The Rāmāyaṇa, Rāmākāthā and Loro Jonggrang

The seventy-two sculpted panels depicting the Rāmāyaṇa featured on the terraces of Loro Jonggrang’s main Śiva and Brahmā temples present the most extensive sculptural version of this epic in all of Asia. However, discrepancies between the reliefs and the many written versions still leaves Loro Jonggrang’s Rāmāyaṇa bereft of a specific literary prototype. But it may not have direct affinities with the written word. It instead has its roots in the Rāmākāthā, a more comprehensive category of the narrating of Rāma’s story that embraces all types of fables, tales, and apologues appearing in the form of verse, mixed verse and prose, or prose.

India’s contributions may have been received in Java via written formats, but it is equally possible that they were drawn from a wider narrative repertory for the telling of the epic, the Rāmākāthā, as the Rāmākāthā transmitted the epic via theatrical versions, picture rolls, oral narrations, and dance. Also, specific narrative devices outlined in the Indic dance or theater Nāṭyaśāstra, attest to the characters portrayed in the Loro Jonggrang version of the Rāmāyaṇa. Therefore, despite the lack of Indic artistic prototypes and the ambiguous links between Loro Jonggrang and Indic literary models, a common bond may still be found within the repertory of the Rāmākāthā.

However, care must be taken with the identification of particular aspects of pictorial narration associated with the ancient Indic performance arts. Gestures, movements and postures which would have been seen are now transliterated into the written word and might not be as clear to the modern reader in this non-demonstrative format. Gestures and postures can provide a significant function towards the development of a narrative formula. The rendering of specific body movements can enable the presentation of simultaneous events within a multi-episodic composition. The outcome of events, as indicated by the formula of gestures, determines the narrative sequence; one of ‘simultaneous actions’. These observations clearly attest to the realization that the sculptors of the Central Javanese period were not only familiar with dictates of the Nāṭyaśāstra, but were also versed in application of these symbols to emphasize and relate the content of their narrative subjects.

Another gesture, the hastas (hand gestures), is probably the most reliable of ‘body languages’. The pointed finger hasta recreates an omitted, yet significant, episode detailed in the literary versions of the epic. Its absence at Loro Jonggrang may have been due to the pace of the narrative. Thus, the handling of this narrative sequence not only incorporates the fourth dimension, that of time, but also demonstrates another narrative method comprised in the Central Javanese sculptor’s repertory – particularly that of this specific hasta.

So, it is clearly evident that the sculptors of Central Java were skilled in a variety of narrative formats, ranging from mono-scenic to synoptic, and from multi-episodic to continuous. The most significant goal of the relief sculptors of Loro Jonggrang was to create a rendering of the epic that could be easily read by the temple’s audiences.


Reference: Levin, C. (2000): 59-70.
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