwaha, 2.22-2.23. [unpublished manuscript Kirtya IVb/80; my translation].

    [31] Nagarakretagama, 59.5-59.6, S.O. Robson, Desawarnana (Nagarakrtagama) by Mpu Prapanca, Leiden: KITLV Press, 1975, pp. 67-8. Similar passages are found in, for example, the Bharatayuddha 2.7-2.10, Supomo, 1993, p.167, and Arjunawijaya 31.8, Supomo, 1977, p. 225.

    [32] Ramayana, 4.40, Soewito, 1980, p. 97.

    [33] Brenner, Domestication of Desire, p. 165.

    [34] Parthayana, 17.4-17.5, Creese, pp. 215.

    [35] Parthayana, 17.11-18.2, Creese, pp. 217-9.

    [36] Bharatayuddha 13.29, Supomo, 1993, p. 188.

    [37] Bharatayuddha 4.12-4.13; Supomo, p. 169.

    [38] I have discussed the practice of sati in the Indonesian archipelago in 'Ultimate Loyalties; The Self-immolation of Women in Old Javanese Literature', Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 157,1 (forthcoming, May 2001). See also Alfons Van der Kraan 'Human Sacrifice in Bali: Sources Notes and Commentary', Indonesia 40, 1 (1985):89-112.

    [39] Bharatayuddha 15.4-15.8, Supomo, 1993, p. 191.

    [40] Arjunawijaya 64.3-63.4, Supomo, 1997, p. 272.

    [41] Soewito Santoso, Sutasoma: A Study in Javanese Wajrayana, New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1975.

    [42] Bharatayuddha 19.15-19.19, Supomo, 1993, pp. 202-3.

    [43] Bharatayuddha 44.2-45.2, Supomo, 1993, pp. 239-42.

    [44] Bharatayuddha 46.1, Supomo, 1993, p. 243.

    [45] The term was coined by O. Wolters in 1974. His most recent overview of the concept is found in O.W. Wolters 'Miscellaneous Notes on "Soul Stuff" and "Prowess"', History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspective, Ithaca, New York: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Cornell University, 1999, pp. 93-95.

    [46] The Kresnayana has been edited and translated by Soewito Santoso, Kresnayana: The Kresna Legend in Indonesia, New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1986; the Hariwangsa by A. Teeuw, Hariwangsa Tekst en Critisch Aparaat, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1950, 2 vols, and the Ghatotkacasraya by Sutjipto Wirjosuparto, Kakawin Ghatotkacasraya: Ceritera Lakon dalam Bahasa Kawi, Ph.D. thesis, University of Indonesia, 1960. See Zoetmulder, Kalangwan, for summaries of the plots of these kakawin.

    [47] Sherry Ortner, 'Making Gender: Toward A Feminist, Minority, Postcolonial, Subaltern, etc., Theory of Practice' in Making Gender, p. 9.

    [48] See Ortner, Making Gender, especially Chapter 2, 'Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?', pp. 21-42 (originally published in 1974), and her later reconsideration of the same question in Making Gender, Chapter 7, 'So, Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?', pp. 173-80.

    [49] I find this a tantalising notion but have yet to discover a way in which to apply it satisfactorily to the kakawin data, where body and mind do, in fact, seem to be 'complementary' rather than opposed.

    [50] P. J. Zoetmulder, 'Kawi and Kakawin', Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 113,1 (1957):50-69; Kalangwan, Chapter 4, pp. 126-86.

    [51] In the sense described by Ortner in 'Making Gender: Toward A Feminist, Minority, Postcolonial, Subaltern, etc., Theory of Practice' in Making Gender.

    [52] Ortner, Making Gender, p. 2.

    [53] Brenner, Domestication of Desire, p. 165.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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