HT Brunch Cover Story: 5 stories from the Ramayana you haven’t heard before
Regional languages are packed with delightful retellings of the Ramayana that include stories not found in the oldest documents
Valmiki composed the Ramayana a long time ago. We don’t know when. Archaeologists place the Vedic period to roughly 1000 BCE in the Gangetic valley. But the Sanskrit documents retelling the story are only 2,000 years old, suggesting a long period of oral storytelling. Fifteen hundred years ago, the Sanskrit epic came to be associated with kingship and we find the royal retellings such as Ramakien and Ramakirti as far as South East Asia where the story travelled with sea merchants.
The composition of the Ramayana in regional languages began about 1,000 years ago with a Tamil retelling by Kamban. Since then we have had retellings in Telugu, Odiya, Assamese, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam and various Hindi dialects. These established Ram as an icon for bhakti and Ram as form of God. The extremely popular Ramayana of the 20th century on TV made by Ramanand Sagar is based primarily on the Awadhi Ramayana of Tulsidas, but it is not the ‘national’ Ramayana, just as Hindi is not the ‘national’ language, politics notwithstanding.
Here are five episodes from the Ramayana that you may have never heard before, from the many versions of the epic found in Odiya literature between the 15th and 18th centuries. Remember, most Indians, hear the Ramayana in local tongues, based on regional epics. They remind us of the vast expanse of Ram in Indian art and culture, unrestrained by ideology.
The heron, the crane and the rooster
How the rooster acquired its comb
When Ram returned from the deer hunt and found his house empty, he feared the worst and began to cry. A heron said that perhaps, tired of forest life, Sita had run away with someone. Angry, Ram caught its neck fiercely, which is why the heron’s neck is bent. A crane then informed him that Sita had been abducted by Ravana. That her tears fell on the crane’s body, which is why the bird is white in colour. Relieved to hear this, Ram said that during the rains, the crane can relax and his wife will feed him with the fish she catches. The crane did not like the idea. He said he cannot eat his wife’s jhoota, to which Ram retorted, ‘You have no problem kissing her but you have a problem eating her jhoota. Why so?’ The crane apologised for this thoughtlessness. A rooster also confirmed that Ravana indeed was the culprit. So Ram offered him a golden crown. The rooster refused, saying that men already chased him for his meat; he did not want them to chase him for his golden crown. And so Ram gave him a red crown of flesh instead, known as the rooster’s comb.
From Odiya folktales and Ramalila by Ananga Narendra (18th century)
Sampati’s Wings and the sighting of Sita
Sampati lost his son who spotted Sita in Lanka but regained his wings in the process
In Odisha, during the Puri temple’s carnival known as Sahi Jatra, we find the image of a giant bird with eight monkeys (ashta-malla, or eight warriors) on its wings. This bird is identified as Sampati’s son carrying the vanaras (monkeys), including Hanuman, high up in the sky to show them Lanka. Sampati was Jatayu’s elder brother who had burnt his wings while protecting Jatayu from the sun’s fiery rays. He lived on the southern seashore, feeding on dead bodies. He found the vanaras there, looking disappointed and intent on starving to death rather than returning home as failures – for they had failed to find Sita’s location. When he overheard the monkeys refer to Ram and Jatayu, he was excited. A sage had told him that his wings would be restored if he helped Ram find Sita. Sampati told his son to carry the monkeys on his wings high into the sky until they could see Lanka in the middle of the sea. Sampati’s son did as he was told, and the monkeys, seated on his wings, did see Lanka. But only Sampati’s son could see Sita there for birds have better eyesight than monkeys. By helping the monkeys locate Sita with the help of his son, Sampati’s wings started to grow again.
From Sri Rama Bilasa by Dhananjaya Bhanja (17th century)
Sabari’s mangoes on the quest for Sita
When Lord Ram reformed the rules of casteism
The story of Ram eating the jhoota ber (tasted berries) of Sabari is found not in Valmiki’s or Tulsi’s Ramayana but in Bhakti-ras-bodhini by Priyadas, a collection of stories of Vaishnava saints, written in Braj-bhasa in the 18th century. However, 200 years before that, we find a story in an Odiya Ramayana that may have inspired it. While searching for Sita, Ram meets a tribal man (Sabara) and a tribal woman (Sabari) who wash his feet and offer him a mango. Ram notices she has several mangoes, all with bite marks. But she offers him a ‘Sundari’ mango without a tooth mark. Ram says, ‘How do you know this one is as good as the others? You have not tasted it. Give me the one you know is tasty.’ Thus Ram eats the mango with bite marks, and not the one without bite marks, thus rejecting caste purity rules.
From Dandi Ramayana by ‘Matta’ Balarama Dasa (15th century)
What if Ravana repents?
Lord Ram keeps his word as well as his promise
When Ravana learns that Ram has reached the shores of the sea, he arrogantly claims that Ram will be so frustrated by the sea that he will surely commit suicide. Vibhishana tries to reason with his brother, but Ravana kicks him out instead. So Vibhishana travels across the sea and becomes Ram’s ally. Ram declares his intention (sankalpa): ‘I will kill Ravana and make Vibhishana the king of Lanka!’ But the ever-insecure Sugriva says, ‘What if Ravana repents, returns Sita and falls at your feet? What will you do then?’ Ram replies, ‘I’ll still keep my promise and make Vibhishana king, but of Ayodhya instead of Lanka. And then I will retire to the forest.’ Thus he reminds us all that Ram always keeps his word.
From Raghaba Bilasa by ‘Utkala-Ghanta’ Jadumani Mahapatra (18th century)
Jellyfish and Ravana’s Umbrella...
....and the origin of mushrooms on earth!
On reaching Lanka, Ram and Sugreeva climb up Suvala mountain to see the city. Ravana too rises up in the sky on his pushpak viman to see Ram and his army. Ravana looks grand with hundreds of royal umbrellas adorning his flying throne. Ram raises his bow and shoots an arrow, bringing down Ravana’s royal umbrellas that fall on earth and sea. The ones that fall on earth become mushrooms. The ones that fall in the sea become jelly fish. This episode is called ‘Chattra-katta,’ or the cuttingof the umbrellas. Even today, Odiya fishermen refer to jelly fish as Rabana-chatta, or Ravana’s umbrellas.
From oral folk traditions of Odisha’s fisherfolk
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From HT Brunch, May 24, 2020
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