Being a 1990s Indonesian child and early 2000s teen, I grew up being taught projections on the 21st century “global era”. It was, and maybe still is, a generation of historical and cultural amnesia – at least so it was for many internationally educated kids from upper-middle class families like me.
As a child, I read colourful children storybooks in English and Indonesian, mostly on Americanised versions of European folklores or classical literature. While my father also told me some Indonesian folklores such as the Javanese version of Mahabharata and traditional fables, unfortunately I have never owned attractive kid-friendly books of Indonesian folklores, or watched them as cartoons on TV.
Western philosophy is still taught around the world through accounts of Greco-Roman mythology. While my performing arts classmates in Jakarta were busy keeping up with the latest trends of American and British pop culture, I spent my weekends in art houses watching Indonesian theatre and music performances, discovering how the long forgotten folklores of Indonesia still accurately describe my country’s human condition today. And they feel so much closer to me than those foreign European gods I read about in philosophy class.
Reno Azwir from Noura Books has been researching traditional Indonesian religions and folklores for 19 years. A common trend that Reno found throughout communities in Indonesia is that they all disseminate life lessons through folklore and mythology.
“Myths are important for the development of humankind. It’s man’s simplest attempt to understand nature,” said Reno. But this is not unique in Indonesia.
Reno said that Westerners tend to dismiss supernatural miracles as a myth. “But myths are the ground from which reason grows. Without myths, reason cannot grow.”
Before Europeans became acquainted with science, they invented mythical beings such as Thor, the Norse god of thunder. “The myth started from ignorance. But the establishment of the myth in the culture was what drove Europeans to discover the electrostatic discharge in the sky to explain what lightning and thunder are. Now Thor has simply become a myth, rather than the truth itself, but his story is still told as folklore,” said Reno.
An example of a myth-based practice in Indonesia is the Baduy of Banten’s taboo to store rice paddies on the ground. They are kept in a huma, an elevated wooden barn. “According to Baduy myth, gravity takes away nutrients from rice. The stilts that support the huma is soaked in water, because water is a natural preservative and pest repellent for wood, and it also serves as a buffer between the huma and gravity,” explained Reno. “We dismiss such practices as myth, and yet rice paddies stored in the huma can last up to 100 years.”
Similarly, Dayak tradition in Kalimantan prescribe certain days and times to cut bamboo, because before the introduction of science, myths explain the centrifugal forces that affect the water content of the bamboo.
Java’s Serat Centhini, a written work orally distributed among the masses through folklore and poetry, has been a medium of instruction for building robust houses, preparing nutritious food and medicines to ward off disease, and to maintain passion and pleasure in married couples.
“Many cultures in Indonesia designate an area of hutan terlarang (forbidden forest),” said Reno. Folklores of evil spirits and supernatural phenomena would develop around the hutan terlarang, but this in fact protects the people’s food, construction, and water resources. “So nowadays, we develop a modern concept of hutan terlarang and call them ‘national parks’ instead.”
Folklore also serves as a social medium for Indonesian communities. The Minangkabau in West Sumatra has kaba (poetic songs narrating traditional folklores). When there’s a full moon, the kaba leader would call the community to gather outdoors, and they would make music while listening to stories that teach wisdom.
“They relate to kaba just like we relate to our favourite TV shows,” said Reno. “The kaba fosters interpersonal relationships. The stories and their character provide a common cultural reference where moral lessons are established. People in the community would tell each other, ‘Don’t do what Pak Belalang did!’”
Pak Belalang is one of Reno’s favourite Indonesian folklores. Once upon a time, the King boarded out his rooster to Pak Belalang. While Pak Belalang was out, his wife slaughtered the chicken and fed it to their son. When the King summoned Pak Belalang to check on his rooster, Pak Belalang ordered his son to enter the covered chicken coop and brought him before the King. Pak Belalang could face a death sentence if the King learns that his rooster is gone.
“Yes, the rooster is in there,” said Pak Belalang as he uncovers the coop. “It can walk and crow like your rooster, but he has taken the image of my son. My wife, not knowing that the rooster belongs to Your Majesty, has fed it to my son, so now the rooster is in my son.”
“Your Majesty gave me the opportunity to take care of your rooster, so now please give me the opportunity to raise my son,” he continued. The King took mercy and let the father and son go alive.
Reno admitted that the fiction market in Indonesia’s publishing business is still dominated by foreign fiction. Reno cannot yet name a contemporary Indonesian author who has gained mainstream success by writing a work of fiction inspired by Indonesian folklores.
That said, Reno believes there is potential, as he has plans to sign a previously unpublished Indonesian author in his mid-twenties who is currently writing a children’s fantasy loosely based on the seafaring Bajo ethnic group and several others in Eastern Indonesia.
“Because we don’t take good enough care of our heritage, the wealth of our literature are being moved overseas, and other countries use it to enhance their civilisations,” added Reno.
He mentioned that the manuscript of the Bugis-Makassarese creation myth epic La Galigo – also known as the world’s longest written work at 9,000 large pages – has been given on permanent loan to the Leiden University Library in The Netherlands. An English musical-theatrical adaptation of the epic, directed by American Robert Wilson, is currently touring the world.
“If young Indonesians are willing to learn our literary heritage and return to their cultural roots, build a great civilisation from the bottom to the top. Indonesia would be a much better country.”
“A Sumatran proverb says, ‘Lay your roots down here, but bear fruit everywhere’,” Reno concluded. “Our closest roots can be found in our oral traditions, our folklores.”