Dialogue July-September, 2011, Volume 13 No.1
The Reworking of Indian Epics in the Other Side of Indian Ocean
For centuries, Indo-Malay authors, including craftsmen and artists, have created hikayat and other works of art of unsurpassed beauty and aesthetic value. All these works of art have to be understood through a tradition uniquely theirs. The key to understanding them lies in rediscovering and deciphering their codes. This would require knowledge of semiotics, linguistics and philology as these hidden codes are need to be unlocked and reactivated. Many Indo-Malay hike from the Hindu period might have been written to be chanted to a non-literate audience and not to be experienced visually, but audibly. This concept of creation is in dire need of being reinterpreted and reappraised in the present context. Authors and scribes charged with transforming these oral and wayang tales had their creative freedom to recreate and reinterpret in its own rights as literary creativity. But, the writing and rewriting of hikayat were never an accurate transcription as a mechanical process. Though trained to follow the schema and convention, all the authors and scribes had to work within the authorship framework of Malay traditional literature. This style of composition is so buried in antiquity that we knew very little about. What is important is the cultural inheritance and its spirit and tradition that authors and scribes in the Indo-Malay world imbibe when they created a work. The wisdom concerning their meaning, significance and place in the history of Malay literature was determined by a hitherto underexplored theory of reworking and rewriting of Malay oral and wayang tradition which is explored in this paper.
Indo-Malay Archipelago covers an immense area, comprising the present Republic of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, southern Thailand and southern Philippines. As a natural junction of sea routes between Southern and Eastern Asia, this region has had maritime contacts with many parts of Asia since pre-historic times. Except a few islands, this area has also for centuries been the meeting point of Chinese, Indian, Arab and European influences, which in turned have played a decisive role in the development of Indo-Malay manuscript and oral literature. This includes literary tradition, with hundreds of hikayat, combining indigenous traditions with mythical story materials, from the Hindu period, the focus of this paper. First of all, the arrival of Hinduism can be ranked as one of the greatest instances of inter-civilizational dialogues in the region then. From the literary works which we have inherited, it is evident that there was a rich and stimulating exchange between the new creed of Hinduism and Buddhism and the dominant local ideas and belief systems in the region. From the extant hikayat, it is obvious that local folks in the early days did not adopt a confrontational approach to Hindu-Buddhism nor did they accept Hindu-Buddhism totally. This means their acceptance of philosophical and religious ideas from Hindu-Buddhiism was selective This resulted in the region’s cultural tradition characteristic liken to a rich tapestry of many, varied multicolored designs, interwoven and layered upon each other within the framework of native tradition (Roxas-Lim 2003: 16). This filtering into the sieve of the local traditions demonstrates a process of intellectual engagement, adaptation, interaction and transformation of one another. New ideas that were accommodated were used to widen the scope and range of native traditions. The outcome naturally creates something this is new and unique (Roxas-Lim (2003: 17). It is this heritage that shapes the self and enriches the culture of the region. (Eddin 2003: 11). As important monuments in Malay literature, these anonymous works from some seventy two Malay palaces all over the Malay world not only reflected the level of ingenuity and wisdom of the authors and scribes, but also unique synthesis of the early Malay culture and tradition. The arrival of Hinduism, like Islam after the 14th century, provided a great surge of artistic expression in the Malay traditional literature both in manuscript and oral forms. Thus, the literature of Malay world from the Hindu period must be seen in the context of a long history, marked by international contacts. Chronologically, the ensuing development of Indianized kingdoms from AD 100 onwards had provided increasing evidence of the long history of local cultures and the presence of early Malay civilizations.
But, in surveying Malay traditional literature, we see many familiar genres of Hindu, Islamic and Javanese literature and very little local Malay literature as documented in a British colonial-scholar, R. O Winstedt’s work (1969), which more or less the prototype of more than a dozen of similar works produced so far. Sweeney (1994: 14) explains that such a knowledge from Winstedt has been the creation of British colonial scholarship in the 19th century when they attempted to recreate Malay knowledge to the advantage of British colonial rule. As it is, the arrival of British East India Company has brought with it a radical transformation of the understanding of Malay World then. Historically local folks in the region had contributed to the process of Hindunization of Southeast Asia. The term Indianization or Hindunization has been applied by historians to refer to the impact of Indian culture on Malay world. As ties with India established, the Indianized kingdoms in the region began to emerge around AD 100. Srivijaya, a maritime empire in the island of Sumatra from the 7th to the 13th century, had controlled Malay Peninsula and parts of Java with Hindu-Buddhist Sailenda dynasty flourished in central Java in the 8th and 10th centuries, until the 13h century, when Islam was accepted in Pasai and Malacca. Over the centuries, various cultural traits, including the Sanskrit language, literature, jurisprudence and concept of royalty were adopted in some of the Malay palaces and spread to the others. As early as 400 A. D, with the expansion and increased intensity of trade, the Pallavas of the Coromandel coast was believed to have left Brahminical altars in Borneo and Buddhist inscriptions in Lembah Bujang, Kedah. In the 8th century A. D., there had evolved from the Pallava alphabet the Kawi script, an old form of Javanese before it expired about 1400 A. D. (Winstedt 1969: 34). Early in the 11th century, the Chola kings of the Corommandel Coast first raided the Indian “colonies” in Malaya. Following that Sanskrit loan-words appeared in Malay language when Tamils and Gujeratis conducted trade with Malacca (Winstedt 1969: 35). In short, the so-called Malay world then was often described as the meeting point of Indian and Chinese cultures. Following the arrival of Hinduism, we witness too the development of complex socio-cultural rituals that encompassed practically all areas of life, ranging from politics and government to family law and inter-personal relations (Farish A. Noor 2005: 38). In the process, the new social, political and religious systems had transformed the mental, moral, aesthetic and cultural universe of the local folks. In the end, there emerged a rigid and highly-ordered-religio-political-social-system with raja and istana occupying a pivotal position in the society. In this way, Indianized courts were established in Java, Sumatra and Malay Peninsula before the emergence of the Islamic Sultanate in Malacca in the early 13th century. Similarly, Malay ruling class then had close ties with Islamic India, from where some of the sultans or their forefathers had come from. Under the influence and patronage of the Indianized courts, there was a strong Indian influence in literature, dance, theatre, including the adoption of great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. They contributed the most popular story materials first in Java and later on in other surrounding areas. Javanese influences continued in Malacca court, as the sultans there had large retinues of Javanese workers and servants as reflected in at least Hikayat Hang Tuah. From Mahabharata, the work called Bharatayuddha was born in 1157 in Java.
From the extant resources, Malay literature was not written until about 1400 AD, though Javanese literature was believed to date from 900AD. Problems of dating Malay literature from the Hindu period are insurmountable not only because of the destruction of lontar leaves and other easily perishable fragile organic materials in the harsh tropical climate, but also the rapid evolution of local languages and scripts, namely the Palava, Kawi and Renchung and not to mention the destruction of Hindu works following the ascendency of Islam. Nevertheless, the extant literature could be used to yield an outline or glimpse of the history of Hinduism in the by-gone days. The point is Hinduism did not break the Malay literary tradition, but reinforced it in the sense that ideas and practices from Hinduism were accommodated in one way or another in the existing Malay literature to widen its scope and range. The outcome is something new and thus unique in the sense that we find different themes, subjects and styles co-exist too in traditional Malay literature, showing tolerance, flexibility and adaptability. One obvious example of the co-existence of Hinduism and Islam is Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa. But, the use of literature, including the term hikayat has to be understood in the context Malay traditional authorship, entrenched in the mindset of Malay authors and the Malay world, blessed by the intermingling of cultures and literature.
Contents of Encompassing Nature
There are commonality of themes, symbols, ideas, beliefs, values and many other cultural elements in the extant literary works composed in Javanese and Malay courts. Therein we came across the marvelous and fantastic tales that tell not only of the adoption and adaptation of Hinduism in the region, but also a paradigm shift in the local folk’s understanding of themselves: who they were and where they were located in the universal scheme of things. A new order of knowledge was being created in place of the old. As mentioned earlier, the arrival of Hinduism did not cause a break with the past. This co-mingling between the past and the present, between Hinduism and Islam, was also evident in many of the extant Malay hikayat in Jawi that we know, including Hikayat Indera Jaya and Hikayat Shah Marsdan, in addition to the already mentioned Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, written after Islam had taken root in the Malay world. In them various linguistic, cultural and religious currents flow through. They are also pregnant with Hindu, Islamic, animistic and indigenous tales (Winstedt, 1969; Farish A Noor 2002: 232-3).
For the Malays in the past, dense and humid forests surrounding them was an unknown and mysterious space. Worse, forces of nature ruled, with demons and ghosts lurking and inhabiting the forests. They were believed to be on the lookout for wandering human beings. Thus, not only local folks dared not upset the natural equilibrium that maintained the balance and harmony between the world of men and nature, but also that Malay world abound with tales of heroes undergoing their trials along every step in their journeys in the foreboding forests. In literary works from the Hindu period, human beings were in contact with spirits and interestingly, they could speak with animals and spirits in the forest. For example in Hikayat Shah Marsdan, Raja Indera Jaya was known to have been transformed into a bird and later a monkey. In addition to many strange and wonderful things that happened one after other, he met Ulama Tuan Shekih al-Din and Tuan Sheikh Lukman al-Hakim (Farish A Noor 2005: 24). This is one example of re-incarnation in the Hindu epics, in addition to many others in Ramayana and Mahabarata which had inspired many hikayat and Panji stories connected with the narration and dramatic characters of Rama (from Ramayana) and Pandawa Lima (from Mahabharata). All in all, we find that indigenous animistic beliefs and nature worship have been incorporated into Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic belief systems in one way or the other that we find spirits are invoked and appeased to ensure health, prosperity, fertility, to ward off evil bala, and to obtain the general well-being, pahala, for one’s self, for the family and for the community. Here, literary works in their myriad forms have served to ratify social relations and deal with the risks and uncertainties of life (Roxas-Lim 2003: 50-53).In the process, generations of Malay authors were composing literary works that told their story, their people and how they viewed the universe in this way.
In the process and in this way, Hikayat Indera Jaya, can be cited as another example that includes rather than excludes, or accommodates rather than differentiates between Hinduism and Islam. In the hikayat, the encounter between Islam and the pre-Islamic past was negotiated with care in the same way that Hindu temples and Muslim mosques were built next to one another in the region. This indicates tolerance and readiness of local folks to absorb different faiths, and continue indigenous religious practices and revere ancestral spirits as in the Hindu-inspired Hikayat Sri Rama. The ritual of main puteri in Kelantan now illustrates the point. In this context, Farish A Noor (2005: 28-9) notes that Hinduism was not juxtaposed to Islam in the fundamentally didactic text. Likewise, Roxas-Lim (2003: 34) observes the worship of mountains and the practice of locating sacred sites on mountains and hills as in the case of the tombs of Muslim Sultan of Central Java in Imo Giri and Tambayat. It is the encompassing contents of the literary works that brings out the richness of the Malay literature and culture and the creativity of hundreds of Malay authors, anonymous and known (Ding, 1999 & 2003).
It was during the Hindu period that Hinduism held sway in Malay and Javanese courts with Hinduism reaches the peak of its development and importance in the region in the Salendra and Srivijaya dynasties mentioned earlier. It was also during this period that Javanese and Malay rajas took to the Hindu concept of caste and the caste system and further developed it. Noticing that the pre-Islamic Javanese and Malay kerajaan was firmly focused upon the near-omnipotent raja, Farish A. Noor (2005: 39) adds that the term kerajaan ensured that it was the raja who was the primary object of loyalty from his subject. In this context, the concept of derhaka was taken from the Hinduism to be contextualized in the pre-existing power structure. The hierarchy and structure of Malay kerajaan can be referred to in Milner works (1982 & 1986) In the same way, the Hindu concept of sakti was grafted to give the local ruling elite sacral-supernatural power and authority (Farish A. Noor 2005: 38-40). From literary point of view, the multifarious beliefs, ideas and symbols in Mahabharata and Ramayana gave the Javanese and Malay court artisans plenty of tales, ideas, myths and legends to work on, thus kept them occupied for hundreds of years. Works, including Nagarakertagama by the Javanese court poet Prapancha of the Majapahit kingdom, valorized the ruler Raja Hayam Wuruk as the Dewaraja, placing him at the narrative centre of Java-center of universe (Farish A. Noor 2005: 39). As it is, the extant hikayats originated from the Hindu period bear all the elements of the Malay folks life: their land, beliefs, values, wisdom, customs, feelings, romanticism and fantasy, among many others.
Puzzling Questions on Authorship & Creativity in Reworking
We do not know when the first Malay hikayat in the Hindu period was composed. We have also no direct or indirect knowledge of the circumstances of its creation, nor of the various stages through which the other hikayats evolved until they reached the form now familiar to us. But, we can assume that Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are the root of some of the earliest Javanese and Malay literary works. The former had been told in Malay in Hikayat Sri Rama, while the latter in Hikayat Pandawa Lima, for instance. The Sanskrit original of the latter was abridged too in Old Javanese prose about 1000 AD. The kernel story of Bharatayudha was turned into a lovely poem in 1157 by Sedah and his brother Panuluh. This too has been adapted in modern Javanese as Baratayuda. We are not only interested in what had been created, but also what had been accepted into local tradition. This approach can hopefully shed new light on the creative process and the kind of stimuli given to the authors in the by-gone days. These issues are both exciting and informative in their own right and thus are important in the study of the creative process and the authors. First of all, hikayat can be composed from a variety of sources. Some were heard before, others compiled in imitation of a model, and still others were transformed from wayang performance. This heterogeneous repertoire can lead to their all-encompassing contents.
But, there is another problem here. We do not know the time and the place these literary works were composed. To probe such an answer, we have to turn to history. In central Java, there were Sailendra and Sanjaya kingdoms. Sanskrit texts were actively translated into Javanese and other local languages in the region. In the early 10th century, Mataram kingdom rose to power. One of the most significant rulers from the Mataram kingdom was Airlangga, (1019-42). He extended Javanese rule to Bali and other areas. Historically, Panji cerita, new cycle story, were created. The famous Javanese court poet, Arjuna Vivaha, wrote poems in honour of Airlangga. In religious life, the tantric teachings of India gained influence, adding yet another element to the syncretism of Javanese religion. After building Borobudur and Prambanan, the kingdoms mentioned vanished in the 10th century. With that, the center of power shifted east to the smaller kingdoms of Kediri and Singhasari by the 11st and 13th century. In the late 14th and 15th centuries, they were brought under the suzerainty of Majapahit, which rose as a political center until she was weakened in the 16th century upon the rise of Islam. Nevertheless, these huge political complexes and others bore witness to a period described by Roxas-Lim (2003: 34) to be the classical Indian-influenced stage of Javanese history. The Majapahit dynasty, came to power in 1293-1520, was the last of Java’s major Hindu period, with many parts of Sumatra and West Java under its wing of rule. This was another active period of Javanese court culture. Therein, shadow theatre was believed to have been actively performed. Majapahit power declined with the spread of Islam and the emergence of Malacca in the 14th century. Islam spread into Java with Demak, the first Islamic center, began to break away from Majapahit. In 1527, it succeeded in crushing the Majapahit dynasty, and brought it to an end.. In the meantime, Bali already under the influence of Hindu culture in the 8th and 9th century, continued to develop its own type of Hinduized culture and retained its integrity against the spread of Islam, which came to dominate Javanese culture in the 14th century. After Majapahit was conquered in the early 1500s, members of the Hindu nobility, artists and priests fled to Bali, binging with them a new wave of Javanese culture. As it is now, Bali is still the home of some of the East Javanese traditions and art. To do justice, we cannot ignore Srivijaya (670-1292) not only as center of East-West trade, but also an important center of Mahayana Buddhist learning. Chinese Buddhist monk, I-Ching, studied there for six months before going to India. Since the 1450s, Srivijaya’s role in international long-distance trade was taken over by Malacca. One by one, the coastal Hindu kingdoms were converted to the new faith and subsequently, the Hindu-influenced courts had retreated further inland. With that, new powers of Demak, Malacca, Aceh, Riau, Minangkabau, Pattani and Kelantan came to the fore to replace the kingdoms of the past. In the process, Javanese and Malay literary works were believed to have been composed in the courts, political and cultural institutions which Javanese and Malay respect and revere until today. As a crucial element in the cosmology of the Javanese and Malay people, court (keraton in Javanese and istana in Malay), remain fixed in their mind-set. Though underwent changes, istana is always in the Malay traditional cosmology. Malays viewed istana as one of the fundamental symbols of life. It is in the istana that wayang renditions of Ramayana and Mahabrata took place in the Javanese Hindu courts, such as Pajajaran, Majapahit, Mataram and Bali.
Up till now, we accept that early Javanese and Malay traditional literary works were anonymous. A well-known hikayat, whether from Ramayana, Mahabarata or the others, becomes familiar to generation after generation after the tales grew in popularity. Many of the tales inherited today are yesterday’s popular ones. The last “edition” is perhaps the creative act of one single individual author, and not the earlier ones which are the cumulative works undergoing a long process of re-creation of many unknown authors, however genius they were. The stories they produced could be taken from those floating around them too in oral form. They were recreated according to their authors’ creativity in response to a certain stimuli. Here, the word creator is a bit ambiguous. But, in the strict sense of the word, any creation is a creative act so long as it brings into being something new and special. The general concern is their authors’ conscious attempt to make the tales appealing and beneficial. This is also the cardinal concept of Malay authorship in traditional literature.
Hundreds of Malay authors in the past had been working together for hundreds of years, creating thousands of spectacular and beautiful literary pieces that now decorate 151 libraries and museums in 28 countries all over the world (Ding 2008). They were the wellsprings of tales and knowledge which might had been transmitted orally, or in wayang performances, in the beginning. Their authors, whatever they were called, were also the foremost intellects in the society. Until the tales and knowledge were put down into writing, frozen in a formal manner, they could not have passed on to us in the 21st century, though with changes in many ways. At times, they were like famous Tun Seri Lanang or Raja Ali Haji or Raja Chulan, who felt the anguish and pain watching their country and people at wars, making them impossible to continue their life. Though talented and creative, they regarded their participation in the creative process as a community service. Thus, they were also concerned with adhering to specified writing and authorship conventions that serve as standards. This is not peculiar as the artists in other areas too did by remaining anonymous. In other words, the notions of independence and autonomy of individual artist were not there, unlike the 20th century artists who use art for personal expression and assert their individual personality. The epitome of authors in Malay traditional literature is that they were disciplined, hard working, innovative, industrious, commanding and enlightened, but keeping a low profile. Being products of a long tradition of Malay authorship, their dogged determination made them work in isolation, though literature then were not conceived as separate, independent entities. In that context, Roxas-Lim (2003: 50) is right in saying that writing then was part of a continuous transformational process of creation. This also explains part of the reasons that literary work was not considered as final and finished product, but an intermediate form that continue to evolve with time. Because of that too that most individual authors in the early days had remained largely anonymous.
By training, they were loyal to their master-patrons and displayed signs of a distinctively feudal outlook. They dealt with their patrons, raja or sultan, in a professional manner, regulated via the mechanism of impersonal contracts. This is mainly because they had to deal with the challenge and complexities of events in composing hikayats or poems in the name of the ruling elite. From behind the palace windows and doors, they had witnessed changes taking place, with the rise of one dynasty and the fall of the other. They were aware of the complex relations of power and authority that governed the rise and fall of individuals in the courts and also the rise and fall of dynasties. They were but a cog in Malay authorship tradition. Faced with this social reality in the Malay world, a plural and hybrid space, they had to reflect this richness of the Malay world in their works. They did not create the realistic lifelike form, but its essence and meanings that reverberate in the collective memory in so many hikayat, syair and others. We need not agree with everything they wrote, but we have to value their right to write it. They were burdened by the weight of a collective memory that grew heavier with each passing generation. In this way, they could be studied as a social being and as a member of their society. Although we do not know their identity, they were certainly not from the low class of the society and were not given the opportunity to learn to read and write. If so, there might be similarity in their social background as authors in medieval Europe coming from the middle class, since aristocracy was preoccupied with the pursuit of glory or leisure, while the lower classes had little opportunity for education. Some of them might have been members of Malay nobility like all Russian writers before Chekhov were aristocratic in origin (Wellek & Warren 1978: 6/25). No matter what the answer may be, they might be professional storytellers, not only displaying a special appeal to tales, but also had a sharp sense of poetic rhythm and an appreciation of the beauty and intellectual complexity of hikayat, syair and others. All these skill and quality had helped them to communicate well with their audience. From the extant literary works, whether derived from Mahabarata, Ramayana or other sources, we acquire an understanding of the literary works which they had been working and reworking for so long. We understand not only their burden as preservers of oral and written literature, but also the steps they took to achieve effective communication with their audience. However repetitive the tales may appear, every author had contributed something valuable and special, because within the system, there is enormous scope for creativity, though not necessarily originality in the strict sense of the word. They know that scope and space and more importantly their capability and creativity. Once we comprehend the workings of the system in which they operated, it becomes apparent that their genius can be appreciated in their terms and ours (Sweeney (1994: xiii).
Literary writings in the Malay world in the past had been specifically oral for centuries (Sweeney 1994). The thousands of manuscripts that we are inheriting now had been written in Jawi since the arrival of Islam in the 13th century. Things become difficult when we want to know how a hikayat was written and more so when we are asked to identify which hikayat can serve as model as the earliest one in terms of form and contents. Writing is certainly a horrible and exhausting struggle, thus one would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demons one can neither resist nor understand (Orwell 2002: 10/9). Nevertheless, writers use words as their counterpart painters use lines and colors to embody a reality. To do it, immense intellectual power and ingenuity is demanded. Thus, it is interesting to learn the different stages through which literary works passed before they appear in what we now think of as their definitive form. To understand it, we have to not only know the social, intellectual and spiritual atmosphere in which writers were brought up (Thoday 2002: 68/10), but also the different stages of creative thoughts. They are basically the following:
1. Preparation (assembling and receiving new tales or ideas),
2. Incubation (formulating the tales or ideas into what would constitute a mental picture and it is vaguely expressed),
3. Illumination (when an author is emotionally stirred up) and
4. Revision (when an author would be changing a word, or line to extend the meaning, the partial or total re-reading of the work, and changing words or line to fit the meter).
For centuries, Malay authors had created not only long and complex literary works, but also developed a literary tradition uniquely theirs. All the authors knew the standards of beauty and the technical devices to elicit pleasure, delight the senses, soothe the nerves and arouse emotional responses and enchant their audience. Great imagination, skill and creativity were required to produce literary works with their own identity, however repetitive they might be.
In Malay World Music: a Celebration of Oral Creativity, Sweeney (1994: 3) states that Malay manuscript tradition was oral-based as it was never intended to be read until now. He explains that Malay manuscripts somehow made use of the same artistic elements as in Malay oral tradition, including the use of mnemonic patterning, formulaic substitution and clustering that could enhance the preservation of specific word choice as illustrated by Ong (1982: 58) and concluded that Malay manuscript culture remained always marginally oral, mainly because writing served largely to recycle knowledge back into the oral world (Ong 1982: 119). These devices are important in matter in memory that made for ready recall. Thus, memorization was encouraged and facilitated in highly oral Malay manuscript culture. Can we assume that the adaptation of oral Malay tales into manuscript works had started in Hindu period, or it had been an old process and did not begin with British colonialism when British colonial scholarship had repackaged Malay folk literature in a standardized form, without having to worry about ten or twenty other differing manuscripts (Sweeney 1994: 25)? There is no easy and straight answer to the question. But, we know very well that Malay authors and scribes and editors have changed words, left out characters, reinterpreted meanings, added tales or even changed titles in the process of writing and rewriting. These changes are made consciously not only as part of the many levels of creativity referred to earlier on, but also to make a better work in response to a certain stimili. In this way, many new literary works were created, however much they might resemble the others. Thus, we find repetition of tales, plots not only in one particular work, but also in between many works (Ding 2003, Maier ???) What is involved here is the common definition of creativity - adding something new or making certain stories appear special. The transition period from oral to written literature, from Hindu to Islam period, entailed the use of pre-existing structural and decorative forms as shown in Hikayat Seri Rama, Hikayat Pandawa Lima, Bhraratayuddha and others. In this way, oral tales were transposed into manuscripts by recomposing them. Since Hindu period, Malay authors were believed to have been producing literary work of this sort, using the familiar schematic composition in oral literature. The advantage is they were able to draw upon motifetic material available to the oral tellers. Transforming and adapting oral tales into the manuscript tradition was certainly another aspect in the creative process in Malay authorship.. Authors charged with transforming them had the creative freedom to reinterpret and recreate. Here, Sweeney (1994: 4-5) explained that as long as the mode of consumption of the literature was aural, the written tradition continued to employ schematic modes of composition, ranging from highly formulaic hikayat, such as Indera Banngsawan, to court chronicles, such as Sejarah Melayu. But, manuscript tradition had developed a distinctive style, so the written works differed from that in oral form in at least the mnemonic patterning was reduced (Sweeney 1994: 28). But, the reliance on schemata was to ensure relative stability in the contents of what was produced and transmitted.
Much of what passes today as culture of the Malay world is the consequence of Indianization in the region (Farish A Noor 2005: 23). We cannot overlook this historical legacy. There are numerous accounts of the interplay between the local indigenous culture and Hindu and Islamic religions in Hikayat Pandawa Lima, Hikayat Panji Semirang, and Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, written after the 16th century. In these works, the genius and creativity of the authors and scribes is evident: bringing together diverse cultural traditions. This opened a way for dialogue between civilizations in its own way. Hence, Farish A. Noor is right in saying that the Malay world has bestowed the world with a number of lasting legacies (2005: 32-3). Over a long process of socio-cultural development which spanned several centuries, this openness and exposure to other civilizational traditions had helped to bolster the pluralist culture now inherent in the Malay world. It does not come as a surprise if local folks and Malay authors in the past could deal with these early encounters between Hinduism, Islam and indigenous cultures in their daily lives and the above-mentioned hikayat.
This is one example of the golden age of managing pluralism and blending of diversity in the Malay world, also one of the most globalized regions in the world. But, Malay civilization was victim of vicissitudes of Western colonial politics. In 19th century, this region faced a new challenge, European colonialism, started with the fall of Malacca empire in 1501, that eventually paved the way for her decline. Began with interest in space trade, Europeans had consequently taken away thousands of Malay, Javanese, Batak, Bugis and other manuscripts, divided and ruled the land and peoples in 1824. With this, came the closing of Malay mind. Many local folks now view laws, politics, immigrants and relations with non-Malays with fear and insecurity. Till today, they are still regarded as one of the most defensive and reactionary people. Nevertheless, Malay hikayat tradition since Hindu period needs to be seen as an art form that has emerged from its own specific socio-cultural milieu, deeply shaped by their open mind in managing and blending local beliefs, philosophical outlook and traditional values with that from Hinduism and Islam creatively (Farish 2003: 150-1). It is partly through writings that hundreds of authors and scribes, anonymous and otherwise, had preserved for posterity the spirit, humor, pains and longings of their own and their folks. In is in these works that we read the history of evolution of the local peoples co-exited peacefully with immigrants from near and far. It is also in these compositions that we catch a glimpse of an ordered universe, a cosmos that is balanced between alternatives and more importantly the generation of a new high hybrid of culture. In other works, many Malay hikayat not only remind us of what the Malay universe was like, but also how it should be (Farish 2003: 147). To understand it, we need new ways of looking not only at the reworking of the Indian epics, but also the Malay social cultural experiences that grow out of their actual historical circumstances over the centuries.
The flowering of traditional Malay manuscripts owes much to India’s great contributions to religion, philosophy, language, literature, government and law, technology and the arts. Here, the two great Indian epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, have profound influence on Malay language, literature and culture. The heroes and their characterization and stories in the epics have provided role models and examples of how to deal with the perplexities of life. Though traditional Malay literature was seen to be receptive to external influences, it is far from being a passive recipient, but an extraordinary alchemy and management of diversity with its long term handling localization and assimilation of external influences, whatever their sources, and the achievement of very open mind and society in the face of both historical and contemporary globalization too a long time. It is a slow, gentle, selective, stylistic and subtle adaptation and absorption to give time for new ideas and other changes to percolate to be synthesized. This long process involves copying, accommodation, socialization, toleration, localization, hybridization, elaboration and others in one way or the other, in response to stimuli depending on circumstances. Thus, there are different versions of Hikayat Seri Rama, Hikayat Pandawa Lima and others with stories which may and may not be the same in Ramayana and Mahabharata. But, they have been reworked with new stories and characters introduced to reflect the Malay authors’ interpretations of the stories in the two epics, so that they are considered native and original to the region. This is important because in addition to entertainment, hikayat tradition served also to strengthen communal ties, help restore peace and harmony in Malay society. To ensure peace and harmony, different cultures and multiple forms of art must be made to coexist. This was boosted by the long evolutionary development involving adjustments to transformation of the environment, and interaction with outside influences that took more than thousands of years. This also explains the persistence and of dynamic process of selection, remolding and reworking in Malay hikayat tradition before the printing press was brought in from the West in the 19th century. The literary relativity discussed in this paper is also a site for the ferment of hybridity in Malay traditional literature since Hindu period with authors who penned the hikayat, for instance, were individuals who understood the complexities of their age. They lived not in a world with fixed and impenetrable borders, but the one where identities remained shifting, open and fluid. By and large, the passing of Hindu period to Islamic period is greeted as an opportunity for change. As it is, all the hikayat and other literary works from both the periods appeared like bits of flotsam floating in a vast ocean of mixed, sometimes conflicting memories and notions.
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