Ramayana, with various versions, is a common heritage that binds India to ASEAN
Ramayana is the saga of love, friendship and bravery, and an exemplar of the victory of light over darkness. The epic has inspired poets, painters, sculptors, dancers and musicians as well as millions of seekers of the spirit and of solace, for ages.
The Ramayana, a multi-layered chronicle, wove ethics, devotion, wisdom and values into one extraordinary narrative allegory. It is one of the world’s longest epics and called the ‘adi-kavya’, the first of the poems. It has had primal influence on the faith, culture and art of India. Its exploration of the concepts of duty and righteousness permeated Indian philosophy and literature.
The Ramayana’s imagery and symbolism were so powerful that the epic easily made its way into the consciousness of people beyond India. The tale of Ramayana travelled beyond our shores, and became highly indigenous with various elements of the tale changing suitably to match the local cultural ethos. The travellers, storytellers, artists and philosophers have proudly carries the sacred epic across centuries, countries, cultures, languages and art forms.
One tale, many interpretations
Ramayana was initially the tale of journey of Lord Rama. The story is simple, about the good king Rama who fights and is victorious over the evil Ravana. It spreads the message of dharma, karma, loyalty, devotion to parents and duty towards citizens.
It then became about our own individual journeys towards the ideal that is Lord Rama. This powerful allegory of twin journeys has lured people over centuries to journeys of their own, inward and outward. Thus, this epic of many journeys became Ramayanas.
Originally written in Sanskrit by sage Valmiki, the Ramayana has been interpreted in different ways in different countries. These adaptations take the basic plot of Valmiki’s Ramayana but modify it according to the culture of their own communities. It is then represented in different ways in their literature, dance, theatre and also temple architecture.
People did not always remember the origin of their own Ramayana. The epic’s name changed, as did those of its characters, but one could always interlace Rama’s nobility and Sita’s loyalty in the varied settings. Rama, who shone like the morning sun and never spoke ill of others, is said to reside as a pure virtue in the heart of everyone.
India, ASEAN & Ramayana
The main characters of the epic – Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman and Ravana – are deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness of South and Southeast Asia. The tale is a significant tradition for millions who now live in all continents, has become a global text, a highlight of the global theatre.
The epic Ramayana is seen as a shared heritage of the eastern world and the saga is a popular theme for theatre presentation in ASEAN (The Association of South-East Asian Nations) countries.
India enjoys strong civilizational links with all ASEAN countries. Ramayana, as it is performed in the various ASEAN countries, is not only a reflection of the strong cultural and civilizational links India has with them but it is also a bond which is their common heritage and binds them to each other.
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.
The Ramayanas of ASEAN
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 that Hanuman 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 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 its influence 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.
Every presentation of the epic is recognition of its contemporaneity, its many levels of inspiration and symbolism. Reinterpreted ceaselessly by the creative genius of the artists and storytellers, it has traversed across centuries.
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