Three Underrated Indonesian Folktales that Teach Us a Little More About Life
Among the many aspects that determine contemporary life, popular culture – in particular, American popular culture – is without a doubt one of the most omnipresent and abiding feature. Certain fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Cinderella have been told and retold so often in many parts of the world that they’re deeply etched in all of our minds. They are inherent, and it is safe to say that everybody knows what they are.
Beauty and the Beast, which remains renowned as a full-length animated film, has even been recreated by Disney as a live action fantasy movie due to come out in March.
But while so much effort and dedication is devoted to reproducing these treasured tales, there are a multitude of other Indonesian, complex and culturally fraught folktales out there that we’re truly missing out on. These tales might lack attention, but they are not merely unrecognized yarns that we’ve never heard about—they are infinite, fascinating and unconventional variations of those excessively commercialized popular tales we’re used to hearing or watching. They tell us more than what their narrative suggests and provides us with guiding morals and meaning that we, as readers, can relate with throughout our whole lives.
That being said, the following are three Indonesian folktales unique in their own ways.
‘Princess Sumur Bandung’
In discussing this Indonesian folktale, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk entitled “We Should All Be Feminists” comes to mind. In her discourse, she asserted, "We raise girls to see each other as competitors — not for jobs or for accomplishments, but for the attention of men."Princess Sumur Bandung, which originates from West Java, transgresses that very female stereotype that Adichie censures in her monologue.
In the story, Princess Sumur Bandung of Bintung Wulung captures a big white buffalo on her own. The buffalo was believed to help thekingdom of Kutawaringin get out of its wretched state and return into its former state of greatness. As mentioned in the narrative, Sumur Bandung “wished to help the unfortunate neighboring country. She felt it was her duty to help other human beings who suffered. She was known among her people for her advanced way of thinking and attitude, not like other princesses of royal or noble descent.”
Despite the buffalo-catching competition being only open to males in the society, Princess Sumur Bandung went out of her way to find one and gained recognition after she succeeded and eventually allowing her take over the throne of kingdom Kutawaringin. Hence, what sets this story apart from other fairytales is that the female protagonist stayed true to her convictions and exceeded her own as well as everybody’s expectations.
The moral that the story carves out for its readers is that of immense determination. It provides us an ending that is much more than the mainstream happily-ever-after where princesses get liberated and finally get to marry the man they rightfully love. Instead, it gives us real closure and a resolution that the main character is pursuing a responsibility that she is passionate about because her hard work deems that she deserves it.
Bearing a striking similarity to ‘Cinderella’ in terms of name, but not plot, this Indonesian folktale that originated from East Java unravels a story of Prince Cindelaras and his adept rooster.
Cindelaras was the son of the Queen of the Jenggala kingdom who was sent away to the jungle by the king because his jealous concubine told him that the queen was plotting to poison him when she was actually innocent. Nonetheless, the king was unaware that when he disposed of the queen, she was pregnant with Cindelaras. Growing up in the woods with his mother, Cindelaras stumbled upon an egg, which hatched into a chick that became a strong rooster.
The rooster was skillful and would triumph over fights with other roosters. It would even sing a certain song which revealed that Cindelaras was the son of the king, Raden Putra. After hearing the song, Cindelaras confronted his mom and asked her about his father whom he subsequently went on a mission to meet.
Allowing his rooster to triumph over fights with other roosters along the way, King Raden Putra heard about Cindelaras’ rooster’s adeptness and asked him to put their roosters together in a fight. Predictably, Cindelaras’ rooster won and sung his song, which made the king find out that he was his son. King Raden Putra, the Queen and Cindelaras was then unified once again as a family after it was found out that the queen never did try to poison the king. The concubine was later sent to jail for deceiving Raden Putra.
The messages that are important to take home from this folktale are that unjust conspiracies will somehow be revealed in the future and what is rightfully yours will find its way back to you. There is also an overarching theme of karma and the karmic cycle, in that it strongly supports the basic premise of “as you sow, so shall you reap”, which is why the immoral concubine went to jail at the end of the story. Last, it tells us that no matter how many curveballs life throws at us, there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel.
‘Ringkitan and the Cuscus’
The story of Ringkitan and the Cuscus explains that women in fairy tales aren't the most beautiful or the "fairest of them all" and that men aren't always handsome and "the bravest in all the land". In short, it could teach the all-singing, all-dancing, damsels-in-distress and square-jawed heroes— that are often projected in Disney animations—a thing or two.
In the story, Ringkitan—who has eight older sisters, agrees to marry a Cuscus (a type of possum). Contrary to what her sisters believed, Ringkitan was strong in her opinion that “he may be a cuscus, but he is kind and loving”. All her other sisters were asked to marry the cuscus but rejected the offer because they thought they were too beautiful for him. Her sisters perpetually teased her for marrying him but after a while Ringkitan finds out that her husband is actually a handsome young man who is just disguising as a cuscus. She confronts her husband about this and he comes clean to her revealing his true human form to her and telling her that his name is actually Kusoi.
Envious of their sister’s good fortune in marrying Kusoi, Ringkitan’s eight sisters plot to get rid of her by hanging her from a tree with her own hair. Ringkitan eventually finds a way out and tells Kusoi, after he comes back from a work trip, that her sisters tried to kill her. Thinking that Ringkitan is no longer alive, her sisters are made to confess of their misdoing by Kusoi later that night during dinner. In the end, Ringkitan and Kusoi live a life of happiness and no disturbance.
In retrospect, this particular tale teaches us how it is perfectly fine to be imperfect, and how being modest does the trick. Moreover, it suggests the need to be more agreeing and less stubborn as we lead our lives. This is because opportunities that come our way might seem intimidating and hard to accept at first, but we might learn to enjoy it in the future. Thus, if we neglect them, we might start regretting— just like how Ringkitan’s sisters did—and they manifested their remorse in the form of their jealousy and misdeeds.