Ramayana(s) retold in Asia

Ramayana being performed in Java, Indonesia.   | Photo Credit: Gaurav Sharma

Freedom of expression can hardly be curbed by restricting speech or censoring interpretations of major works. Last year, Delhi University scrapped an essay on different Ramayana narratives/ tellings by scholar A K Ramanujan from its BA (History) syllabus. This year author Salman Rushdie was prevented from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival. With growing instances of such sabotage of our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression, the average Indian remains ignorant of the influence our ancient culture exerted in Asia.

The story of Ramayana, particularly, travelled beyond our shores, and became highly indigenous with various elements of the tale changing suitably to match the local cultural ethos. A year-long exhibition in Singapore on the mythological text, ‘Ramayana Revisited – A tale of love & adventure', at the Peranakan Museum, ignited the exploration of the role the story plays as a cultural unifier for the Asian region.

When following its trail, the first stop is pre-modern Japan. With the spread of Buddhism it came to be known as Ramaenna or Ramaensho, in which the character of Hanuman was ignored. In one other variant, Suwa engi no koto written in the fourteenth century, the protagonist, Koga Saburo Yorikata, is the youngest son whose exile is caused by his brothers. In another variant called Bontenkoku, Tamawaka (Rama) is a flute player who escapes with his abducted wife Himegini (Sita) while her captor King Baramon (Ravana) is away for hunting. Other Ramayana-derived stories in Japan including Kifune no honji, Onzoshi shimawatari and Bukkigun, have also demonstrated a deep convergence between the characters of Rama and Ravana.

In China, the earliest known telling of Ramayana is found in the Buddhist text, Liudu ji jing. Significantly, and unlike in Japan, the impact of Ramayana on Chinese society arguably was responsible for the creation of a popular fictional monkey king's character, Sun Wukong (Hanuman), in a sixteenth century novel Xiyou ji. We also find characters with the names of Dasharatha, Rama and Lakshmana in a fifth century Chinese text, Shishewang yuan. The Dai ethnic group of south-western Yunnan province also know the story as Lanka Xihe (Ten heads of Lanka). The epic also spread to Tibet and Mongolia through Buddhism, with a notable variant being that it is Bharata, and not Lakshmana, who accompanies Rama in exile.

The epic finds mention in Malay Peninsula in the form of Hikayat Maharaja Wana and Hikayat Seri Rama, composed in late 16th century. In these, the most interesting variant is the relationship between Maharaja Wana (Ravana) and Siti Dewi (Sita), who are biological father and daughter. Furthermore, Hanuman Kera Putih (Hanuman) is also depicted as the son of Seri Rama (Rama), born to him in his former life as Dewa Berembun (Lord Vishnu). Malays also believe thatHanuman built the causeway to Langkapuri (Lanka) single-handedly and managed to dissuade the fish princess, Puteri Ikan, from destroying it by marrying her. Interestingly, Hanuman's marriage with the mermaid also finds mention in the Thai and Khmer variants of the epic.

In the Thai's Ramakein, composed in 1798, Thotsakan's (Ravana's) abduction of Nang Sida (Sita) is presented sympathetically as an act of love and his fall is depicted with sadness. Meanwhile, we find the depiction of various episodes of the Cambodian Reamker on the carved reliefs at world-famous temples of Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei and Baphuon, built around the 10th century. In Laos too, the epic is prevalent as Myongsing Ramayana, Phra Lak Phra Lam and Guay Duorahbi. In Myanmar, the two variants, Rama Thagyin and Maha Rama, composed in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively, are very popular. The Filipinos know Ramayana as Maharadia Lawana and Vietnam's famous dance-drama lakhon bassac depicts their variant of the epic.

In Indonesia, the epic was written in 10th century as Kakawin Ramayana with itsinfluence also permeating to Wayang Kulit – one of the oldest and most revered forms of shadow puppet theatre in that region. Interestingly, some variants here include the story of Arjuna Pramada, which elaborates the meeting of Krishna and Arjuna, with Rama and Lakshmana. It says that during the construction of Situbanda (causeway) between South India and Sri Lanka, Arjuna, on the request of Rama, fires an arrow towards Alengka (Lanka) creating the bridge instantly.

“So we see that cultural fusion, inter-textuality and métissage Ramayana sub-cultures had emerged and became integral to the prevailing cultures, even if the practising religions at that time were Islam, Christianity or Buddhism,” says Gauri Krishnan, centre director of the Indian Heritage Centre in Singapore and main curator of the exhibition at Peranakan museum. “After the initiation of 'look east policy' by the Indian government and re-emergence of the concept of 'Asian universalism', we are just beginning to realise this world of magnificent epic characters with overlapping cultural traits.”

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 9:51:07 PM |

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