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About Sutasoma

The story of Buddhist prince Sutasoma is an Old Javanese kakawin poem, written by Mpu Tantular in the 14th century at the time of the Majapahit empire, which extended through a large part of Southeast Asia between the 13th and 15th century. Copies of the poem have survived in the form of handwritten manuscripts, many of which were produced in Bali. Versions of the Sutasoma story are well known in Bali and it is a popular subject of paintings and performance. The story is depicted on the panels of the Bale Kambang, Floating Pavilion, in the Kerta Gosa complex, Semarapura in Bali.

The Story

Once Buddha was reincarnated as Sutasoma, the son of the King of Hastina. Enormously pious Sutasoma had no desire to marry and become a king, so one night he fled the palace, sought refuge in the forest and found his way to a monastery in the mountains.

There Sutasoma heard a story about a king called Purusada who had been reincarnated as a demon who ate humans. This happened because one day in the kingdom all the meat prepared for the king was eaten by dogs and pigs. The chef hurriedly sought out alternatives, but could not find any. In desperation he went to a graveyard and cut the leg off a corpse. The demonic king found the meal very tasty and asked the chef what type of meat had been prepared. The chef admitted that the meat was human and from that moment the king demanded humans for every meal. Soon there were no people left in the kingdom, as they had either been eaten or had fled in fear of their lives.

One day King Purusada accidentally wounded his leg. Since the leg wouldn't heal he became even more demonic and moved to live in the jungle. King Purusada had sworn that he would make an offering of 100 kings to the God Kala in exchange for curing his illness. This worried the holy men at the monastery and they asked Sutasoma to kill the demonic king Purusada. Intending to live as an ascetic, Sutasoma refused to be involved in the killing.

Sutasoma set out on his journey and one day met Gaja Waktra - a giant with an elephant’s head, who preyed upon humans. Gaja Waktra challenged Sutasoma to a fight. Sutasoma refused to fight and instead tried to convince the giant of the evil of his conduct. The giant became so furious that he was ready to destroy the world. But pious Sutasoma immersed himself in meditation, when a weapon appeared, striking the giant in the chest. The defeated giant surrendered and offered to accompany Sutasoma as his disciple. Sutasoma began instructing the giant in the Buddhist religion.

Later Sutasoma and Gaja Waktra meet a serpent who, after initial hostilities, also signed up as a disciple. Then the three of them meet a hungry tigress who was about to eat her own children. Sutasoma explained the sinfulness of what she was intending to do, but the tigress responded that she would eat her cubs out of hunger. The prince offered his own body as food for the tigress. She pounced on him and drank his blood. Sutasoma died. When the tigress realized what she had done, she began to repent and was about to kill herself. At this stage the god Indra descended and brought Sutasoma back to life. The remorseful tigress joined the small group of disciples.

On their journey the party met Sutasoma’s cousin King Dasabahu, who invited Sutasoma to marry his sister. Sutasoma married her and returned home to his parents in Hastina. Eventualy Sutasoma succeeded his father as king and not long afterwards his son was born.

At that time the war between Dasabahu and the demon king Purusada broke out. Purusada had gathered together 100 kings to offer the God Kala, but Kala didn't accept them and asked for King Sutasoma instead. Purusada attacked Sutasoma, who didn't resist, was captured and presented to Kala.

The Painting

The painting depicts the final scene of the story, when Sutasoma voluntarily offers himself to Kala in place of the one hundred kings. Kala, seen at the bottom right with the servants Dalem and Sangut, transforms himself into a snake and attempts to swallow Sutasoma, but he finds it impossible. So, Sutasoma is stuck, and until Kala renounces his aggression, he cannot either swallow or regurgitate him. The onlookers are Dasabahu and Purusada, shown on the top left; an unnamed demon fugitive and Sutasoma's father are in the next row just below them. Further down are the servants Merdah and Twalen with the tigress. Gaja Waktra and a High Priest appear above Kala. The serpent-disciple has been left out of the painting to avoid confusion.