The heroic story of prince Rāma tells how he gave up a kingdom to honour his father’s word, fought against a host of powerful enemies to retrieve his kidnapped wife, and lived a life in accordance with Dharma.
It is known in many different forms, and has been told in poetry and prose, dance and puppet theatre, and in recent years in film and television all across the region, and has proved to be one of the most enduring stories of mankind.
This includes most Buddhist countries of SE Asia, where the story is known, for instance, in Thailand, where it has a central focus in the life of the country, as the kings are believed to incarnate the ideal king Rāma, and take their name from him.
In it also known in Cambodia and Laos where the traditional story in known in a number of tellings; in Myanmar, where it has been told in many different forms. It was also known to puppet theatre in Malaysia before the rise of radical Islam prevented its performance in the 90s.
In Indonesia too the story, told in dance, is by now the longest running theatrical performance of the story in modern times (playing continuously since 1960), and puppet theatre keeps it alive in Java and Bali.
In the plastic arts Indonesia figures large also and one of the most complete tellings of the story is seen sculpted on the reliefs of the temples of Prambanan just outside Yogyakarta in Java, not very far from Borobudur. The temples are situated on the Prambanan Plain, which houses besides these Hindu temples, also many Buddhist temples.
Buddhism in Java metamorphosed into the syncretic Hindu-Buddhist cultures seen in eastern Java just before the introduction of Islam swept over the island, and I tend to believe that Prambanan being surrounded by Buddhist temples is not an anomaly, or a rivalry, as has sometimes being suggested, but rather a complimentary development.
The story is found on 54 reliefs, 24 on the balustrade of the Śiva temple, and 30 on the Brahmā temple. Some of the reliefs on the Śiva temple are very wide and have been split into 2-3 sections for presentation. For those who are unfamiliar with the outline of the story I have included a synopsis before the relief work is presented.
I am presently working on the reliefs on the Viśṅu temple in the same compound, which tell Kriṣṇa’s story and which will be published together with the Rāma reliefs in a book entitled The Avatāras of the Lord. I will update about that project as it gets to completion.
Other photographs from Prambanan can be found by following the links here. They include the main Hindu sanctuary, and also some of the Buddhist temples which are found around the Prambanan Plain.