Wooden statue of Hanoman fighting an ogre, 1940-1955, height: 47 cm. Photos: Roland Smeets / Understanding Balinese woodcarvings
This expressive statue represents Hanoman fighting an ogre warrior. Hanoman (or Hanuman) is a Varana: a human-like monkey. He’s an important character in the Hindu epic Ramayana. As a general, Hanoman leads the monkey army that helps prince Rama free his beloved wife Sita from the hands of the demon king Rawana. He also plays a role in the Mahabharata epic as the protector of Arjuna.
Hanoman is the son of the warrior Kesari and Anjani, a celestial nymph. He’s also an incarnation of the supreme god Siwa and was adopted by Bayu, the god of the wind, who carried Siwa’s divine power to Anjani’s womb. As a child Hanoman was blessed by the gods with supernatural powers, which protect him against lightning, fire, water and all man-made weapons. He can fly, shapeshift and make himself bigger and smaller. This makes him a great warrior.
The statue of Hanoman is 47 cm high and made of light bentawas wood. The monkey general is depicted with bulging eyes and an open mouth with sharp teeth. His tail runs up its back and curls above his head. Hanoman has no fur yet and looks more human than in later woodcarvings. He wears a kain poleng around his waist. This black and white checkered cloth is a gift from Siwa and makes him invincible in battle. Other recognizable features are his gelung supit urang headdress and snake-shaped necklace.
Hanoman is engaged in a dramatic battle scene, trampling one of his enemies. The scene is reminiscent of the Ramayana passage, where Rawana sends out his best ogre warriors to defeat Hanoman, who has ruined his palace garden. When the monkey warrior has killed all his opponents (including the son of Rawana’s chief and the sons of his seven generals) the king’s youngest son, Aksha, throws himself into battle, but he too is killed by Hanoman after a fierce fight.
Hanoman raised a mighty roar and yell
That fear on all the army fell,
And then, his warrior soul aglow
With fury, rushed upon the foe,
Some with his open hand he beat
To death and trampled with his feet;
Some with fierce nails he rent and slew,
And others with his fists overthrew;
Some with his legs, as on he rushed,
Some with his bulky chest he crushed;
While some struck senseless by his roar
Dropped on the ground and breathed no more,
The remnant, seized with sudden dread,
Turned from the grove and wildly fled.
Passage from the Rámáyan of Válmíki,
translated into English verse by
Ralph T.H. Griffith in 1870-1874
Finally Hanuman is captured by Indrajit, Rawana’s eldest son and best warrior. When the enraged demon king orders his soldiers to kill his captive, Hanoman reveals that he is an envoy of Rama and asks Rawana to release Sita. On the advice of his ministers, Rawana decides not to kill the messenger of his enemy. Instead he orders to punish and humiliate the monkey warrior by setting his tail on fire, being unaware that Hanoman is immune to fire. Every time the soldiers wrap his tail in cloths of oil, Hanoman lengthens his tail until there is no oil left. Then he shrinks himself to escape his chains and runs with his burning tail through all the houses of Lanka, leaving the demon city in flames. Hanoman returns to Rama with a gem of Sita to proof he has found her. In the end, Rama and Hanoman manage to defeat the demons after a long battle and free Sita, but that’s another story…
Understanding Balinese wood carvings
According to collector Roland Smeets, author of the book Understanding Balinese Woodcarvings, the statue of Hanoman fighting an ogre (depicted on page 107) is very rare:
‘The fact that Hanoman is depicted with a smooth skin and less movement than in later woodcarvings proofs that it’s an old statue, because in the past statues had a more stiff pose. Moreover, it was not until the second half of the 20th century that woodcarvers competed with each other who could carve the most beautiful monkey fur. Before that, Hanoman and other monkey warriors were depicted with a smooth human skin, just like in the old drawings and kamasan paintings.’
What particularly appeals to me is the deeper meaning of the wood carving. When I first saw the statue, it reminded me of a real battle scene from, for example, WWII. The unknown woodcarver has done a good job of portraying the horrors of war. See the painful look on the ogre’s face and the way Hanoman presses his head to the ground with his foot. You can’t help feeling sorry for Hanoman’s slain enemy.
The story* of Hanoman fighting the ogres in Lanka and his other brave deeds from the Ramayana are very popular in Bali. They are retold during wayang performances and reenacted in Kecak dance. Sculptures of Hanoman and other Vahana warriors are also used as guardians for temples and other important buildings.
* There are different stories about Hanoman’s birth, life and adventures. This blog post is based on Balinese wayang stories, the book Understanding Balinese woodcarvings by Roland Smeets and the translation of the Rámáyan of Válmíki in English verse by Ralph T.H. Griffith in 1870-1874.