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 dewaqq  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.


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