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The Ramayana reading list

brunch Updated: Oct 18, 2014 18:06 IST
Saudamini Jain
Saudamini Jain
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

RK Narayan once wrote that almost every Indian “is aware of the story of the Ramayana in some measure or other.”

Sometime around the beginning of the Common Era, Valmiki wrote the first narrative of the epic in Sanskrit. Although the Ramayan may have existed in some form even before, his version is considered the standard for most translations into English. The oldest manuscript is a palm-leaf that was found in Nepal, dated 1020CE.

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Valmiki presented Ram as an ideal man. It was only later that the prince of Ayodhya was presented as an incarnation of Vishnu.



The 16th century poet Tulsidas mourns the rise of lower castes to influential positions (as opposed to Ram Rajya, where everyone knew his place) in the Ramcharitmanas. In a Jain version, Raavan is a sympathetic character, and Ram and Sita end up as a monk and nun. And in a version popular among Dalits in Maharashtra, Raavan is seen as a hero.



But most people were introduced to the story of Ram through television or the Amar Chitra Katha comics (they have the Valmiki version and the Tulsidas one too).



Yet, you probably aren’t as fascinated by the straightforward story of the Ramayan as you are by the complex Mahabharat. But that’s why you should read more adaptations of the text, to see what has been done with the essence of the Ramayan.



Case in point: Meena Kandasamy’s short poem titled Princess-In-Exile, here in its entirety:



"Scorned, she sought refuge in spirituality,

and was carried away by a new-age guru

with saffron clothes and caramel words.

Years later, her husband won her back

but by then, she was adept at walkouts,

she had perfected the vanishing act."



The Ramayan can make you think – and it is a great read, every single time. So we decided to round up popular translations and adaptations. Pick what sounds the most interesting!

Ramayana

by C Rajagopalachari (1951)

An abridged translation of Valmiki’s Ramayan, by the last Governor-General of India, this is your best bet as a beginner’s guide to the Ramayan. Also the most popular.

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The Ramayana

by RK Narayan (1972)


A translation of the 11th century Tamil classic Kamba Ramayana, but milder. (In Kamban’s version, Ram says harsh things to Sita after the battle, and the battle scenes are rather violent.) Narayan also omits the eventual parting of Ram and Sita, writing, "[This is] a latter-day addition to Valmiki’s version. Kamban does not take note of this sequel but concludes his tale on the happy note of Rama’s return to Ayodhya, followed by a long reign of peace... And there I prefer to end my own narration."

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Ramayana

by Kamala Subramaniam (1981)

This abridged translation also stays quite close to Valmiki’s original, but it is more detailed than the earlier two. Subramaniam’s translations of the Mahabharat and Srimad Bhagvatam are also immensely popular. In a preface to this one, she wrote that "Drama" is the first word when thinking of the Mahabharat, "Bhakti" for the Bhagvat but "‘Pain’ is the predominant emotion in the Ramayana... and yet this very pain is ennobling, purifying and satisfying."

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Valmiki Ramayana, the book of wilderness

by Arshia Sattar (1996)

This is for anyone who, in addition to the essential story of Valmiki’s Ramayan, is also looking for some modern perspective and motivations about why the characters did what they did. Sattar has also put together Lost Loves, a collection of interwoven essays "exploring Rama’s anguish."

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The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic by Ramesh Menon (2004)

"Above all," wrote Menon, "the Ramayana is a love story, written more than a thousand years before romantic love became one of the defining themes of Western literature." Menon’s version is beautiful and with a lot of details – "This is the story, sang the twins, to the rhythmical plucking of their vinas... of a perfect man, the greatest in his noble line."

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Prince of Ayodhya

by Ashok K Banker (2005)

Banker used the basic story of the Ramayan and turned it into incredible fantasy fiction. Ram must protect Ayodhya from the invasion of the demons. And Sita is a fighter too. Plus, this is a series, so it’s even more fun to read – rakshasas, black magic and whatnot.

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Ramayan 3392 AD

by Deepak Chopra and Shekhar Kapur (2006-07)

An action-adventure comic series published by Virgin Comics. Set in a post-apocalyptic world after a nuclear third world war, this is oh-my-God, incredible. Raavan, the demonic ruler of Nark, threatens the other surviving land of Aryavarta. And so, the four princes of Aryavarta must stop him from spreading his evil empire.

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In Search of Sita

by Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal (2009)

A compilation of essays and interpretations of Sita’s life and her decisions. The 36 chapters are all quite interesting. By the end of the book, you will feel like you know everything there is to know about Sita, carefully curated from several versions and interpretations from all over the country.

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Sita’s Ramayana

by Samhita Arni & Moyna Chitrakar (2011)

A rather graphic novel – the art is in red and earthen panels of patua style. And Sita’s Ramayana starts from the very end: a banished Sita tells the story of her life to the forest she now lives in.
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Ramayana, A Retelling

by Daljit Nagra (2013)

This is a very, very cool book – and a super audacious attempt at translation. "I didn’t want to write it in OED [Oxford English Dictionary] English," London poet, Daljit Nagra, said in an interview. "I wanted to present it from this Western, global perspective, to try and capture something multicultural." Multicultural, sure – but this is Ramayan in verse with so much swagger.

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Sita: An Illustrated Retelling Of The Ramayana

by Devdutt Pattanaik (2013)

This has a lot more about Sita than other popular versions. And Pattanaik also explores other women in the epic. He takes you to the kitchen, and through the conversations between women.

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Ramayana For Young Readers

by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, translated by Swapna Dutta (2013)

A delightful little book for children. It’s a slim translation of an early 20th century translation by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. And the story is interspersed with engaging comments and perspective, well-suited for children. Like this: "I can’t describe in words how miserable Dashratha felt at the time of bidding Rama farewell. The fault was partly his for not having seen through Kaikeyi’s trick and for promising to grant her anything she asked for. But now, there was no turning back!"

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Blue

by MR Sharan (2014)

Sharan takes the basic story of Ram, the perfect king. To this, he weaves the tale of Reddumone, or Two-Face, a perfect Lankan spy. Mythic fiction is the flavour of the season, and this debut writer can write well too!

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The Vigil

by Sarah Joseph, translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan (2014)

This translation of the Malayalam novel Oorukaaval is the story of Vali’s son, Angadan (Vali was the monkey-king slain by Ram in alliance with his brother Sugriv, who promised to help him search for Sita). Through this story, Joseph brings to the fore, the reasons why Ram killed Vali, and the real reason for Angadan to help find Sita. Also read for her depiction of Sita, who says to her husband: "You didn’t know my mind as keenly as you knew my body".
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