Saturday, Nov 26, 2022

Ram And The Many Ramayanas Outside India

Over 300 Ramayana versions are known to exist, especially in South East Asia, when around the 12th and 13th centuries, this region received and imbibed many of the cultural traits, along with goods and services, travelling from Indian shores.

Professional Khon performers at Thai Heritage week by the Fine Arts Department under Thailand's Ministry of Culture. Khon is a traditional and highly stylised form of Thai theatre. The characters and storylines are drawn from Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana Getty Images

Maharishi Valmiki’s Ramayana—the Sanskrit treatise that chronicles the victory of Ram against the 10-headed Lanka king, Ravan—is a much-loved tale of good triumphing over evil, the world over. While Valmiki’s version is recognised as the original one, over 300 Ramayana versions are known to exist, especially in South East Asia, when around the 12th and 13th centuries, the region received and imbibed many of the cultural traits, along with goods and services, travelling from Indian shores. The Ramayana adaptations have inserted their own folkfore and culture beliefs, changed plots, character traits, attire, choice of weaponry, and locations, and in turn offer an array of refreshing perspectives on the original treatise.

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Many of these versions do not ascribe to the Brahmanical values in the original Ramayana that was predominant among upper caste Hindus. In the Indian versions too, there are new characters introduced, especially in Jaina texts, and writers across Asia, especially took note of these influences. It is why Ram was also a respectable figure for even Buddhists of Southeast Asia. The Buddhist version of Ramayana, called Dasarata Jataka, has two major differences—One, king Dashrath sends Ram, Sita and Lakshman to reside in the forest only to protect them from his third wife; and secondly, the plot does does not include Sita's abduction.The epic and its versions grew so popular that even their kings started legitimising of their kingship through Ramayana. The earliest instance is of a 11th-century Burmese stone inscription in Mon language, in which King Kyanzittha of Bagan dynasty proclaims he is an incarnation of Ram’s close relative.

A majority of the population in Cambodia, like Thailand and Burma, practice Theravada Buddhism. But before that Mahayana Buddhism was dominant, and even before that, it was Hinduism. Odia and Tamil sea merchants were responsible for the proliferation of these three India religions to Southeast Asia, when they would undertake an annual voyage, and along with the goods exchanged stories. In some Southeast Asian versions, Hanuman is depicted as some playing mind games, who charms and outwits especially the female characters. He makes Ravan’s mermaid daughter Suvarnamaccha steal rocks that are then used by his monkey army to build the Lanka bridge, and tricks sorceress Benjkaya to masquerade as Sita, dead,  in order to make Ram return. Still, Ram is the dominant character in most versions here.

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Cambodia’s Ramayana version is called Reamker (Ramakerti–Ram + Kirti/glory), a text of Khmer literature that takes from both Hinduism and Buddhism to demonstrate the balance of good and evil. Here, Ram is called Phreah Ream and Sita, Neang Seda. Within the 12th-century Angkor Wat ruins, there’s a corridor with carved episodes. Ramayanan murals also grace the walls of Phnom Penh’s royal palace complex. Here, Hanuman is shown expanding his body to fit the vacuum between India and Lanka so that Ram and his monkey army can cross the sea, which is similar to Jataka tale where a monkey king stretches himself between two trees so that his monkey followers can flee from the king’s hunters. 

The last line of monarchs, when Thailand was erstwhile Siam, claimed to be Ram’s descendants, and their names had Ram either as a prefix or suffix. Even the capital city then was Ayutthaya, a similar sounding name to Ayodhya. In the 18th century, Burmese soldiers invaded this city, and their king, changed his name to Rama I, despite being a practicing Buddhist. He wrote the Thai version of the epic, called Ramakien, which today is the national epic. Murals of reimagined scenes from this version grace the edifice of Wat Phra Kaew (Emerald Buddha Temple). 

Also Read | Who Is Ram And What Is His Story?

Myanmar (Burma) has an unofficial national epic called Yamayana; Yama or Zatdaw (an enactment of Jataka Tales), introduced during King Anawratha’s reign in the 11th century CE. In this version, Ram is called Yama, Sita is Thida and Ravan is Yawana. Ram is portrayed as a Bodhisattva. The narrative is mostly the same as Valmiki’s Ramayana, except for localised names of places and characters. In Laos,the national epic is Phra Lak Phra Ram. Lao devotees believed that their ruler King Lava was Ram’s son, and that Lava gave Laos its name. This is viewed as a Jataka story helmed on a story about a previous life of Lord Buddha.

In Malay literature, the Hikayat Seri Rama is strikingly similar to the original Sanskrit epic. In the versions of storytellers in Malaysia, Laksman (Lakshman) is the central character, not Ram; that is similar to the Phra Lak Phra Lam, where Laksman takes centre-stage for his courage and Ram is comparatively perceived as the weaker one. Moreover, the text sympathises with Ravan.

Also Read | Mixing Religion With Politics And Invoking Ram's Name

To gauge the sheer variety of Ramayanas in Southeast Asia, Indonesia makes for a good case study. Here, the versions of Ramayana differ from island to island. In Bali, it is Ramakavaca, in Java its Kakawin or Yogesvara Ramayana, and in Sumatra its Ramayana Swarnadwipa. In the latter version, Tamawaka (Ram) rescues Himegini (Sita), from Baramon (Ravan). The Javanese Kakawin is a Sanskrit-metre-poetry composed during the Medang kingdom era. The plot in the first half is similar to Valmiki’s Ramayana, but changes thereafter, in fact introduces wry humour, by focusing on god Semar and his three sons. In some Indonesian versions, Sita is anything but demure as portrayed in Ramayana, but is fierce and daring enough to fight the Asuras on her own. The indigenous Kecak fire dance, themed on Sita’s abduction by Ravan, is performed with no musical instruments but only a choir of vocalists.

The Maranao version in the Philippines is called Maharadia Lawana that lists completely new events and characters that chronicle the adventures of the monkey-king, Maharadia Lawana, who was blessed with immortality by the gods. In one tale, Princess Gandingan is kidnapped by the devatas of the Bumbaran kingdom, but rescued by Prince Bantugan; similar to the abduction story of Sita by Ravan. The Singkil dance form is helmed on this epic.

The relevance of Ramayana in South East Asia can be gauged by the fact that the opening ceremony of the 2017 ASEAN summit involved a staging of the musical version of Ramayana. However, other countries in Asia, especially the ones bordering India, also have their own Ramayanas.

All the Ramayana versions of Southeast Asia, one can find bravery, romance, and adventure. But in China, part of Eastern Asia, only picked up the orthodox and ethical values noted in the Indian epic. Jataka Tales of Ram are quite popular with the Chinese. There’s Buddhist text Liudu ji jing that is an elaborate account of the Ramayana, while in Sun Wukong, Hanuman finds some representation in the form of a monkey-king.

Japan has two versions namely, Hobutsushu and Sambo-Ekotoba. Hanuman has a diminutive role in another adaptation titled, Ramaenna or Ramaensho, and in the Bontenkoku version, Tamawaka (Ram), a flute player rescues his wife Himegini (Sita) from King Baramon (Ravan). In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his return from Japan this year, made a special mention of the 1993 Japanese animated film Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama that combines manga and Indian classical painting, in his 89th episode of Mann Ki Baat, informing audiences that the film is being re-mastered in 4k resolution. 

Closest to home is Sri Lanka author Kumaradasa’s Sanskrit text of Janakiharan, translation for Jānakī’s abduction; Jānakī being Sita. The book, Ramayana as Shadows of South Asia’s Proto-History by Wijaya Dissanayake, notes that in a bid to prevent Sinhalese from taking up Hinduism, Buddhist monks would discourage them from reading the epic. In recent history, traditional Sinhala-Buddhists do not ascribe to Ravan’s portrayal in the Valmiki’s version, and believe his defeat was because his brother Vibhishana joined forces with Ram. In the 1980s, literary texts such as Ravanavaliya hailed Ravana as a Sinhala hero. On April 17, 2019, the island nation launched its first satellite Ravana-1.

In Nepal, Mahakavi Siddhidas Mahaju Amatya wrote Siddhi Ramayana in the Nepal Bhasa renaissance era. There’s also Bhanubhakta Acharya’s Bhanubhaktako Ramayana in Khas language. However, the revelry of Dussehra called Dasain or Mohini in Nepal is more about the goddess Durga, than Ram’s triumph over Ravan.