The evening settles in a purple haze over Yogyakarta when we return to Prambanan. We look out onto a wide bare stage as the distant temples slowly return to life, glowing like slender conical lanterns which float up into the warm inky sky.
The ancient backdrop stirs us to the edge of our seats and groups of men file silently from the stage wings and settle cross-legged behind a low mound of instruments. Sounds begin to rise and fall around us like a gentle swell rolling over a pebbly beach, picking up the small round stones and dropping each with a slightly different note.
Then the dancers come. First, the handsome princes Rama and Laksmana travel into the forest to hunt deer only to be set upon by a band of demons. The princes circle the stage, unleashing arrows and pushing the hooligans across the side. We gasp as the fighters brandish krises and press the princes so close to us, they teeter at the precipice.
The skirmish ends in bursts of fireworks as Rama unleashes the weapons of the Gods and celebrations soon ring out with the demons fleeing into the dark.
The beautiful Sita with her sisters and maidens-in-waiting part the celebrating crowd to welcome the Princes.
Of course Rama wins Sita’s hand in a great display of archery and joy fills the land as he and Sita marry with his brothers and her sisters also uniting to bring the two great kingdoms together.
But this is not some simple bedtime story where the princess and her prince live happily-ever-after, with a kiss on the head and time to sleep.
Now the gamelan takes the story forward, rolling us gently as the sound passes from one group to the other, leading then waning. A short, sharp hammer strike brings the gamelan players together and brings them together in a crashing wave of music which fills the great open space in a deafening crescendo.
In the wings, Rama’s step-mother confounds the poor King and schemes in favour of her own son becoming ruler. With Sita and the loyal Laksmana, Rama spares his father and journeys into exile, travelling deep into a distant forest, far from his rightful kingdom.
For a time the dear friends live a frugal, simple life in the forest but slowly the evils of the outer world seeks them out. The glimpse of a golden deer through the trees enchants Sita and she urges Rama to capture the creature. When Laksama bids Sita stay in a protective circle so he can join Rama in the forest, we edge forward, sensing the impending danger.
The arrival of a poor passing beggar can only mean the trap is set. To stage left the golden deer transforms into a sorceress who launches herself at the unwary princes, while the beggar reveals himself as the evil King Ravana who makes no time abducting Sita and flying with her away, over the forest to his fortress and the lights fade to black.
We return still struck by a sense of anticipation as a great gold moon takes her place calmly above the temples, ready to observe the players in their next act.
Sita sits in her prison while Rama and Leksama plan a great battle to rescue her. And then the monkey army comes. Matt jumps as one with them as Hanuman, the great Monkey God comes to Prince Rama’s aid to win back Sita and vanquish the wicked Ravana.
Monkeys swarm the stage, rolling and climbing, arrows arch across the sky, the gamelan reaches a mighty crescendo and then Hanuman – in the clutches of his enemies and at the pain of a fiery death – escapes in a great leap and sets the city alight, just as Dad promised he would.
The sketches of Rama and Sita are based on a photograph by Ruli Andaru. Follow on instagram @ruliandaru https://www.instagram.com/p/BS8lEZMlVqr/?taken-by=ruliandaru
The Ramayana Story in brief
I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of the Ramayana texts and images at the British Library a few years ago. These are texts from India but the main story line is fairly similar to that still told at Prambanan.
Some more intricacies of the Ramayana and some of its regional interpretations are also related in the wonder of wikipedia