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The Panji Legends

The Mahabharata and Ramayana Indian epics are reasonably familiar to literati in the West where they’ve been infrequently performed. The Panji legends, once well-known throughout Southeast Asia, are now foreign outside Java — and to much of the present generation of Indonesians who prefer TV to live theater.

As in all good yarns that don’t fade with fashion the tales are about love and adventure. It’s the evergreen theme: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again. He gets her and the throne and she gets him and the status.

The heroes in this home-grown saga are Prince Panji (who could also be the Hindu god Visnu), and Princess Candrakirana. The tales are set in the 11th Century and became popular during the following 200 years of the Majapahit era, though some claim the Panji period spanned the 8th to the 15th centuries AD.

The Majapahit era was the golden age of Java when the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom is believed to have controlled much of lower Southeast Asia through trade and conquest. So revisiting the Panji stories is to celebrate pre-Islamic Javanese triumphs and values.

Duncan Graham (Indonesia Now)