One of the two main stories informing Javanese theater and dance is the Ramayana. (The other one is the Mahabharata). It's a moral tale, full of instructions and examples on how to lead the good life. It praises the rectitude, wisdom and perseverance of the noble satriya or warrior class, and stresses the faithfulness, integrity and filial and fraternal devotion.
The Ramayana acknowledges that the trek along the path of virtue demands humility, self-sacrifice, deprivation and compassion. It's a cautionary tale - less a battle between good and evil (in which evil must always lose) than a recognition of the perpetual ebb and flow of the spirits of darkness and light.
In its homeland, India, the Ramayana has been known for 3.000 years. With the spread of Indian religions and the culture through Southeast Asia, the Ramayana became part of the mythology of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, the Malay peninsula and especially Java and Bali. The epic is long and complex.
In the Ramayana, the chief characters are Rama, his wife Sita, his brother Laksamana, the monkey general Hanoman, the demon king Rawana, and Rawana's brother, Wibisana. Rama is demi-devine (an incarnation of Visnu), and a consummate archer.
Rama is of noble birth, for he moves in a refined (halus) manner. Even in battle, he is graceful and delicate, using his mind as much as muscles. Rawana, Rama's implacable foe, thrusts and struts upon the stage, every step filled with menace. His head turns sharply with each movement. His face (whether a grease-painted human one, a mask or a puppet head) is an impassioned, furious red in keeping with his aggressive, hostile nature.
Rama, Laksamana and their half-brother, Barata, are the sons of the kind of Ayodya. An accomplished bowman, Rama wins the hand of beautiful Sita in an archery contest, but through the intervention of Barata's mother, Rama is prevented from succeeding his father as king. Rama, Sita and Laksamana go into exile, refusing Barats's entreaties to return. In the forest they meet a sister of Rawana, the kind of demons (raksasa); the falls in love with Rama, is spurned, and then turns into Laksamana, who prompty cuts off her nose and ears.
Rawana, determined to avenge this indignity, sends off a servant in the form of a golden deel. Rama stalks the animal and kills it. Its dying cries sound like Rama calling for help, and Laksamana, taunted by Sita, goes in search of his brother. In his absence Rawana appears as a holy beggar and confronts Sita, who refuses his natural terrifying form, abducts Sita, and flies off with her. The gallant birt Jatayu attempts to rescue her, but is mortally wounded. Before dying, he tells Rama and Laksamana what has happened to Sita.
Searching for Sita, the brothers meet Hanoman, a general in the kingdom of the apes, who takes them to meet Sugriwa, his king. Sugriwa, who has been usurped by his brother, seeks Rama's aid in regaining his throne. Rama kills the errant brother, and the grateful monkey king places his army at Rama's disposal. Rama and Laksamana set off with Hanoman and the white ape army, and learn that Rawana has carries Sita across the sea to the island of Langka, Rawana's homeland. Hanoman undertakes a daring reconnaissance of Langka and finds Sita in a garden of Rawana's palace. He gives her a token from Rama, and Sita in turn gives Hanoman one of her rings, but Hanoman discovered by Rawana's guards, captured after a desperate fight, and is sentenced to be burned at the stake. With the pyre blazing, he wrenches free, his tail a mass of flames, and sets fire to the palace before fleeing from Langka.
Hanoman carries Sita's ring to Rama, and the ape armies gather on the shore opposite to Langka and build a giant causeway across the sea. On the island, a tumultuous battle ensues. One of Rama's magic arrows eventually fells Rawana, and the victors return home with Sita to a boisterous welcome. Rama received the throne from his half-brother Barata.