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Ramayana's incarnations

This is a fascinating study of the ancient epic travelling from the Indian shores to Indonesia.

art and culture Updated: Mar 12, 2004 11:04 IST
Prakash Patra
Prakash Patra

The Ramayana in Indonesia
Malini Saran & Vinod C Khanna
Religion, Sociology
Ravi Dayal
Price: Rs 900

This is a fascinating study of the Ramayana travelling from Indian shores to Indonesia. Not only did the epic endure the advent of Buddhism and Islam, it has flourished through a process of Indonesia-sation, and has become an integral part of their civilisation with an all pervading influence. Like Ramanand Sagar’s mega-TV serial, Indonesia also holds annual mega-operas on Ramayana to introduce tourists to its culture.

This well researched book looks closely at the spheres — literature, arts, and political and moral philosophy — where the Ramayana, over the centuries, has influenced Indonesia.

The link between India and Indonesia goes back to the early first millenium. Even Valmiki’s Ramayana makes a reference to the archipelago when Sugriva sends a search party eastward to Yavadipa, to locate Sita. Scholars believe Yavadipa is present day Java. The authors don’t feel all cultural movement was through the Bay of Bengal; some might have gone overland via Tibet and China.

But it’s not just the mostly oral versions from Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Kerala that reached Indonesia; one encounters different versions there as well. As in India, where you have Jain’s Ramayana, and the Jataka tales where Rama is one of the Budhha’s previous incarnations. There is a variety of tongues too: Krittibash and Kambh. But the basic story remains the same: the legend of Rama as the ideal man, Maryada Purushottam, his righteous behaviour and conduct as a dutiful son, a brother, a friend, an ideal king, willing to sacrifice life to uphold values and principles and the final victory of good over evil.

In Indonesia, Rama’s story is told through shadow puppetry, a popular art form in the coastal belt, during family celebrations, festivals and other cultural events. There are masked dance dramas, influenced by chhau of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar; Java’s theatre tradition bears traces of Kerala’s Kudiyattam. As in South India, relief work on Lara Jonggrang’s Hindu temples depict the Ramayana.

Indonesian Ramayanas

Hikayat Sri Rama

Sita was Ravana’s abandoned daughter.

Dasarata had two wives – Mandudari and Balyadari. His daughter Kikewi Dewi engineers Sita’s banishment. Hanuman was Ram’s son

Serat Kanda

Butlava (Rama’s Son) marries daughter of Indrajit (Ravan’s son) and is installed as Rama’s successor.

Sinta (Sita) agrees to enter the fire if in her next life she can be Rama’s sister, not his wife.

So deep is the influence of the Ramayana that at the time of childbirth, Hindu or Muslim, an artist recites the Ramayana and discusses it with the audience. The belief is a boy child would have the virtues of Rama, while a girl would be a virtuous, dutiful and faithful Sita.

The book also traces the old Javansee Ramayana Kakawin, a written work greatly influenced by Bhattikavya (Sanskrit), and its impact in Java. The authors say it is along the lines of Valmiki’s Ramayana but omits the Uttarakand, as is done by other Ramayana writers, who’ve argued that it was added, along with Balkhand, after the Aryan prince was made Lord.

Bhatti, the authors say, claims no religious, spiritual or even ethical aspirations in writing his Rama story but the Javanese Ramayana is more in the mould of Valmiki’s tradition. It maintains the sacred, redemptive and ethical character of the epic.

Interestingly, the Ramayana continued to flourish after the appearance of Islam, and appeared in new manifestations. It used familiar oral tales to create fresh Ramayanas in different languages; incidentally, many Sufi preachers traveled from coastal India. Ramayana was Islamicised, and the Prophet also figures in one version.

The book ends with an anecdote: An old Javanese Muslim lady asks the authors in all innocence, “Do you also have a Ramayana in India?”

First Published: Mar 12, 2004 11:04 IST