Ph.D. (Australian National University)

Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities

2000 Centenary Medal for Academic Excellence

B.A. Hons First Class, University Medal, University Women's Prize (Australian National University)




Traditional Javanese Husband and Wife statues (loro blonyo). They were the household deities (like the Roman lares et penates) of Javanese religion. The modern Javanese script at the top says "Sugeng Rawuh Para Tamu" - Welcome Guests!




WELCOME!/SUGENG RAWUH! to my website on Java and things Javanese from me and from the demure husband and wife in the picture.


I am a professional historian whose main focus has been Java - the finest tropical island in the world, and one of my aims in this web page is to introduce to you some of its thrilling and amazing aspects by way of my research into its Women Warriors, its stunningly beautiful manuscripts, its art and Wayang theatre, and its astonishingly far-flung maritime connections. There is also a section on what I've been doing after moving to a period beyond manuscripts: using scientifically quantified data, especially DNA and historical linguistics, as historical evidence. My academic career has so far lasted some 45 years. During this time I have experienced many changes in Australian Higher Education. In the hope that some readers may find interesting how things have changed since I first embarked on my academic carreer, I have also written a bio. My academic papers can be viewed and downloaded here.

Finally - If you have come to the website expecting another Java, I'm sorry, but why not stay awhile? There might be something here that interests you!

Also, recently (August 2020) SBS produced what is to my mind a very fine documentary on Java: Michael Portillo's Jakarta to Borobudur Great Railway Journeys. Click here to have a look while it is still available.

Enter the women – on horseback with firearms

One of the things about Javanese history that is guaranteed to attract attention is ... warrior women! We know about these impressive females from a diary written by one of them in the late 18th century - a personal record of an anonymous prajurit estri, or ‘guardswoman’. The two papers I wrote about this diary have, perhaps not surprisingly, been my most popular work. Its author was one of an élite corps of cavalry-women who, clad in cloth of gold and armed with firearms – their skill with these attested by astonished Dutch visitors – formed a guard on ceremonial court occasions.  But, having more than one string to their bows, they were also highly trained practitioners of court arts such as music and dance. The diary covers all aspects of court life, from the wages bill of the soldiery and other aspects of the budget to the volatile political relationships between the different Central Javanese courts with each other and with the Dutch Company. The prince who had established this particular court was Mangkunĕgara I, in earlier decades one of the most skilled opponents of the Dutch on the battlefield. Court dances re-enacted his military victories. As a result of the articles I wrote about him and his court, which revealed that he had actually fought on for longer than one of his erstwhile princely allies, he was placed on the Indonesian National Heroes list.

A treasure-trove of visually stunning manuscripts

Indonesia has a huge and still largely unexplored manuscript heritage, many of them of exceptional beauty. In 1994 I was asked to edit a volume on significant manuscripts from all over Indonesia - a daunting but also thrilling project on on which I worked with John McGlynn, from the wonderful Lontar Foundation. The resulting publication Illuminations: the Writing Traditions of Indonesia, was launched by the President of Indonesia as part of the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Indonesian independence. It was also launched in New York by the Ford Foundation, the initiator of the project. This webpage shows just a few of the many beautiful and fascinating illustrations.

The first two manuscripts are examples of the babad genre. All princely houses produced their chronicles, called babads, and there are some babads devoted to outstanding individuals, especially warriors.

babadFrontispiece of the Babad Mangkunagara: an 18th century manuscript recounting the history of the principality of the Lady Soldiers (Prajurit Estri). Reproduced from Annabel Gallop's beautiful and informative (1991) Golden Letters - Writing Traditions of Indonesia.

The illustration below is from a Babad describing the Dutch conquest of East Java. It's half-way between the style of the Wayang and European painting.

Illustration from the Babad Blambangan, depicting Dutch officers receiving a letter from the ruler of Balambangan.

The complex nature of Javanese religion always attracted me. The history of Indonesia is usually written around two dominant influences from outside: Indianization (from the early centuries of the Christian era) and Islamization (from the thirteenth century). Java was the most comprehensively 'Indianized' society, with a huge number of Sanskrit words taken into the language, and a distinguished sculptural tradition, with a wealth of aesthetically distinguished and remarkably expressive statues in the Indic tradition. What is less well known is the length of time that Hinduism and Islam co-existed at the Javanese courts, as I discovered when working on the literature of this period. The manuscript pages shown below show this fusion. It is an Islamic text, but Hinduisim survives in the depiction of the buta or guardian ogres.

Tajussalatin Pages from a manuscript of the Tajusalatin, an Islamic didactic work containing precepts for kings. The two faces at the bottom represent ogres from Hindu mythology.

For obvious reasons, historians like to be able to date their sources! When you are working with old Javanese documents this can be quite complicated, as they use several methods of dating. In a typical manuscript date, there is a mixture of the Indic and Islamic calendars (which, as one is solar and the other lunar, is already tricky) and indigenous systems of dating. One example of this is the wuku. (A wuku is a period of time, roughly like a week.) In his book The Seven-day Circle Eviatar Zerubavel describes the wuku calendar as the "most remarkable week-calendar anywhere in the world".


Page from a Javanese 30-week wuku calendar showing four weeks. The wuku system is similar to Western astrology, but it is not connected to the stars or any natural phenomena.

Wukus became a research interest as soon as I started to work on Javanese manuscripts. Kumar 1997 147ff. contains my translation of one version of the thirty-wuku cycle (yes, just to add further complexity there are others!). The figure below illustrates a page from a wuku manuscript - analogous to astrological guides found in newspapers or magazines (but with much nicer pictures!). Its panels contain four wukus, each depicting its associated features (animal, planet etc) and (on the left) giving a description of its features. Like Western astrology guides, it claims to provide you with the character of someone born in a particular wuku, and what sort of life they will have. It also provides a guide as to what activity (e.g. hunting, fishing,planting) will or will not prosper in that wuku.

Since it simply cyclical and has no inherent date, the only way in which a wuku can contribute to the dating of a manuscript is if you have some prior knowledge of what wuku it was in a particular region at a particular time. It can then be used to say whether or not the date is internally consistent, with regards to its different components.

The Chinese have been an extremly significant minority population in Java for a long time. For example wealthy Chinese participated in Javanese high culture, including the production of manuscripts and the publishing of Javanese texts when printing was introduced. The figure below is from a manuscript recounting the adventures of Lisibin (Li Sibian), a king of the Tang dynasty. Other Chinese stories were enacted in one type of wayang (puppet) theatre.

Illustration from a manuscript on the Tang King Li Sibian.


As Billy Kwan says in "The Year of Living Dangerously" view youtube clip if you want to understand Java you have to understand the Wayang. Java has an ancient, widespread, and diverse theatrical tradition. Most varieties of Javanese theatre, however, are subsumed under the name of ‘wayang’ (Bahasa Indonesia, bayang), meaning ‘shadow’. The best-known variety of wayang is wayang purwa,  ‘ancient wayang’, with flat, sometimes elaborately decorated, leather puppets representing the characters of the Indian Mahabharata epic. Its most elaborate form found at the Javanese courts, this is the type of wayang that has been most extensively studied. It used to be the case that its dramatis personae and story lines were widely known throughout Javanese society, with the former used to describe someone’s character.  For example, ‘he’s a real Arjuna’, signifying refined and modest in his demeanour but also a mighty warrior and lover; or, ‘she’s a Srikandi’, meaning a woman who instead of conforming to the usual pattern for feminine behaviour (demure, modest, retiring..)  is extremely feisty and rather bold in demeanour, just like the wayang character of that name.

Wayang gedog golek

Sinden (singer) & Dalang (puppet master)

Actress at start of performance, with gamelan orchestra in background and puppets ranged at upper right and left.

Actress leaving stage to enthusiastic applause of children bottom left.

There are, however, many other sorts of wayang, differing in form and/or repertoire There is even one very ancient type –  wayang beber –  that does not use puppets at all, but scrolls, which are unrolled to the accompaniment of a spoken narrative for the benefit of the audience. A more current form is wayang golek, which uses three-dimensional puppets and is mainly found in West Java. Such puppets are used to tell the stories of Panji (more on him below) and of Damarwulan (an East Javanese hero), and these two performance repertoires are classified together under the name wayang golek gedog.

(And by the way: there is actually a type of wayang enacted by humans, the wayang wong [‘people wayang’ or ‘human wayang’.)

If you want to find out more of the wide and complex world of wayang, see David Irvine, Leather Gods and Wooden Heroes: Java’s Classical Wayang, Times Editions/Marshall Cavendish, Singapore 2005.

Performing Panji

Probably the most famous chararacter in Javanese literature is Panji, prince of Kuripan. Stories of his exploits and accomplishments - which range from the bedroom to the battlefield by way of the artist's and musician's studio - have existed for nearly two millenia. You can find out more about Panji from my British Library blog. Panji also has an existence in drama and theatre, including of course that most typical of Javanese performing arts the wayang. At least, he had an existence. Performances were already on the decline about thirty years ago and that is why I decided it would be a good idea, before the artform disappeared, to commission a genuine wayang performance in Java of one of his stories. (Panji's beloved is captured by an enemy king and he has to find and rescue her. Which of course he does.)

A perfomance like this is typically a large-scale affair, involving not only a puppet master(dalang) and his puppets (wayang), but also a whole gamelan orchestra, a female singer (sinden) and a female dancer/actress. This does not come cheap. I managed to obtain a $10000 grant from the small grants committee of the Australian National University to underwrite the operation. The logistics were handled by John McGlynn of the Lontar foundation in Jakarta. (Lontar is itself funded by Indonesian business and the American Ford foundation.)

The performance, which lasted through the night, was given by the Jaka Baru troupe led by the famous dalang Warsad. It was held in the (then) small town of Indramayu in West Java. Children are allowed to stay up all night (they fall asleep during the dull bits and are woken up for the exciting bits!) The whole thing was professionally filmed. The web-site pictures are from that performance.

And Now for Something Completely Different...

In the early 90's Clio sent me a ball from out of left field (bet you didn't realise the muse of history could throw). I had always resisted writing about larger vistas than Java, for Java seemed a quite sufficiently rich and unexplored field. And in any case the dominant historical myth said that Indonesia was always receiving, but never exerting, cultural influence. But I serendipitously encountered some faint but intriguing clues mysteriously pointing outside Java. They seemed to connect Java and Japan - of all Asian countries, the ones of whom one would firmly state that they had had no significant contact before the Second World War.

Several characteristically Javanese phenomena - for instance very advanced metalwork especially in weaponry, standardized pottery in restrained classical forms, a particular type of hierarchical wet-rice society based on javanica rice, the rule of a god-king legitimized by a specific myth - these cropped up again not in 'Southeast Asia' (the academic construct to which Java allegedly belonged) but in Japan - a 'Northeast Asian' country.

There was more - experts on rice had already established the close relationship between Japanese rice and javanica rice. Experts on masks with no particular regional specialism were prompted to remark on the striking similarity of Japanese and Javanese masks, which are foundational to the mode of theatre in both countries. So, disturbingly, my whole picture of Indonesian societies as influenced by other civilizations (Indic, Islamic) but never exerting significant influence elsewhere was challenged. As was my belief in the earlier and stronger development of civilization in Northeast Asian countries. This was because there was evidence that an advanced bronze-iron society with a wealthy elite had developed in Java very early, at a time when Japan was still inhabited by hunter-gatherers. How to explain this puzzle?

After a time, and in the face of much wiser counsel (including my own), the 'that's funny' reflex triumphed and I just had to investigate. No relevant written records existed. It was however clear to me that if any really significant contact had occured, this must have left a trace in two areas: language and genetics. I was able to do some limited work on those areas, and published a tentative paper on Old Javanese loanwords in Old Japanese. I submitted a paper on genetics (using traditional indicators such as teeth and skull shapes, blood types, etc) to a Japanese journal. The editor said that it was accurate as far as it went, but why had I not included DNA ? Specifically, the d-loop, of which I had never heard at that time. This actually is (apart from a feature of the bow-string used by archers) an area in the mitochondrial (maternally transmitted) DNA that is considered especially suitable for tracing genetic relationships. This is because mutations occur more frequently there than anywhere else in the mitochondrial genome.

At this very difficult impasse I was extraordinarily lucky to receive vital help from two major experts. These were Simon Easteal, for DNA, and Phil Rose, for linguistics. Their formidable expertise enabled me to include d-loops in a genetics paper, which revealed a small Indonesian genetic component in the Japanese population. And, four years later, to publish a paper on the linguistic evidence co-authored with Phil Rose. This linguistic evidence comprised about 40 words with very similar meanings and corresponding sounds in Old Javanese and Old Japanese. For example, in both Old Japanese and Old Javanese there is a verb matur, meaning to present, offer, say to someone of higher rank. Or cleared field is paɖang in Old Javanese, para in Old Japanese. Or granary is guɖang in Old Javanese, kura in Old Japanese. (Both these latter examples show what linguists call regular correspondences, for example, Old Javanese intervocalic retroflex ɖ corresponds to Old Japanese r, or Old Javanese word-final velar nasal ng corresponds to zero in Old Japanese.) There were many such regualr correspondences in form between items of very similar meaning in both languages.

All of this seemed to be pointing towards some sort of connection between Ancient Japan and Java. I thought it was important to gather together all the evidence from rice, DNA, Linguistics and Mythology, and the result was a book - Globalising the Prehistory of Japan. (I didn't want to call it that, I hasten to add - a far more appropriate title might have been the less trendy sounding, but more precise, DNA, Language and Rice, but anyway ...).

An important part of the book addressed the actual evaluation of quantifiable evidence, and for this I used a Bayesian approach found in evaluating forensic DNA evidence. [Want to know how probable it is that there has been a historical connection between Japan and Java, based on observable similarity in form and meaning of words in Old Japanese and Old Javanese words of the kind I just mentioned? For that, one thing you have to work out is how likely you are to get that similarity (the evidence) assuming there has been contact; and how likely you are to find that similarity assuming there has been no contact. The ratio of these probabilities, called the Likelihood Ratio, quantifies the strength of your evidence. (There is more to it, but the Likelihood Ratio for the evidence is a vital part of estimating the probability of a hypothesis, given the evidence adduced in its support. Anyone interested in seeing how this can be used in historical investigation, and how it can handle combination of evidence of different types, might look at a paper in Nature Communcations on the identification of a skeleton believed to be that of Richard III.]

At the moment, my research is focussing on the use of DNA and Linguistics as historical evidence, as well as investigating the intriguing phenomenon of monosyllables in Old Javanese.