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By Chitra Chari Sudarshan Valmiki’s Ramayana is often referred to as the Aadi Kavya - or the ‘First Literary Composition’, as it is one of the oldest works written in Sanskrit. For long it remained the sole Ramayana, joined several centuries later by four more Ramayanas in Sanskrit, one of them being Bhattikavya [or Bhatti’s poem] in the 7th century and the other Bhavabhuthi’s Mahaveera Charitham in the 8th century. There were Buddhist versions of the epic in the Jataka tales, and Jain versions, including Vimalasuri’s Paumachariyam in Prakrit. From the earliest times, the Ramayana came to be so thoroughly imbibed in the consciousness of most Hindus that smatterings of the epic began appearing in the vernacular languages from around the 6th century - notably in the Tamil bhakti poems of the Vaishnavite saint-poets, the azhwars, whose works were collected and compiled in the Divya Prabandham. Several decads in the Prabandam are dedicated to the life of Rama, His childhood, His glory and beauty and His compassion. Kamban’s Iramavataram in Tamil was the earliest complete Ramayana written in the vernacular and its date has generally been fixed between the 11th and 13th centuries. There are two versions in Nepali bhasa: Sundarananda Ramayana and Adarsha Raghava by Mahakabhi Siddhidas Mahaju and Aadikavi Bhanubhakta Acharya respectively. In the 14th century, Krittivas Ojha wrote a Bengali version, and Madhava Kandali penned the Assamese Kotha Ramayana. The Telugu Ramayana, authored by Ranganatha, appeared between the 12th the 15th centuries; the Vichitra Ramayana in Oriya [by Balarama Das] and Torave Ramayana in Kannada [by Narahari] made their appearance in the 16th century; Tulsi Das’ Ram Charita Manas, in Avadhi, was most likely written between the 16th and 17th centuries and has left a deep imprint in the culture and literature of the entire Hindi-speaking regions of India. Premanand’s Rama Balalika in Gujarati closely followed Tulsi Das’ epic in chronological order and storyline; Guru Gobind Singh wrote a version in Punjabi in the 17th century and Ezhuthachan’s Malayali version was first published around the same time; not long afterwards, Sridhara’s Marathi Ramayana made its debut. To this we can add Arunachala Kavi’s Ramanatakam in Tamil [about the 16th century] and Swami Desikan’s short prose composition, Raghuveera Gadyam in Sanskrit in the 13th century. Swami Desikan also created a masterly play, Hamsa Sandesam, modeled on Kalidasa’s Megha Sandesam, wherein he imagined Rama sending a message to Sita in captivity in Lanka – there is no reference to it in Valmiki’s Ramayana! Thyagaraja wrote his own Ramayana through his several musical compositions. Then there are several twentieth century literary renditions of some characters or kandas from the Ramayana, especially in Hindi [Maithili Sharan Gupt’s great poems come to mind], not to mention Rashtrakavi Kuvempu’s Ramayana Darshanam. The great scholar A. K. Ramanujan counted at least 300 extant Ramayanas ! Wherever there are Hindus, the Ramayana will be remembered, recounted and sung; and as the Sundara Kandam reminds us, whenever the Lord’s name is invoked, Hanuman sheds a tear. There is something so universally appealing about the Ramayana that it, above all, has spread far wider beyond India’s shores and borders than the other more complex, and longer epic, the Mahabharata; or any of the 18 Puranas – not to mention traditional India’s secular tales such as the Panchatantra, the Jataka [although this has its origins in Jainism], Katha Sarit Sagara, Vikramaditya’s tales etc etc. With the expansion and spread of Indianised civilizations in South East Asia, as well as the spread of Buddhist ideas and literature from India to East Asia, many of the traditional ‘Indian’ stories began to travel to these lands. Although it is not well known, the Ramayana went to China through the Dasaratha Jataka [251 AD] when Kang Senghui rendered it into Chinese. In 472 AD another translation of it appeared in China. The origin of the famous ‘monkey’ of the Chinese opera and popular tales some centuries later can be traced to Hsi-Yu-chi, a Chinese classic of the 16th century which incorporated episodes about Hanuman’s search for Sita. In South East Asia, the Ramayana has retained its name and much of its story line intact and is alive in the literature and performing arts traditions of those nations. The universal themes and ideals in the Indian epic – of righteous behaviour, loyalty to family and kingdom, self-sacrifice for the betterment of society, morality, ideal relationships between father and son, brothers, friends and spouses – are to be found in all these cultures. In Indonesia it is called Kakawin Ramayana, which was the name in its Old Javanese version, which drew from Kamban’s Tamil classic Iramavataram, and Vimalasuri’s Prakrit Paumachariya, and other retellings of the Bengali and Jaina traditions; another Javanese version is the Serat Rama. At the famous 10th Century Prambanan temple in central Java, dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the Ramayana is depicted in bas-relief in several parts. The sultan of Jogjakarta supports the daily performance of a leather puppet show of either Ramayana or Mahabharata in his Palace annexure. He also subsidises the world’s only daily performance of a dance ballet based on Ramayana, performed with the Prambanan towers as its backdrop. Ramakavaca of Bali In Khmer it is Ramkier or Ramkear; in Laotian it is called Rama-Jataka as it perhaps went there through PanhasaJataka; in Thai it is Ramakriti or Ramkien. Although the Ramayana in Malaysia was known as Hikayat Sri Rama, and in Iran in the Khotanese dialect, the establishment of Islam as the religion of the people of those cultures has all but obliterated the Ramayana in the consciousness, literature and performing arts traditions of these two latter nations. According to the Cambodian history professor Pich Tum Kravel, the stone inscriptions of Veal Kantel in Stung Treng province in Cambodia clearly indicate that the Ramayana epic came to Cambodia in the sixth century. The ninth century Angkor Vat temple in Cambodia depict the Ramayana in its most famous sculptures to be found in Benteay Srei. In Prasat An temple and Baphoun Mountain, fighting scenes between Rama and Ravana, as well as those of Hanuman, can clearly be seen. It very rapidly became one of the most important stories in Cambodian literature and even today, is included in the country’s educational curriculum. Much the same is true of Burma and Laos as well. The Laotian version of Ramayana, called “Palak Palang,” is the most favourite theme of the dancers of Laos. The National School for Music and Dance, in this communist country, teaches the Ramayana ballet in the Laotian style. Several Buddhist monasteries and stupas of Laos have sculptures depicting Ramayana in stone as well as in wood panels. Maharadya Lawana and Darangen of Mindanao The Wat Po temple and the Emerald Buddha temple in Bangkok have also immortalized the Ramayana epic in their sculptures and paintings – in the gallery surrounding the temple, there are 178 section mural paintings which depict the entire story of the Ramayana - and no fewer than nine kings in the last 200 years have been named Rama, and for 400 years, the capital of Thailand was Ayutthaya [Ayodhya]. In the centuries before the eighteenth, many versions of the Ramayana were written in Thai and Burmese, with the view to performing them. King Rama IV wrote a popular Thai version, and Natak Kyaw Guang wrote one in Burmese - Yama Zatdaw of Myanmar. There has been a close link between the literary and performing traditions everywhere – in India as in south east Asia, and one can see Indian origins here as well. The influence of the rod-puppets of West Bengal, the glove puppets of Kerala and the marionettes of Tamil Nadu and Kerala can be seen in the South East Asian theatres and their depiction of the Ramayana: whether it is the shadow puppet theatre, Wayang Kulit, of Java and Bali, or the Nang Yai of Thailand; or the human theatre where actors generally use masks or mask-like make up. The Lakhoan and ‘khol’ masked plays of Cambodia and Thailand use masks which strongly resemble the Kathakali face paints, including colour schemes for various characters: Rama is green, Hanuman is white, while Ravana is almost always black. The Ramayana is interpreted slightly differently in the many cultures. Rama, for instance, is considered an incarnation of Vishnu as in the Indian tradition– however, as most of the people in south east Asia are Buddhist, he is depicted as having been a Bodhisattva or Buddha in a previous life. In other ways too, in almost all these cultures, the Ramayana is sufficiently indigenized and reinterpreted in the local context. In the Thai versions [there are several versions which indicate the influence of different Indian regional traditions] Rama is clearly a Thai prince following Thai mannerisms; in the Cambodian Reamker Prea Ream is a Cambodian king, and the story uses local topography, history and traditions. Rama’s wife Sita, represents the goddess of fertility and is associated with rice cultivation – a staple crop in the region. Although the core of the Ramayana epic remains constant in most of South East Asia, the language, names of characters and the topography may differ from culture to culture. In the Thai, Cambodian and Laotian traditions, there are similar adaptations of names: while most are recognizable, a few are so different that their origins are difficult to pin point – something for etymologists to ponder about. Rama is Preah Ream, Preah Lak or Leak is Lakshmana, and Ravana is Krong Reap in Cambodian and Tosakanth in Thai; Yama in Burmese. Sita is Sida or Sinta [in Indonesian] Me Thida in Burmese, and most South East Asian versions include additional trials for Sita, and her sons are Mongkut [Kusa] and Lop [Lava]. But Hanuman, however, is always Hanuman, and is often the most popular character portrayed in the performing arts traditions: he epitomizes solid loyalty in all versions, is the son of Vayu, and is the last word in friendship and faithfulness – although he is an amorous hero in the Thai version. The point of the article was not only briefly, to catalogue the enormous Indian cultural influence in Asia by showing the impact of one great icon, the Ramayana, but to provoke you readers, especially, the younger ones, to ponder about the world as it looked some centuries ago, before the advent of European colonialism, which completely skewed the pattern of interaction between the peoples of Asia. There were prosperous empires, cosmopolitan societies and a thriving sea faring trade, with an active exchange of people, goods and ideas in the region. European colonialism, and the current search for ‘modernity’ has turned the attentions of the people in Asia westwards, and weakened many common links that has hitherto existed among them. Will India still have original ideas to offer the rest of the world if it continues to look up to the west, in what is now touted as the ‘Asian Century’?
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