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The Ramayana in Southeast Asia

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Originally composed in India in Sanskrit over two and half thousand years ago by Valmiki, the Ramayana is also one of the most popular masterworks throughout Southeast Asia. This is reflected not only in the literary traditions, but also in the performing and fine arts, as well as in architecture and modern design. The epic tells the story of Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Rama’s wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The main part of the epic is about the fight between Ravana and Rama, who wants to get his wife back. In this battle, Rama is supported by his brother and a monkey chief, Hanuman, with his armies.

Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. From a 19th century album of drawings by an anonymous Thai artist.  British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59

Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. From a 19th century album of drawings by an anonymous Thai artist. British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59

Knowledge of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia can be traced back to the 5th century in stone inscriptions from Funan, the first Hindu kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. An outstanding series of reliefs of the Battle of Lanka from the 12th century still exists at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ramayana sculptures from the same period can be found at Pagan in Myanmar. Thailand’s old capital Ayutthya founded in 1347 is said to have been modelled on Ayodhya, Rama’s birthplace and setting of the Ramayana. New versions of the epic were written in poetry and prose and as dramas in Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Javanese and Balinese, and the story continues to be told in dance-dramas, music, puppet and shadow theatre throughout Southeast Asia. Most of these versions change parts of the story significantly to reflect the different natural environments, customs and cultures.

Serat Rama Keling, a modern Javanese version of the Ramayana, illuminated manuscript dated 1814.  British Library,  Add.12284, ff.1v-2r

Serat Rama Keling, a modern Javanese version of the Ramayana, illuminated manuscript dated 1814. British Library, Add.12284, ff.1v-2r

When mainland Southeast Asian societies embraced Theravada Buddhism, Rama began to be regarded as a Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, in a former life. In this context, the early episodes of the story were emphasized, symbolising Rama’s Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. Throughout the region, Hanuman enjoys a greatly expanded role; he becomes the king of the monkeys and the most popular character in the story, and is a reflection of all the freer aspects of life. In a series of articles on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog, curators Annabel Gallop, San San May and Jana Igunma explore how the Ramayana epic has been rewritten and reimagined in the different parts of Southeast Asia.
To read the articles, go directly to the Asian and African Studies blog.

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Digital “resurrection” of lost Lao Ramayana murals

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A groundbreaking project with the aim to digitally replicate the lost Phralak-Phralam (Lao version of the Ramayana) murals at Vat Oub Mong in Vientiane has been under way for several years. The project is being carried out by the Digital Conservation Facility, Laos (DCFL); affiliated since 2003 with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at Northern Illinois University. DCFL founder Alan Potkin has recently been developing interactive visualization and virtual reality technologies in ecological and cultural conservation for applications in impact assessment, heritage management, museological and site interpretive materials, public participation; and accessible institutional memory for corporations, government agencies, and NGOs.

The historical temple hall at Vat Oub Mong that contained the original murals had been demolished in the year 2000. However, prior to the demolition, photographs were taken of the murals which had been created in 1938. Thanks to this initiative and newly emerging technologies, digital replication of the lost cultural heritage is now possible.
But digital replication is not the only goal of the project – equally important is the replication at Vat Oub Mong (Vientiane) of the demolished Phralak-Phralam murals which was completed in 2011. In addition to this, the original 2,100-page palm leaf manuscript containing the Pralak-Pralam text in Lao tham script has been digitised and is currently being transliterated into modern Lao by the monks at Vat Oub Mong.
Alan Potkin gave talks about this project and its progress at several conferences in the recent years.

An abridged translation of the Phalak-Phralam text together with some photographs of the original murals from the demolished temple can be found on the homepage of the Center for SEA Studies at Northern Illinois University.

Latest news from the project can be found on the Theravada Buddhist Civilizations website.

An English translation of a Phralak-Phralam text found in a manuscript at the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, together with photographs of the murals at Vat Oub Mong are in Sachchidanand Sahai’s book “Ramayana in Laos. A study in the Gvay Dvorahbi” (published in 1976 by B.R. Publishing corporation, Delhi).

Scenes from the Ramayana

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San San May, British Library

Three Burmese parabaik (folding book) manuscripts in the British Library have been digitised and are now accessible on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts viewer, including a Burmese copy of the Ramayana (Or.14178). This parabaik from around 1870 A.D. has 16 pages with painted scenes of the Ramayana story with brief captions in Burmese. The paper covers are painted in red, yellow and green with floral borders and prancing lions. One cover has an inscription in black ink in Burmese, giving the title, Rama Zat, and a brief identification of the contents, as follows: Rama strings the bow; Dusakhaya demon in battle; offerings of alms; abduction in the chariot; building of the stone causeway; and arrival in Thiho (Ceylon/Sri Lanka).

The ten-headed demon king of Thiho (Ceylon/Sri Lanka), Dathagiri (Ravana) sends Gambi in the form of a shwethamin (golden deer) to Thida (Sita). Being persuaded by Sita to catch the golden deer for her, Rama left Sita under the protection of his brother, Letkhana (Lakshmana), and went after the golden deer. Or.14178, f.8

The ten-headed demon king of Thiho (Ceylon/Sri Lanka), Dathagiri (Ravana) sends Gambi in the form of a shwethamin (golden deer) to Thida (Sita). Being persuaded by Sita to catch the golden deer for her, Rama left Sita under the protection of his brother, Letkhana (Lakshmana), and went after the golden deer. Or.14178, f.8

The oral tradition of the Burmese Ramayana story can be traced as far back as the reign of King Anawrahta (A.D.1044-77), the founder of the first Burmese empire. It was transmitted orally from generation to generation before being written down in prose and verse, and as a drama. The first known written Burmese version of the Ramayana is Rama Thagyin (Songs from the Ramayana), compiled by U Aung Phyo in 1775 (a typescript copy from a palm leaf manuscript made in 1980 is held in the British Library as MYAN.A.2579/1-2). A three-volume copy of the Rama story called Rama vatthu was written on palm leaf in 1877 (MAN/BUR315).

Early printed versions in the British Library include Pontaw Rama (Part 1) by Saya Ku, published in 1880 (14302.e.3/5); Rama thonmyo zat taw gyi vatthu, 1904 (BUR.B.604); Pontaw Rama and Lakkhana (Part 1) by U Maung Gyi, published in 1904 (14302.e.11); Rama ruidaya zat taw gyi by U Maung Gyi, published in 1907 (BUR.D.74/3); Rama yakan by U Toe, published in two volumes in 1933 (14302.b.52/1); and Rama thon myo by U Pho Sein, 1936 (14302.aa.34; BUR.B.647/1).

When Sita and Lakshmana heard Rama’s voice calling them in distress, Lakshmana made a three-fold magic circle around their shelter to ward off evil, and warned Sita not to venture out of the circle. As soon as Lakshmana went to look for Rama, Ravana changed himself into an old hermit and came to Sita and begged for alms of fruits. She forgot her brother-in-law’s warning and came out of the magic circle and gave him food and, water as she thought he was a real hermit. . Or.14178, f.9

When Sita and Lakshmana heard Rama’s voice calling them in distress, Lakshmana made a three-fold magic circle around their shelter to ward off evil, and warned Sita not to venture out of the circle. As soon as Lakshmana went to look for Rama, Ravana changed himself into an old hermit and came to Sita and begged for alms of fruits. She forgot her brother-in-law’s warning and came out of the magic circle and gave him food and, water as she thought he was a real hermit.  Or.14178, f.9

Ravana returned into his own form of a horrible giant with ten fearful heads and twenty great arms and begged Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refused, Ravana summoned his magic chariot and swept Sita up and away into the sky, over the forest. When Rama and Lakshmana finally found their way home Sita was gone. Or.14178, f.10

Ravana returned into his own form of a horrible giant with ten fearful heads and twenty great arms and begged Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refused, Ravana summoned his magic chariot and swept Sita up and away into the sky, over the forest. When Rama and Lakshmana finally found their way home Sita was gone. Or.14178, f.10

Dramatic performances of the Ramayana emerged in the Konbaung Period (1752-1885). The king’s minister Myawady Mingyi U Sa converted the Ramayana Jataka into a typical Burmese classical drama and he also composed theme music and songs for its performance. Ever since then, Ramayana performances have been very popular in Burmese culture, and Yama zat pwe (Rama dramatic performances) and marionette stage shows are often held. Scenes from the Ramayana can also be found as motifs or design elements in Burmese lacquerware and wood carvings.

A digital copy of the manuscript is available online .