kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
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Three hundred Ramayanas

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It is only after this story of Sita’s birth that the poet sings of the birth and adventures of Rama and Laksmana. Then comes a long section on Sita’s marriage contest where Ravula appears and is humiliated when he falls under the heavy bow he has to lift. Rama lifts it and marries Sita. After that she is abducted by Ravula. Rama lays siege to Lanka with his monkey allies and (in a brief section) recovers Sita and is crowned king. The poet then returns to the theme of Sita’s trials. She is slandered and exiled but gives birth to twins who grow up to be warriors. They tie up Rama’s sacrificial horse, defeat the armies sent to guard the horse and finally unite their parents, this time for good.

One sees here not only a different texture and emphasis: the teller is everywhere eager to return to Sita – her life, her birth, her adoption, her wedding, her abduction and recovery. Whole sections, equal in length to those on Rama and Laksmana’s birth, exile and war against Ravana, are devoted to her banishment, pregnancy and reunion with her husband. Furthermore, her abnormal birth as the daughter born directly to the male Ravana brings to the story a new range of suggestions: the male envy of womb and childbirth, which is a frequent theme in Indian literature, and an Indian oedipal theme of fathers pursuing daughters and, in this case, a daughter causing the death of her incestuous father. The motif of Sita as Ravana’s daughter is not unknown elsewhere. It occurs in one tradition of the Jain stories (for example, in the Vasudevahimdi) and in folk traditions of Kannada and Telugu as well as in several Southeast Asian Ramayanas. In some, Ravana in his lusty youth molests a young woman who vows vengeance and is reborn as his daughter to destroy him. Thus the oral traditions seem to partake of yet another set of themes unknown in Valmiki.

A Southeast Asian example

When we go outside India to Southeast Asia, we meet with a variety of tellings of the Rama story in Tibet, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Java and Indonesia. Here we shall look at only one example, the Thai Ramakirti. According to Santosh Desai, nothing else of Hindu origin has affected the tone of Thai life more than the Rama story (Desai 1980, 63).7 The bas-reliefs and paintings on the walls of their Buddhist temples, the plays enacted in town and village, their ballets – all of them rework the Rama story. In succession several kings with the name ‘King Rama’ wrote Ramayana episodes in Thai: King Rama I composed a telling of the Ramayana in fifty thousand verses, Rama II composed new episodes for dance and Rama VI added another set of episodes, most taken from Valmiki. Places in Thailand, such as Lopburi (Sanskrit Lavapuri), Khidkin (Sanskrit Kiskindha) and Ayuthia (Sanskrit Ayodhya) with its ruins of Khmer and Thai art, are associated with Rama legends.

The Thai Ramakirti (Rama’s glory) or Ramakien (Rama’s story) opens with an account of the origins of the three kinds of characters in the story, the human, the demonic and the simian. The second part describes the brothers’ first encounters with the demons, Rama’s marriage and banishment, the abduction of Sita and Rama’s meeting with the monkey clan. It also describes the preparations for the war, Hanuman’s visit to Lanka and his burning of it, the building of the bridge, the siege of Lanka, the fall of Ravana and Rama’s reunion with Sita. The third part describes an insurrection in Lanka, which Rama deputes his two youngest brothers to quell. This part also describes the banishment of Sita, the birth of her sons, their war with Rama, Sita’s descent into the earth and the appearance of the gods to reunite Rama and Sita. Though many incidents look the same as they do in Valmiki, many things look different as well. For instance, as in the South Indian folk Ramayanas (as also in some Jain, Bengali and Kashmiri ones), the banishment of Sita is given a dramatic new rationale. The daughter of Surpanakha (the demoness whom Rama and Laksmana had mutilated years earlier in the forest) is waiting in the wings to take revenge on Sita whom she views as finally responsible for her mother’s disfigurement. She comes to Ayodhya, enters Sita’s service as a maid and induces her to draw a picture of Ravana. The drawing is rendered indelible (in some tellings, it comes to life in her bedroom) and forces itself on Rama’s attention. In a jealous rage, he orders Sita killed. The compassionate Laksmana leaves her alive in the forest, though, and brings back the heart of a deer as witness to the execution.

The reunion between Rama and Sita is also different. When Rama finds out she is still alive, he recalls Sita to his palace by sending her word that he is dead. She rushes to see him but flies into a rage when she finds she has been tricked. So, in a fit of helpless anger, she calls upon Mother Earth to take her. Hanuman is sent to subterranean regions to bring her back but she refuses to return. It takes the power of Siva to reunite them.

Again, as in the Jain instances and the South Indian folk poems, the account of Sita’s birth is different from that given in Valmiki. When Dasaratha performs his sacrifice, he receives a rice ball, not the rice porridge (payasa) mentioned in Valmiki. A crow steals some of the rice and takes it to Ravana’s wife who eats it and gives birth to Sita. A prophecy that his daughter will cause his death makes Ravana throw Sita into the sea where the sea goddess protects her and takes her to Janaka.

Furthermore, though Rama is an incarnation of Visnu, in Thailand he is subordinate to Siva. By and large, he is seen as a human hero and the Ramakirti is not regarded as a religious work or even as an exemplary work on which men and women may pattern themselves. The Thais enjoy most the sections about the abduction of Sita and the war. Partings and reunions, which are the heart of the Hindu Ramayanas, are not as important as the excitement and the details of war, the techniques, the fabulous weapons. The Yuddhakanda or the War Book is more elaborate than in any other telling whereas it is of minor importance in the Kannada folk telling. Desai says this Thai emphasis on war is significant: early Thai history is full of wars; their concern was survival. The focus in the Ramakien is not on family values and spirituality. Thai audiences are more fond of Hanuman than of Rama. Neither celibate nor devout, as in the Hindu Ramayana, here Hanuman is quite a ladies’ man who doesn’t at all mind looking into the bedrooms of Lanka and doesn’t consider seeing another man’s sleeping wife anything immoral, as Valmiki’s or Kampan’s Hanuman does.

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