The coast is the world to be viewed, with curiosity and wonder, from a distance—from the outside.
Nenek moyangku seorang pelaut
gemar mengarung samudra luas
My ancestors were sailors
sailing the oceans wide
…as the children’s song goes. But the sea is mute in traditional narratives of some of Indonesia’s inhabitants.
Javanese wayang (shadow puppet) performances begin and end not with the sea, but with the gunungan, the two dimensional cone-shaped puppet decorated with trees and forest animals. If what it represents is supposed to be the sacred and powerful universe, then this does not include the sea.
It is true that the ideal country, as the wayang kulit (leather shadow puppet) imagines and as the dalang (puppeteer) beautifully describes in his narration, includes the sea. But it is a marginal element. The ideal kingdom, the dalang says, is one “with its back to the mountains, flanked on its left with wide rice fields, and on its right a river flowing to a large harbor.” The sea is implied only in the last words, ‘large harbor’.
Maybe because they originated in an epic that arose in the interior of ancient India, wayang characters are never depicted as heroes like those in the children’s song who ‘sailed the oceans wide’. As far as I know, only Bhima, the second Pandawa prince, is mentioned in a tale that involves the sea. This is in the Dewa Ruci story when Bhima wants to be a disciple of the tiny god with long hair who lives in the ocean. But that is the only time. And in that story, the Serat Dewa Ruci, which does not come from the Mahabharata, there is no description of waves and typhoons. There is only the mythological creature, the Naga, a symbol of obstacles and danger.
It is true that there is a god of the sea, Waruna, who in the famous 12th century Javanese poem, the Bhomantaka, is called sang hyang riyak, god of the waves. But Waruna is only a figurative god, he virtually never appears in wayang performance, and is mentioned only once in old Javanese poetry, kakawin. “Unlike in the much better studied classical Malay literature, authors of kakawins were little interested in the theme of the open seas,” concludes Jiri Jákl, a researcher from the Institute of Anthropology at Heidelberg University, in his study published in Archipel 100, 2020.
The court poets were from a class of landed aristocracy who were not explorers. They did not roam far from the palace. They did venture to the world outside, but did not cross the seas. They only went to the shore. As Jákl writes, one often finds descriptions about the shore, even with splendid metaphor. Jákl quotes lines like these from the Bhomantaka:
sawang kanya lwir ning pasisir i halilintang nrepasuta
layar ning banyaganusu-nusu katon manda tan awas
The seashore looked like a maiden as the prince passed by…
The sails of a merchant-ship resembled her breasts, faintly visible, not very clear.
We do not find such beautiful fusion of the erotic and poetic in Javanese literature after Islam, including the works of Ronggowarsito. But in both old Javanese poetry and in 19th century Javanese literature, one senses a distance between the poet and the world beyond his habitat. It is not only geographical distance. The court poets, when they did visit the coast, were impressed to see for the first time the fishermen’s skill at catching fish, as written in Mpu Panuluh’s 12th century work, the Ghatotkacasraya. Another kakawin vividly describes market day at the shore, when boats come and people trade—and women ‘offer their beauty for sale’.
In other words, the coast is the world to be viewed, with curiosity and wonder, from a distance—from the outside.
In his study, Jákl quotes Mpu Monaguna, an early 13th century poet, in his Sumanasantaka. The author says he “takes no pleasure in visiting the seaside… The common people there have no regard for difference of rank,” tan wruh ing purushabeda.
The poet, used to the social hierarchy of the court, is shocked to come across something different: the more egalitarian life of the world of fishermen and traders. He complains, “Only the waves rise high in rows and appear to welcome respectful poets who are lost in reverie.”
What Mpu Monaguna does not see is that waves also shake and threaten. The author of the Sumanasantaka is too used to life protected by structure and order—without being aware that ‘order’ is repression which attempts to conceal social inequality and conflict.
Jákl’s study finds that in the late Kediri period, between 1100-1222, tension mounted. On one side was the power and cultural prestige nurtured by the aristocracy living in locations with an agricultural base. On the other side, was the growing merchant class on the coast. They were becoming increasingly strong though international trade in luxury goods. Increasingly, too, they were uneasy with order, particularly when in Javanese history the kings and nobility at the centre of power were rarely able to completely control all the goings-on of people on the coast. In this competition, the aristocrats in their palaces developed the ‘ideology’ of ‘flawed’ coastal people. Mpu Monagua was of that view.
It seems that his attitude was deep rooted: the coast was an anathema. Right into the 20th century, the language spoken by those on the coast—in Tegal, Banyumas and other places—was considered improper, not ‘correct’ Javanese. A guide to wayang performance published in Surakarta considered the way that coastal people arranged wayang to be incorrect, or ‘bad’. A teaching manual compiled by the palace literati recommended that young people keep away from the example of ‘merchants’, a view that placed the merchant class outside, like people from the coast.
Of course this view could not remain influential forever. The modern world tempted, disturbed, but could not be ignored. It is interesting that Takdir Alisjahbana in the early 20th century compared the modern world to ‘the sea’: the young generation left the world of tradition that was ordered but static like “a calm lake without ripples.” They moved ‘towards the sea’, to the world that was free, creative, with all its risks.
And the coast was no longer quiet. The gunungan was not the one and only beginning. The sea was not mute after all.