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Our Global Neighbours: the Lesson from Falling Down

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 03 Dec 2013

An ancient Javanese tale about a flying turtle.

Balinese Painting E95376

Reproduction © Australian Museum

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world. This story is retold by Ita - Putu Ayu Yunita Yastini, our Indonesian intern.

Fables have been told as bedtime stories for many generations, but in Indonesian culture they are more than just stories for children. Many fables are derived from Tantri Kamandhaka - a sacred text written in Old Javanese language, and like other Hindu and Buddhists writings ultimately introduced from India and Sri Lanka. Tantri includes various stories, many of which use animal characters to convey moral lessons, promoting good deeds and wise judgement.

The relief-sculpture illustrations of these stories were found in Candi Mendut – an old Buddhist temple near Yogyakarta in central Java, dated to about 800 AD. More numerous carvings are found in east Java dated to about 1340-1450. They attest to the antiquity of the Tantri stories in Indonesia. One of the famous tales, also sculptured on the Candi Mendut’s walls, is the tale about the Flying Turtle.

The story begins in a pond - a turtle who lives there developed a friendship with a couple of geese. One day, with the dry season approaching, the geese suggested the turtle should consider moving to another pond in a mountain, with plenty of water. In fact the pond where the turtle lived never was waterless even during drought. However, the turtle desired to try new things, and pretended he was afraid the pond would run out of water.

The problem was no one knew how to transport the turtle to another pond. After thinking for a long while, the geese came up with a solution - they would fly him using a stick. So, the turtle had to bite the stick and hold on to it. Before the journey, the geese told him not to open his mouth no matter what. He was not allowed to speak during the entire journey. The turtle agreed and they took off. He was amazed to see the scenery from high above.

When they reached a field named Wilanggala they spotted two dogs who were shocked seeing a flying turtle. The female dog shouted “look, what a strange thing, there is a turtle holding on to a stick and carried by two geese”, the other dog replied “well, maybe the stupid turtle is learning how to fly, but possibly it is buffalo dung full of worms – baby birds fodder”.

Such insults made the turtle angry. He tried to restrain his rage, but could not control himself and opened his mouth to shout at the dogs. Just then he realised he was falling down. He totally forgot about his agreement with the geese. He disregarded their advice and disobeyed them at his own peril. So, the turtle fell to the ground and died. The dogs were happy - they ran to the turtle’s dead body and ate it greedily.

The story instructs a reader about the importance of being faithful to an agreement and to follow the advice of wise friends.

 Story by Putu Ayu Yunita Yastini