The Sanskrit epic, Ramayana, written by Maharishi Valmiki tells the story of Lord Rama, prince of Ayodhya, who fought and felled Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka. Ravana had abducted Rama’s wife Sita in the epic that gives the message of victory of good over evil. The tale has enthralled people across India and other continents for hundreds of years.
In north India, as the cool autumn season sets in, the nine-day Navratri festivities start with the staging of Ramlila across thousands of towns and villages. Children and the elderly carry mats and blankets to watch the performances on open stages on cool nights as local artists enact the epic. The celebrations culminate on the tenth day in the Dussehra festivities when effigies of Ravana are burnt with fireworks, signifying the victory of good over evil.
They are based on the Ramayana as well as retellings such as Ramcharitmanas of sage Tulsidas, who wrote it in vernacular Awadhi to make it accessible to the masses.
Audiences laugh, cry and cheer for the heavily made-up actors in their flamboyant costumes who portray the various characters in the story.
In the final battle between Lord Rama and the demon king Ravana, as Rama lets off a hail of arrows to fell Ravana, the crowds joyously shout ‘Jai Sri Rama’, participating in the victory of good over evil.
There is no clarity on when or where the Ramlila performances started, though some say it is an over 450-year-old tradition.
Unlike other Ramlila performances across India, the Kumaon Ramlila is not a staged performance but a musical one. The emphasis is more on singing and music rather than acting.
Another Ramlila that is believed to be very old is the Chitrakoot Ram Leela, staged in Varanasi. Popular legend dates it back to almost 480 years. It is thought to have been started by Megha Bhagat, a student of Tulsidas, in 1625 CE.
However, the enduring impact of the Ramayana can be seen beyond India’s shores. The Ramayana has versions in Burmese, Thai, Indonesian, Cambodian, Lao, and Malay.
Ramlila is also performed in countries such as Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji where Indians settled many decades back, having been taken as indentured labour by the British in the 19th century.
Ramayana in South East Asia
Indian influence spread to South East Asia in the 12th and 13th centuries and several cultural characteristics were imbibed by these countries.
The Ramayana was adopted and adapted by the South East Asian countries where the storyline was modified by making it more localised and reflecting their cultural beliefs and values.
Indonesia also has a Kecak Fire Dance that is an art form based on Sita’s abduction by Ravana. The dance is performed without music but has a choir of vocalists who sing along with the dance.
The version of the Ramayana that is performed currently in Thailand was written by King Rama I. The setting of the story was localised as were some characters.
Malaysia has the Hikayat Seri Rama, an adaptation of the Ramayana. The storyline remains the same but with some changes according to the local context. Interestingly, Malaysia has a Hikayat Maharaja Wana in which Ravana is depicted as more just and sympathetic than Seri Rama who is shown as weak and vain.
The Reamker of Cambodia has several Buddhist influences as well as some episodes that are not included in the original Hindu text.
In Laos, the Phra Lak Phra Ram, based on the Valmiki Ramayana, has become the national epic. However, there are many differences from the original text with Ram being presented as an incarnation of Gautama Buddha.
In Myanmar’s Yama Zatdaw Ramayana, Rama is depicted as a Bodhisattva. It was introduced during the reign of King Anawratha in the 11th century CE.
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The Maranao tribes of the Philippines have an ancient epic song called Darangen which is connected to its earlier Sanskrit traditions. The Darangen tells the history and stories of the Maranaos and also dwells on topics of social values and customary law. One episode talks of the abduction of a princess called Gandingan by the devatas from the Bumbaran kingdom. Prince Bantugan goes out in search of princess Gandingan and rescues her. This is similar to the abduction of Sita by Ravana.
The story and teachings of Ramayana transcend time and geography. The tale of valour, sacrifice, honour and the victory of good over evil will continue to be loved by generations to come.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)
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