Malay Epics

Taking the traditional definition of the epic as a long heroic poem in lofty language, and some of its other characteristics, it appears that a thorough study is still needed to determine which of the large number of existing Malay literary works, in verse as well as in prose, fit into category. The popular term Hikayat is used in Malay literature indiscriminately for epics, romances such as Bunga Bakawali, semi-historical works such as the Hikayat Hang Tuah, and even historical or autobiographical works such as Hikayat Pelayaran Abdullah.

The literary versions of the two major Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, in their Malay-Indonesian translations or adaptations may be regarded as true epics. The Ramayana appears in two versions–Hikayat Seri Rama and Hikayat Maharaja Wana. The Mahabharata appears in the form of Hikayat Pandawa Lima. Of the two epics, however, the Ramayana is much better known in Malay literature as well as through traditional performance genres such as the shadow play.

While Hikayat Seri Rama conforms more or less to Valmiki’s Sanskrit version with appropriate adaptations and localisation, Hikayat Maharaja Wana, which differs considerably from Hikayat Seri Rama, provides the material for the main story (cerita pokok) of the Kelantanese shadow play, wayang kulit siam. Numerous branch stories (cerita ranting) have also been developed as accretions to or extensions of this hikayat, with the addition of motifs from the Javanese Panji romance and the upgrading of minor characters to major ones or the invention of totally new characters. Puppeteers (dalang) pick the most exciting episodes—those, for instance, dealing with the marriage of Seri Rama and Siti Dewi, the abduction of Siti Dewi, the final battles in Langkapuri, and the heroine’s rescue by her husband.