In a classical all-night performance, stories are slow to take shape and take many twists and turns, with frequent detours. In fact, a great many Javanese audience members do not bother to follow the plot much at all, rather enjoying the many separate scenes, particular the ones featuring humor. In a condensed performance, the events are usually recounted in a more straightforward way, without a lot of digressions.
The Déwåruci story is unique to Java, even though the characters in it hail from the Mahabharata. The basic plot is that Durnå sends his former pupil, Bråtåsénå (a.k.a. Bimå—or Sénå, for short) on a dangerous quest to find the sacred “water of life,” which is said to bestow enlightenment on whoever finds it. In the process, Sénå almost dies multiple times, but in the end fulfills his mission, thereby gaining great spiritual strength and wisdom.
Like all wayang stories, the exact details are up to the dhalang, so that countless versions exist, and some are yet to be created. Some aspects of this telling, which is based on an 1803 manuscript by the court poet Yåsådipurå (Adhikara 1984 and Magnis Suseno 1988), might not correspond exactly to the version Ki Midiyanto chooses to present, especially since ours will be a condensed performance. One aspect in particular of this story that is highly open to interpretation is what Durnå’s true intention is in sending Bråtåsénå seemingly to his death. Is he carrying out a plot at the behest of the Kuråwås to destroy their powerful enemy, thus increasing their chances of winning the great war? Does he believe Bråtåsénå will prevail, thus showing his deep-down affection for his nephew and exemplary pupil, despite their having ended up on opposite sides of the long-standing conflict? Does he hope to prevent the horrors of the looming great war between the cousins by sacrificing Bråtåsénå? Answers to these questions may only be hinted at by the dhalang—in wayang things are rarely starkly laid out in black and white—and they may vary according to the nuances the dhalang chooses to include.
The first place Durnå tells Bråtåsénå to look for the holy water is in a remote cave in the wild Tibråsårå forest, up on Cåndråmukå mountain (such place names originally referred to locations in India, but most Javanese think of them as being located on Java and elsewhere in Indonesia). He searches high and low within the cave, but the sacred water is nowhere to be found. In desperation, he begins to knock things about within the cave, and in so doing wakes up two giant ogres, Wahmukå and Harimukå, who had been sleeping nearby. Threatened by them, Bråtåsénå engages them in battle and is able to defeat them by crushing them against the rock walls of the cave. After searching mightily once more for the water-of-life, he gives up and leaves the cave to gather his thoughts under a banyan tree.
He hears disembodied voices calling to him. These voices, it turns out, belong to the gods Bayu and Brahman, who had been transformed into the two ogres Sénå had just killed, and were now released from their curse. They told him that the water was not to be found within the cave, and that if he truly wishes to find it he should return to Astinå and ask Durnå for further instructions.
The second place Durnå sends Sénå in his search for the water-of-life is to the bottom of the ocean. On his way there, he stops off at his brothers’ kingdom, Amartå, where his family tries to dissuade him. Ever the dutiful pupil, he persists on his quest. On the way to the ocean he must traverse dangerous forests. Once there he encounters the roiling sea that seems to be telling him to go back. But he would rather die than disobey his teacher’s command, and he enters the ocean without fear or reservation. Once under water he is attacked by a huge, poisonous sea serpent and for a moment thinks his life is over, until he remembers his magic thumbnail, with which he tears the serpent into pieces.
After this, Sénå encounters a strange little creature swimming in the ocean, who resembles him, and who turns out to be Déwå Ruci. It becomes clear from Déwå Ruci’s first words to Sénå that he knows about the latter’s quest, and he instructs Sénå to climb inside his body through his left ear, which Sénå, to his amazement, finds that he is able to do. Once inside he is brought enlightenment in the form of a blinding flash of four colors, each symbolizing a different aspect of life. Déwå Ruci proceeds to explain to him the mystical knowledge he needs to understand this, saying that this is not, in fact the water of life he had been seeking. Yet Sénå returns home satisfied that he has gained priceless wisdom and has fulfilled his quest, and he is welcomed with open arms by his family in Amartå.