Dance of the Monkey

Indian Mythology, World Mythology 11 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, Sept. 04, 2011


Ramayana is a popular epic not just in India but also in South East Asia across Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia right down to Indonesia.  These were the lands visited by seafaring traders over a thousand years ago and they carried with them the great epic. But the Ramayana of South East Asia is as different from Ramayana in Indian spirit as it is similar in form.

Yes, there is Ram and Ravana and Sita and Surpanakha and Hanuman, but the idea of bhakti is missing. Ram is a hero-prince and Hanuman is his friend and helper and servant, almost reminding you of a knight in shining armor of a heroic fairy tale helping a gentle and noble prince find his wife abducted by a nasty ghoul.  There is a lot of rasa emanating from the performers – shringara (romance) and virya (heroism) and hasya (laughter) and karuna (empathy) and vibhitsa (disgust), but not much emotional outpouring aimed at connecting with the audience and making them part of the performance. The focus is more on adventure and less on religious doctrine.

This is most evident when one witnesses the Kechak dance of Bali in Indonesia. This was traditionally a dance associated with trance, possession and animistic traditions but in the 1930s with a little help from an Austrian adventurer, it was transformed into what is now famously called the Monkey dance. It involves over a hundred bare bodied men, dressed in sarongs, sitting in a circle, moving their hands and bodies to the rhythmic sounds produced using only their mouth, sounds like ‘chuck-a-chuk’ which have no meaning but fill the space with eerie magical aural vibrations.

As the Ramayana is performed, the circle of men transforms into the forest into which Ram is exiled, the body of the golden deer, the Laxman Rekha of  Ram’s hut, the throne of Ravana and burning city of Lanka. It is a sight to behold in open air amphitheaters by the sea.

The dramatic entrance of Ravana and his Rakshasas, with ugly masks and costumes showing big buttocks and bellies, overshadow the gentle grace of the royal couple from Ayodhya.  The Raskhasas behave like lovable ogres who transform into brutes and delight the audience with their wild and vulgar antics. It is their presence that the audience craves for, more than Ram or Sita. But clearly the hero of the South East Asian Ramayana is Hanuman.

He is not the great submissive and wise devotee of Valmiki and Tulsidasa. He is a lovable mischievous and mighty rake, a cross of Krishna and Bhima. When he arrives, the audience is energized. They clap as he teaches the villains a lesson.  He is the Han Solo of Star Wars, Aragon of the Lord of the Rings, and Hagrid of Harry Potter rolled into one.

Disturbing to the devout Indian Hindu though is the idea that Hanuman of many South East Asian Ramayanas is not a celibate brahmachari.  He flirts and uses his sexuality to charm and annoy and break hearts of many a Rakshasa woman. His white costume, his fangs and his bright eyes, as he jumps around triumphantly, while the Kechak dancers wail and scream and shake their hands, is a delight to watch as the sun goes down and a circle of coconut coir is set ablaze to depict the golden city of Ravana in flames.

  • Vijay Rajagopal

    Very true. It is interesting to watch Kechak dance. In Thailand, there is a version of Hanuman extending himself and touching two tips of land with sea in between and thus becoming a bridge for Rama and his Sena to cross.

    SOme of them say that Ramayana actually happenned in Thailand and there is a mention of this in India too :)

    Thailand also has a practice of reciting two Tamil works called THiruppavai and THiruvempavai (without knowing the meanin) . The name has been deformed and they call it as Tripovi and Thrambavi.

    Indonesian currency had Ganesh form in their currency until recently. In Bali, there is a place called Thanau Laut ( Not sure of the spelling) which is a temple in the seashore. The temple gets flooded during high tide and approachable during low tide. There is a water source in the temple and the water is given as THeertha. I saw Indonesian muslims going round and sipping the theertham. Similar to what we have in our forehead ( Ash /Sandal or KumKum), Balinese keep soaked grains of rice in the forhead. The muslims I mentioned above come out of the holy well with rich in their forehead too.

    What do we have to learn from them about not forgetting the roots?


      knowing your roots will entice you in towards aatma chintan. you will be beteer managing yourselves. you will know in surety what annoys you the most and how do oyou trigeer thiese conditions. you can avoid(sorry this was the only appropriate word) such situations and many more things in the way how you interpret them.

  • Very interesting, its amazing how our epics are localized. Hanuman is endearing character and my favorite too

  • Vinayak Iyer


    The graphic shows the astrological planets under hanuman’s tail.. any idea behind it?

  • Vishnu Ruban

    Interesting fact about my favourite god’s(HANUMAN)character from indonesian’s epic !!!

  • Kishor

    Good one !

  • Chandra Sekar

    Same question as Vinayak Iyer above. I started reading the article after seeing the drawing and was left wondering about the connection between the navagraha’s and this article on Hanuman. Kindly explain. Thanks

    • Puneresident

      The image of hanuman giving lot of information.
      1. Hanumanograph means jataka of a native
      2. Navagraha’s are belived to reside in the tales of hanuman
      3. According to one’s karma these graha’s will give result in there life.
      4. Each planet will have it’s special importance during there mahadasha
      5. Last but not least hanuman will be next brahma in upcoming kalpa

      • Uday

        Could you please let us know, on point 5, i.e. ‘Lord Hanuman will be next Brahma’. Is it mentioned in somewhere?

  • Kartik

    Amazing stuff

  • DevD312

    Amazing Article.The article is a nice example of our influence in South East Asian lives..Their culture surely resembles us somewhat..India being such an ancient land having rich culture ,heritage etc has gone to influence so many countries.

    Countries of South east asia draw their culture from ours for sure(maybe becoz they r our descendants)