Within India, there are many tellings of the Ramayana – Iramavatram by tamil poet Kamban (12th C), the Bengali Ramayan by Krittivasa (14th C) and Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas (16th C) and the Jain Ramayana, Paumachariya by Vimalasuri. These various tellings display the vitality, universality and diversity of the epic and the tradition that followed.
Check out the Mewar Ramayana digitisation project by The British Library and CSMVS, Mumbai.
In this post, we discover stories about Rama that have inspired artists not only across India, but various South-east Asian countries – through museum collections!
The essential tale of Rama spread across Southeast Asia, and evolved into unique renditions of the epic – incorporating local history, folktales, religious values as well as unique features from the languages and literary discourse. The Kakawin Ramayana of Java, Indonesia, the Ramakavaca of Bali, Hikayat Seri Rama of Malaysia, Maradia Lawana of the Philippines, Ramakien of Thailand (which calls him Phra Ram) are great works with many unique characteristics and differences in accounts and portrayals of the legend of Rama. The legends of Rama are witnessed in elaborate illustration at the Wat Phra Kaew temple in Bangkok.
The national epic of Myanmar, Yama Zatdaw is essentially the Burmese Ramayana, where Rama is named Yama. In the Reamker of Cambodia, Rama is known as Preah Ream. In the Phra Lak Phra Lam of Laos, Gautama Buddha is regarded as an incarnation of Rama.
From spirituality to literature, from visual and performing arts to popular culture, there is practically no aspect of life that is not touched by the Ramayana.
Reamker: The Cambodia Version
It is believed that the Ramayana reached the ancient Hindu kingdoms (Funan, Chenla, Champa) in the territory of present-day Cambodia, south Vietnam and east Thailand through contact with the southern Indian kingdoms very early though the oldest literary version in the Khmer version is dated back to only the 16th century.
It preserves closer links to Valmiki’s original than do the other Southeast Asian versions. The Rama story became a favourite theme for frescoes on temple walls and was the exclusive subject of the traditional Cambodian shadow play. The popular masked dance drama, lkhon khol, was based on certain episodes from the Ramayana, and with Rama being regarded a former incarnation for the Buddha himself the story forms part of the repertoire of the Royal Ballet to the present day.
Ramakien: The Thai Version
The Rama story is thought to have been known to the Thais since at least the 13th century. It was adopted from older Khmer sources, hence the similarity to the Khmer title Reamker. Various new versions of the story have been composed, often by royal authors, since the 16th and 17th centuries. Ramakien (Glory of Rama), has inspired storytelling, performance and the visual arts for centuries, and remains extremely popular. The destruction of the kingdom at Ayutthaya in 1767 and the subsequent relocation of the royal centre to Bangkok resulted in the tragic loss of most Thai literary texts. However, in the 1790s, King Rama I devoted himself to compiling surviving texts and composing the Ramakien in its present form, adding 40 episodes and many uniquely Thai elements to the story in the process. The lengthy tale begins with the previous incarnations and early lives of the main characters and is best known for the series of battles that ensue when Ravana (Tosakanth in Thai), the demon King of Langka and supreme villain of the story, abducts Sita (Sida), the wife of the story’s hero Rama (Prah Ram). In the Ramakien version of the epic, unbeknown to Ravana, Sita is his daughter. As a baby, Sita was predicted to destroy the demon race and consequently banished from his kingdom. The prophecy is validated when Rama, alongside his brother Lakshmana (Phra Lak) and the monkey army led by Hanuman, fights for Sita’s release and ultimately defeats the demon king.
Phra Lak Phra Ram : The Lao Version
The Lao version of the Ramayana is known as Phra Lak Phra Ram (or Pha Lak Pha Lam since in modern Lao R is often replaced by L), the title referring to both the brothers Lakshmana and Rama. Sometimes it is also called Phra Ram sadok (Rama Jataka) as it is widely believed that Rama was a former incarnation of a Buddha-to-be. The Rama story featured in many mural paintings and wood relief carvings on temple doors and windows.
Numerous palm-leaf manuscripts from all regions of Laos containing shorter versions of the Lao Ramayana, Lam Pha Lam, show that the story was very popular all over the country in urban centres as much as in rural areas. These versions were created in order to be sung by a Mor Lam, a traditional expert singer who can melodically recite lengthy poems and epic literature while being accompanied by a Khaen (bamboo mouth organ).
In both Thai and Lao traditions, Hanuman was part of a favourite Yantra design used by soldiers and martial arts specialists. The leader of the monkey armies represents strength, stamina, agility, intelligence and devotion. Hanuman Yantras would either be drawn on protective shirts, headbands, battle standards of entire armies, or, most efficiently and durably, tattooed on a fighter’s body.
Yama Zatdaw: The Burmese Version
The oral tradition of the Ramayana story in Burma is believed to date as far back as the reign of King Anawrahta (1044-77), the founder of the first Burmese empire at Pagan. Documented in Ava by the end of the 13th century, the Rama story – known as Yama Zatdaw in Burmese – continued to be transmitted orally from generation to generation up till the 16th century. In the 18th century, the Ramayana had come to be regarded as a noble saga even among Buddhist monks. The story of Rama, based on the oral traditions of Old Pagan, may have been committed to writing between the 16th and the 18th centuries, in verse and prose as well as in dramatic form, but the first known written Burmese version of the Ramayana is Rama Thagyin (Songs from the Ramayana), compiled by U Aung Phyo in 1775.
The popularity of the Ramayana in Burma reached its zenith in the first half of the 19th century, when the story of Rama was depicted in a continuous series of 347 stone relief sculptures at the pagoda of Maha Loka Marazein of Thakhuttanai built in 1849 during the reign of King Bagan (1846-1853), of the Konbaung Dynasty.
The king’s minister Myawady Mingyi U Sa converted the Ramayana Jataka into a typical Burmese classical drama, and he also composed theme music and songs for its performance. Ever since then, Ramayana performances have been very popular in Burmese culture, and Yama zat pwe(dramatic performances of the Rama story) marionette stage shows are often held. Scenes from the Ramayana can also be found as motifs or design elements in Burmese lacquerware and wood carvings. By the late 19th century, the Ramayana story was being printed in Burmese.
THE INDONESIAN VERSION
That the Ramayana was already well known in Java by the end of the ninth century is evident from the magnificent series of reliefs carved into the walls of the temples of Prambanan in central Java around 900 AD. However, the the first literary version in Old Javanese, the Ramayana Kakawin, has been dated from a century later. It is based not directly on Valmiki’s Ramayana but on a later Indian poetical version, the so-called Bhattikavya, a Sanskrit poem written by Bhatti (6/7th century), which both tells the story and illustrates the rules of Sanskrit grammar. The first five cantos are a fairly exact translation, while the remainder is a much freer version.
The tradition of shadow-puppet theatre seems to have been in existence in Java for at least a thousand years, and the stories which are used in the wayang kulit shadow puppet theatre are taken from the Indian epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. While the characters and the plots remain basically Indian, the way the stories have been developed over the past 1000 years in the oral dramatic tradition reflects Javanese culture rather than Indian. The iconography of the shadow puppet theatre – with heads in profile, angular shoulders, slim torsos and pivoted limbs – has strongly influenced Javanese manuscript illustration.
Transmission of the Javanese and other literary traditions eastwards to Bali probably took place from East Java during the 14th century, when Bali came under the rule of the Javanese Majapahit kingdom. The Old Javanese Ramayana Kakawin was copied onto palm leaf manuscripts (lontar) in the old Balinese script and subsequent copies were kept in heirloom collections. The Kakawin in particular has long been the key source of inspiration for puppeteers (dalang), although this is often combined with other sources from poems (kidung) including the Javanese Uttarakanda.
Elaborate and costly performances which last all night long are performed at celebratory rituals such as a child’s 3-month birthday and weddings. It is during these events that the dalang most effectively brings the sacred aspects of the story alive, reciting sacred mantras and sung poetry between spoken narratives and dialogue of the characters.
The Malay version of the Ramayana, Hikayat Seri Rama, is believed to have been committed towriting between the 13th and 15th centuries. It inspired the Wayang Siam (or Siamese Drama) tradition of the northeastern region of the Malay peninsula (Trengganu, Kelantan).
The main purpose of the Hikayat Seri Rama is to show the ideals of righteousness, love, loyalty, and selfless devotion. This Malay version has combined elements of the Indian Sanskrit Ramayana with local traditions and beliefs to create a highly developed story which is enjoyed by many.
The story of Ravana, from a paraphrase of the Malay/Indonesian Hikayat Seri Rama, compiled by Shellabear and quoted in Rama Legends and Rama Reliefs in Indonesia:
Maharaja Ravana with his ten heads and twenty arms was sent by his father on a ship to Bukit Serandib, because he had behaved very badly. His father was Citra Baha and his mother Raksa Pandi, the daughter of Dati Kavaca. Reaching Serandib he carried out penance in that island. He hung himself down from a tree with his head downwards.While Adam was living on earth, he saw him hanging there and was requested by the ascetic to speak for him in front of Allah that he should get four kingdoms. As his penance had been crowned with great success he got married. To begin with he entered into matrimony with the princess from the world of spirits, Nila Utama, who bore him, in due course of time, a son, Indera Jata. This prince had three heads and six arms and he was made the king of the kingdom of spirits at the age of twelve.After that Ravana married the princess of the earth, Puteri Pertivi Devi, who also bore him a son, called Patala Mahirajan. Even he became a king at the age of twelve, on earth. A third marriage was made with the queen of the seas: Ganga Mahadevi. The son from this marriage was Ganga Mahasuri, who became the king of the seas at the age of twelve.Thus Maharaja Ravana was the lord of all the worlds from the east to west. There were, however, four kingdoms which were not under his rule. The first was Indera Puri, the second Biruhasya Purva, the third Lagur Katagina, and the fourth Ispaha Boga. But, apart from these, there was everything on and in the earth, in the sea and within air, subject to the kind of reksasas, who had a magnificent palace built for him on the Bukit Serandib: Lanka Puri.