What a pleasure it is to read the Ramayana’s Malay version, Hikayat Seri Rama , in this new translation by Harry Aveling. His translation makes the text elegant and accessible, but the story of Rama in the Malay region is truly a wonder. For those of us who know the story already, the Hikayat is full of surprises. At the same time, it offers the comfort of well-loved characters and familiar episodes.
Like the many Indian Ramayanas that come after the so-called original Sanskrit version, the Hikayat Seri Rama too is not a translation of Valmiki’s text. It is its own full-blooded narrative. It builds upon the Indian story, of course, but it confidently exploits the Thai, Cambodian and Javanese tellings. And although the Southeast Asian versions undoubtedly have their roots in the period between the 7th and 13th centuries when Hinduism had a strong influence in the Malacca Straits, the Malay version of the Hikayat that has most fully survived was finalised well after Islam was firmly established in the region, most specifically in Indonesia and Malaysia.
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The stories of Rama that arose from this diverse and polyglot region comfortably hold many religions and cultural traditions within themselves. In the Laotian Phra Lak PhraRam , although Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are present in the story, Phra Ram is a Boddhisattva and so, the story becomes a Jataka tale in that it deals with a previous life of Gautama Buddha. In the Hikayat , the triad of Hinduism’s great gods exists side by side with Allah and each divine being appears or is referred to in the story as needed.
When Rawana is performing austerities and chopping off his heads, for example, it is the Islamic prophet Adam who comes and asks him what he wants. Rawana asks for four kingdoms and Adam promises to intervene with Allah on his behalf, provided Rawana stays on the path of virtue and goodness. Later, we find that Seri Rama’s mother is Vishnu’s daughter and his father, Dasaratha, is descended from Adam himself.
While ethical behaviour in the story of Seri Rama points away from more widely held Hindu beliefs about moral action, the
narrative tension in the Hikayat remains that between right and wrong, between good people and bad. So, although dharma is not the ethical principal around which actions revolve and against which they are judged, there is a definite sense that one must be good. This is expressed several times as “keeping one’s good name”. Rawana falls from grace and is killed because he betrayed the promise he had made to be always virtuous and honourable.
Despite the many episodes in Seri Rama’s life and his search for Sita Dewi that are unfamiliar to Indian readers of this text, the characters we know remain much the same. Rather, they remain fundamentally in the same relationships with each other and embody the same virtues and failings.
A.K. Ramanujan argued, long ago, in his seminal essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas,’ that it is internal structures like these that place stories such as the Hikayat within a universe of Ramayanas and within a larger, dynamic Ramayana tradition. Although Seri Rama is a mischievous child, he grows into the epitome of goodness and is loved and respected by all who know him. Lakshmana is as loyal as ever, Sita as devoted and chaste, and Hanuman as magnificently magical as he has ever been imagined. But there are interesting variations in incidents we know.
Of happy endings
Belia Raja warns Seri Rama that his brother Sugriwa is not entirely trustworthy — surely he is speaking the mind of so many of us who have felt that Sugriva was indeed an unworthy companion to Rama. Belia Raja then ensures the success of Seri Rama’s enterprise by sending his own nephew, Hanuman, to be Seri Rama’s most trusted factotum.
Seri Rama’s story has a happier ending than the one we are used to — Seri Rama does send Sita Dewi away because he suspects she has been attracted to Ravana. Sita Dewi goes into the forest, where she gives birth to one son. Another son is miraculously given to her when the boy is thought to be drowned. Eventually, Seri Rama regrets his actions and calls Sita Dewi back and the royal couple grow old together in the presence of their children and grandchildren. On the Indian subcontinent, we find similar versions outside the canonical Ramayanas , in folktales and in the many plays the epic has spawned.
The Hikayat ends with this gentle advice: “This concludes the story of Seri Rama, a brave and heroic king, unequalled in all the world. His greatness was a gift from God, who wants all his servants to be happy and free from danger. God, All-Glorious and All-Mighty, generously gives us many gifts. When you read this hikayat, I ask you not to be too harsh. Mankind is full of mistakes and prone to forgetfulness. There is only One who never makes any mistakes.”
Hikayat Seri Rama: The Malay Ramayana; Translated by Harry Aveling, Writers Workshop, ₹900
The reviewer works with myth, epic and the story traditions of the subcontinent.