Friday, 20 November 2015

Mpu Prapanca and the 'Desawarnana'

      It was my birthday yesterday, and my lovely girlfriend bought me a copy of Stuart Robson's translation of the Desawarnana, the famous Old Javanese kāvya, or poem, of 1365 that gives us a lot of useful information about medieval Java. Also known as the Nagarakertagama (Desawarnana is the original title), the poem was written over the course of about six years by a guy named Prapañca, commonly known as Mpu Prapañca. It doesn't seem to have been a particularly popular kakawin poem despite its historical importance, and the few manuscripts in existence all come from Bali and Lombok (and not Java, where it was written). I first read Robson's translation when I was studying for my master's, but it's nice to have my own copy. The introduction is short but very informative, the translation is surprisingly easy to read, and the notes are comprehensive. It's a great book.

      I'm going to be talking about the contents of the kāvya in future posts. The anthropologist James Fox has noted that the form of the poem is close to what he calls a topogeny - sort of like a genealogy, but for places - which is apparently common in Indonesia and the Austronesian world in general. I hope the concept will be clearer when I write up a post on it. While scholars have tended to put the work in the context of other Old Javanese kakawin and Indian literature, I think the idea that it has some eastern Indonesian correlates is intriguing.

      A lot of the text deals with the villages under Majapahit control, which is the inspiration behind Fox's claim. Prapañca claims that a large number of other territories in Indonesia had succumbed to Majapahit as well - everywhere from Sumatra to the Malay Peninsula to Timor and New Guinea. There has been a lot of discussion about the veracity of such Javanese claims to domination over most of what is today Indonesia, and it'll be interesting to look at the assertions in detail. Most of them are made in cantos 13 and 14, but Robson is insistent that the work be seen in its entirety instead of examined intensively in only one or two sections, so I'll try to do justice to the whole piece.
File:Majapahit Empire.svg
The territory of Majapahit according to the Desawarnana. h/t Gunawan Kartapranata.
        Before I get onto those interesting topics, however, I'd like to take note of one of the strange quirks of the text. Our man Prapañca seems to have enjoyed playing around with form and meter and does so at regular intervals in the poem, although Robson says that he 'was not a particularly gifted poet' and that the poem 'is definitely not a poetic masterpiece' (p.13). I'm not qualified to assess that, of course. Either way, there are 98 cantos and 1,536 lines in all, but the final three cantos are what Robson says are
utter doggerel; the Old Javanese is scarcely susceptible of translation into sensible English. This is because in each stanza lines a and b, c and d are the mirror-image of each other, a feat that could only be achieved at the cost of sense. (notes, p.150).
         Aside from his lyrical failings, we know a bit more about Prapañca because he tells us. We know he was a Buddhist and a state superintendent of Buddhist affairs. We know he accompanied the king on a number of trips around the Majapahit domains. And, as he says in Canto 96, right near the end of the work,
Prapañca took delight in five things;
Putting on a funny speech-defect,
Going red in the face, refusing to go to bed,
Having erections, and suddenly cracking jokes
      Prapañca can't have known that his work would become one of our chief sources on ancient Java (and ancient Indonesia as a whole), but he was presumably aware that he was broadcasting his love of erections to posterity.


Robson, S. O. 1995. Desawarnana. Leiden: KITLV press.

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