Asia Education Foundation

The Mahabharata: An Indonesian Perspective

Lower Secondary English Unit

Studies of Asia Learning Emphases

  • Developing concepts of Asia
  • World contributions by the people of Asia

Specific Indonesia focus:

  • Show awareness of how a traditional Indian epic operates in an Indonesian context.
  • Understand the essential elements of Balinese and Javanese wayang for storytelling purposes.

Students develop an understanding of the main events, characters and settings of the much-loved Mahabharata epic.

Note: The spelling of characters' names and the name of the story may differ from one version of the story to another - for example: Pandawas, Pandava or Pandewas; Kurawa, Kurewas or Kurawas; Mahabharata, Mahabarata or Mahabrata.

Introducing the Mahabharata
The Who's Who and What's What of the Mahabharata
A Character Study
Writing a Story Based on the Mahabharata Characters

Teaching and Learning Activities

Introducing the Mahabharata

Before commencing this unit, you may like to visit the following site which has very clear, although lengthy, family trees and character descriptions of the main personalities inhabiting the kingdoms of Hastinapura and Amarta as told in the Indonesian version of the Mahabharata:

Explain to students that epics like the Mahabharata have travelled far beyond India and have been modified throughout Southeast Asia, including Indonesia.

Print out 'Introducing the Mahabharata' on The Mahabharata Activity Sheet and make copies for the students.

Students visit the following site and complete the activity sheet:

Answers are as follows:

The Mahabharata is the longest story ever written. It was written more that 2,000 years ago in    India   . Traders and religious scholars brought the story to Indonesia where it became popular, especially on the islands of    Bali    and    Java   .

The story tells of jealousy and power struggles between two sets of cousins who both want to rule their kingdom. It ends with a great war in which the main characters use supernatural powers. The two sets of cousins are the    Pandawas    (representing the forces of good) and the    Kurawas    (representing the forces of evil). There are    five    Pandawa brothers:    Yudistira   ,    Bima   ,    Arjuna   ,    Nakula    and    Sahadewa   . There are    100    Kurawa brothers and one sister. The two main Kurawa characters are    Duryudana/Duryodana    and    Karna    (who is actually the Pandawas' secret half-brother).

The Pandawas rule the kingdom at first, but lose the throne to the Kurawas when the wicked eldest Kurawa brother,    Duryodana   , cheats Yudistira (also known as Dharmawangsa) at a game of    dice   . The Pandawas are exiled to the    forest    for 12 years.

The Kurawas refuse to hand back the throne to the Pandawas after the agreed period of exile. Because they are    Ksatria   , Hindu warriors, the Pandawas know they have no choice but to declare war on their cheating cousins. With Krishna, the God-Man, on their side and because of the strength of their supernatural powers, the Pandawas, of course,    win    the 'Great War' - the Mahabharata.

The Who's Who and What's What of the Mahabharata

Finding out this information may be challenging for students as the Mahabharata has a huge cast of characters and complex subplots - in fact in Indonesia there are 147 wayang plays related to subplots of the Mahabharata. These would take 147 nights of 9-hour performances to complete!

Only the main characters and key locations have been included on The Mahabharata Activity Sheet so that students can follow the main storyline and character development. Print out the information from

to enable students to complete the second part of the sheet, or ask them to access the site and bookmark it on their browsers. Students should work in small groups to complete their individual sheets. Answers are below.

Note: the letter 'u' in Indonesian is pronounced 'oo' as is 'foot', not 'u' as in 'cup'.

NameDescription
BismaUncle of the Pandawas and Kurawas
King Pandu DewanataFather of the five Pandawa brothers; a gentle, handsome Ksatria warrior
DestarataOldest brother of King Pandu; blind; father of the 100 Kurawa brothers; a weak personality
Dewi KuntiMother of Yudistira, Bima and Arjuna; married to Pandu
MadrimMother of twins Nakula and Sadewa; married to Pandu
KarnaIllegitimate son of Kunti and the Sun God, Surya; raised by a coach driver; faithful warrior of evil Kurawas
DurnaThe mahaguru - great teacher - to both the Kurawas and Pandawas
Duryudana (Duryodana)Eldest Kurawa brother; jealous of Arjuna
SangkuniScheming, ugly friend of the Kurawas
ArjunaThird Pandawa brother; son of Indra, the War God; skilled archer; hero of the Mahabharata
Yudistira (Punta Dewa/Dharmawangsa)Eldest Pandawa brother; ruler of Hastinapura following King Pandu; son of the God of Dharma; truthful, patient, wise and never angry
BimaSecond Pandawa brother; son of the Wind God; very strong; a giant
SrikandiArjuna's wife; a skilled archer
DrupadiYounger sister of Srikandi; marries Yudistira after an archery competition between the Pandawas and the Kurawas
HastinapuraOriginal home of the Pandawas and Kurawas
AmartaNew kingdom for the Pandawas
Mt IndrakilaThe place where Arjuna meditates before the 'Great War' and where he receives his magic bow and arrow

Students form groups and then draw a storymap of the Mahabharata, using the above site and the completed activity sheet. Discuss the different storymaps created by each

As an extension of this activity, you may like to devise a set of short passages outlining the plot in better English than that on the above website! Rearrange these passages so that students can sequence them according to the storyline. Students could also illustrate each of these passages to create class books of the Mahabharata.

A Character Study

What makes a good Ksatria warrior?
Using the following website, students list characteristics of good Ksatria (the warrior ruling caste of Hinduism), the characters who portray these characteristics, at which point these characteristics are portrayed in the story and the significance of the heirlooms (pusaka) that have been bestowed by the gods on Arjuna.

The role of the Ponokawan clown servants
The Ponokawan clown servants do not exist in any other form of the Mahabharata but play a very important role in the Indonesian version. Four of them (Semar and his sons Gareng, Petruk and Bagong) serve the Pandawas while Togog and Bilung serve the Kurawas. The role of the clown servants is to provide advice and serve as a distraction during times of conflict.

Using the following website, students record details of the individual nature of the four 'good' Ponokawans:

Students share their findings.

Writing a Story Based on the Mahabharata Characters

Now that students have developed an understanding of what makes good or bad Ksatria and the role of the Ponokawans, they write a short play in cartoon-strip format using characters based on the Mahabharata but not necessarily set in the time of the Mahabharata.

In small groups, students brainstorm a suitable plot following traditional Indonesian storytelling format, ie, 1) a peaceful beginning; 2) a conflict between good and bad characters; 3) a resolution in which good defeats evil.

As an extension activity, students rewrite their story as a play and present it to the class, making sure the characters remain true to form.