Blossoms of Longing: sex and death in medieval Java

Blossoms of Longing: Ancient Verses of Love and Lament, translated from the Old Javanese by Thomas M. Hunter, 1998

Iris, monoprint, 2002

It doesn’t seem to be possible to obtain a physical copy of this book anymore (well, there’s one on Amazon for $2000, but my budget doesn’t quite stretch to that). Luckily, the Lontar Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting Indonesian literature and culture through translation, and the original publishers of this work, have made it available as a free ebook that can be read online. It’s a selection of medieval (approximately 12th-14th century) Javanese love poetry. There’s a lot of pining-from-afar, courtly-love type stuff that reminds me of European poetry of the same era; but, then again, there’s a lot of explicit extramarital sex, tantric breathing, (relatively) empowered women, and polytheism, which is a definite change from medieval Europe.

Presented below, with little to no editing, my thoughts while reading Blossoms of Longing: Ancient Verses of Love and Lament (with relevant quotations):

From the Krishnayana:

Once I passed nine nights
savouring the delights of love-making

My kain only then lost its freshness
saturated with fragrant oils and
perfumed unguents from my
lover’s contact

What’s a “kain?” Is that ancient Javanese slang for vagina? Is she really talking about the freshness of her vagina after nine straight days of sex?

In the morning I found pleasure
in being overtaken by daylight
as drowsily I groped for my loosened kain


Crumpled where it had bound my legs

OK, wait, I cannot be right about this. Google? Little help?

Turns out it’s a piece of cloth, worn as a skirt, a piece of traditional Javanese dress that is still worn in many Southeast Asian cultures today.

Listless and fatigued I covered myself

Self Portrait
Untitled, linoleum print, 2002

with a wrap of boughs
and prepared to stand, naked while

Unaware of his approach behind me,
I was pleasantly startled
when he covered my eyes with his hands.

So crazy that humans have been doing that for a thousand years. It was a big flirting technique in middle school where I came from. Covering each other’s eyes with our hands, that is, not standing naked wrapped in boughs.

From the Arjunawiwaha:

Have you no love that you abandon me like this?
Tell me who will smooth my eyebrows now
When they arch in faint annoyance?

I cannot say that this has ever been my first concern after a breakup.

From the Smaradahana:

Will you feel pain
when you hear the faint cry
of a maiden lost in thought,
annoyed at being scratched
by her lover’s fingernail?

This is like the fourth reference to fingernail-related love wounds (in the Arjunawiwaha, the heavenly maiden who is mourning Arjuna’s departure vows to preserve the nail marks he’s left on her breasts as “a reminder of [her] longing”) which makes me wonder if people in 12th century Indonesia kept their nails really long.

From the Parthayajna

Or perhaps I will join the sect of the breath
and follow the path of the nostrils to the
place of secret recollection,

And reside in the midsection of a young woman
as she languorously removes her skirt in
moments of heat

Whoa. Is that what yoga is supposed to be like? I think I’ve been doing it wrong.

Untitled, oil on cardboard, 2002

From the Sumanasantaka

The Pandya king, on being refused by Indumati:

…The only true medicine for you will be
the taste of erotic delights the
trembling passion as I embrace you
and squeeze tightly your breasts

…That does not sound enjoyable at all. Keep refusing, Indumati.

When it is time to take you on my lap here is
my chest for your elbow’s prodding when
you find yourself annoyed

I mean, at least he’s anticipating her annoyance, I guess. But I still don’t feel he’s making the strongest case for himself. Let’s contrast with Aja, the prince who eventually wins her:

Here, good lady, be seated on my lap,
so long have I been pining for you
who comes to me like a rain cloud

(A much more nicely-phrased invitation, in my opinion)

Suite: The Sound of Rain Falling
Rain Suite, Monoprint 2002

You are the fine showers of my poetic
rapture, disappearing when regarded too
closely, but turning into gentle rainfall
when you allow me to take you on my lap

What’s with the lap obsession? The tropes in medieval Javanese love poetry seem to be: annoyed women, shared sleeping mats, languorous undressing, fingernail wounds, and lap-sitting, rain (lots of rain) and mutual hair-combing. To wit:

You alone, noble lady, will be the cause of slightly swollen nail scratches

Be still, my heart.

The last poem, the Bhasa Tanakung, is subtitled “The lament of Tanakung, ‘he who is without desire.'” But that turns out to be more of an aspirational than descriptive name, given that the whole poem is an alternately bitter and yearning paean to unrequited love. Tanakung’s lover’s father has arranged her marriage to someone else, and Tanakung is:

Disappointed–for she was reluctant to follow me in my vow to seek death,

Mistaken–for considering she might love me, if only because of my great longing

Um. Right. Great. A medieval Javanese Nice Guy© (“But I held the door open for you! WHY won’t you kill yourself with me?”).

And on that note, my foray into Javanese love poetry is complete. All kidding aside, there’s some interesting and lovely and romantic stuff there, though maybe a little too esoteric to put into your wedding vows (“…and I promise to always smooth out your eyebrows when they arch in faint annoyance, and to help rearrange your coiffure when it is damp from the exertions of pleasure…”). The book is free, the link is up at the top of the page, I bid you to go and spend half an hour thinking about the sexual exploits of medieval Javanese royalty.

Untitled figure study
Untitled, oil on canvas board, 2002

9 thoughts on “Blossoms of Longing: sex and death in medieval Java

  1. You have *almost* convinced me to seek out this book — except what a really want is more of your running commentary!! You srsly had me snortlaughing through this entire post!

    And now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go rearrange my coiffure made mussed by the exertions of amusement…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Catching up now that the show is closed. You are very funny! I started reading from your latest posts, then decided I needed to go back to last winter. Enjoying them all!


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