Arjuna and Ponokawan – Who Are They and What Are Their Stories?

Arjuna and Ponokawan – Who Are They and What Are Their Stories?

Midnight. A gong resonates throughout the quiet field. People gather; some chatting, some snacking. It is time for the wayang kulit to start. And now, the Tok Dalang (master puppeteer) will begin. Tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are all narrated and voiced by the Tok Dalang; from the soft feminine voices to the brash male ones. Accompanied by the entrancing sounds of the gamelan orchestra, the shadows of the flat leather puppets flares to life on the taut white cloth.

Wayang kulit has a long history, originating in India to what we know today in Malaysia and Indonesia as wayang kulit. One show typically lasts for about 8 hours, starting late at night till the wee hours of the morning. It goes without saying that great stamina is needed from all involved in producing a show. A typical performance usually enacts scenes from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata; although in the South-East region, some twists are added, making these renditions completely original.

One fine example is the relationship between Arjuna and his Punokawan (or also known as Ponokawan). The Ponokawan do not exist in the original Mahabharata epic, hence they are original South East Asian figures in the wayang kulit world. There has been much speculation about the origins of the Ponokawan. Though there is no evidence but the most commonly accepted theory would be the arrival of Islam to Jawa. The creation of the Ponokawan is thought to be a mouthpiece to spread the word of Islam and symbolisms of the teachings of Islam itself. Soon these figures evolved to be advisors, jesters, satirists and even the voice of the common people.

Who is Arjuna?

Arjuna is a renowned ksyatria (warrior) in the Mahabharata epic. He is born to Kunti and King Pandu. One of the five Pandavas, he is noted for his skills in archery and fearless warrior skills.

Who are the Ponokawan?

The Ponokawan are loyal servants of Arjuna and though they add a comedic value to the storyline, they also impart great wisdom and are Arjuna’s advisors. They play a crucial role during the “goro-goro” moment of the play. “Goro-goro” refers to the rising action or complications faced by the main character in a scene of the play. In this way the weighty plotline of the story is offset with a hint of humour brought by the Ponokawan.

The Ponokawan consists of 4 figures: Semar, Gareng, Petruk and Bagong. Semar is the adoptive father of the other three. He has a white face, gigantic buttocks and cannot control his farts. His white face symbolizes kindness and honesty and whoever he teaches will follow his teachings out of respect. A teacher who has a black face is said to be fierce and will have students that follow his teachings out of fear. He has one tooth which denotes that a teacher should speak only truth and his black body means one should never do anything unlawful to achieve your goals. He is said to be the brother of Guru Dewa (or also known as Batara Guru). While Guru Dewa ruled the skies and the gods, Semar ruled the earth and its people.

Gareng is the first adoptive son of Semar. He has eyes that face in opposing directions which means he does not want to see the villainy of the world; warped hands to symbolize his disinterest for stealing; and walks with a limp to show that he is slow but steady in everything he does. Gareng is loyal, helpful and easily jokes around.

The next son is Petruk. He is also known as Kanthong Bolong, which literally means perforated bag. One theory of this nickname is it originates from his frequent habit of making donations, while some say it is a symbolism that means there should be no barrier between you and Allah.

The third son is Bagong, also known as Semar’s shadow. When Semar initially came down to earth from Khayangan (heaven) he wanted a companion. And thus, his shadow came to life. These four figures function as “pamomong”, which translates as exemplary figures in Indonesian.

Their stories:

Lakon Tali Rasa-rasa dan Tali Buana

Due to the Javanese tradition of passing stories by word of mouth, there is no definite script for a play to follow. Instead, each script is improvised to follow the storyline and the Tok Dalang has to be skillful enough to keep each puppet in character while suiting their speech towards the demographics of the audience.

One act in the play that speaks of the relationship between the Ponokawan and Arjuna is the act, “Lakon Tali Rasa-rasa dan Tali Buana”. In this story, Guru Dewa and Narada, two gods of the world, came down to Earth. They took off their godly robes and became two brave ksyatrias named Rasa Tali and Tali Rasa. They then set off to Astina to seduce Lesmanawati. The news angered the Kurawa but they were unable to get rid of them as they were not as powerful.

Sangkuni then reported to the Pandawa about this incident. He fabricated a lie saying that Arjuna is fighting with Lesmanawati in Astina. Upon hearing this, Arjuna was calm and did nothing as he knew it was a lie. Semar tried to flame the spirit of chivalry in Arjuna to rescue Lesmanawati but he was expelled along with Petruk and Gareng.

The impish Gareng and Petruk found the godly clothes of Guru Dewa and Narada. They put them on and took on the physical appearance of Guru Dewa and Narada. Once Semar saw this, he morphed into a ksyatria named Tali Buana. He began on a pilgrimage of sorts, helping all who needed his help.

Arjuna felt regretful for turning away Semar and the others because he could not defeat Rasa Tali and Tali Rasa. Eventually though, Tali Buana, who changed back to Semar; defeated Rasa Tali and Tali Rasa when they changed back to Guru Dewa and Narada. Guru Dewa and Narada admitted their defeat, apologized and went back to Khayangan (heaven).They were surprised to find that there, in Khayangan, a Guru Dewa and a Narada were already there! Of course it was just Gareng and Petruk in disguise. On the night of the full moon, the false Guru Dewa and Narada was defeated by Semar, turning back to Gareng and Petruk.

Semar Minta Bagus

Another act in the Javanese rendition of the Mahabharata epic is “Semar minta bagus” (loosely translated as “Semar is good”); displays the inherent wisdom of Semar. In this act, Semar leaves Amarta as he felt that he was put down and humiliated by Arjuna as Arjuna shamed him by spitting while visiting Semar. Arjuna did not realize that he has offended Semar. Semar was gravely hurt because he has been Arjuna’s caretaker since Arjuna was a boy and now he was being treated without respect despite being much older than him.

Semar then went to Begawan Abiyasa in Septaraga to lament about his predicament. To avenge his dignity, Semar wanted to prove that he is in fact more powerful than any ksyatria. Abisaya got worried as he knows Amarta will fall to ruins without Semar. Therefore, he tried his best to discourage Semar but all he did was in vain.

An angry Semar travelled immediately to Khayangan to bemoan his situation. He demands that Guru Dewa restores him back to his original power. Guru Dewa and the other gods were unable to dissuade Semar from his wish and to permanently restore back his power is impossible. Thus with a heavy heart, Guru Dewa restored Semar’s power was restored but it was only temporary.

Semar transformed himself into a handsome and able warrior, calling himself Bambang Dewa Lelana. Bagong, his son, became another warrior called Bambang Lengkara. They both came back to earth and conquered Prabu Setyawijaya’s kingdom and declared themselves kings of Puduk Setegel.

They ordered Patih Dasapada, the duke and Prabu Setyawijaya to steal the Serat Jimat Kalimasada, an important collection of writings in the country of Amarta. Using his magic, Patih Dasapada took on the guise of Sri Kresna and successfully stole the Jimat Kalimasada. The moment the original Sri Kresna knew about this, he commands the Pandava to take back the Jimat Kalimasada.

The Pandava set off to ask for the Jimat Kalimasada from Bambang Dewa Lelana. Upon hearing this request, Bambang Dewa Lelana changed back to Semar and gives back the Jimat Kalimasada. For Semar, it meant that the Pandava acknowledged Semar’s power and without him, Amarta will fall and in a sense, he gained back respect.

Lakon Semar Mbarang Jantur

Another act would be “Lakon Semar Mbarang Jantur” (Loosely translated as “Semar Does Magic”). This act starts out with the kidnapping of Dewi Irawati, the beautiful princess of Prabu Salya from some thieves ordered by Mandakera by Kartapiyoga, king of Tirtakandasan. Young Arjuna with his faithful Punokawan; Semar, Gareng and Petruk tries to find Irawati, though it is of their own will and not due to the contest to find Irawati held by Prabu Salya, Dewi Irawati’s father.

Along the journey, Arjuna came across the alluring Banowati and was taken in by her. This impeded the search for Dewi Irawati. The courtship of Arjuna with Banowati reached the ears of Surtikanti, the younger sister of Banowati. She cursed Arjuna to suffer for what he did. Arjuna immediately began to feel very hungry and thirsty.

No matter what Arjuna ate or drank, his appetite will never be satisfied nor his thirst quenched. Over time, Arjuna fainted in the middle of the forest due to the curse. Once he woke up, he decided to combat his hunger by commanding Semar, Gareng and Petruk to perform magic at the Widarakandong village. In this village, dwelt a warrior named Wasi Jaladara who has a sister called Bratawijaya.

To perform their magic, Semar, Gareng and Petruk requested for nasi tumpeng and some assorted kuih. After the performance, Semar returned bringing blessings, nasi tumpeng and various kuih which he pounded together on the pretext that it was easier to carry this way. He presented it to Arjuna; who, hungry as a horse, opened the package of blessings. Arjuna was then so angry he stormed off to Widarakandong. However once he was face to face with Wasi Jaladara, he could not do much.

They then exchanged formalities with each other and found out that they liked each other and became friends. Semar then gave three explanations why he did that. First, was about his wrongdoing in feeding Arjuna such. Second was that when Arjuna is performing a task, he should never eat at random places and thirdly, Banowati will never be his spouse, so he is wasting his time.

Arjuna then asks Wasi Jaladara to help rescue Dewi Irawati. The mighty Wasi Jaladara then caught the person who took Dewi Irawati as well as kill Kartapiyaga. The moral value of this story is to stay focused when you are performing a task and to resist all forms of temptation.

The art of wayang kulit never fails to keep the viewer spellbound. Each pupped is believed to have its own spirit and are stored according to their rank in a chest once the wayang kulit performance is over. Fancy having a piece of South-East Asian cultural history in your home?