On versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in South-East Asia

Sunday Vijay Times, Bangalore, 30 May 2004


THAI Airlines recently organised a Thai Ramayana at a five star hotel in Bangalore. The performance provided a good exposure to the rich art and also showcased the influence of Indian epics outside the subcontinent.

Art in Southeast Asia such as countries like Thailand,Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia could be of the religious traditions of  Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam, or could belong to indigenous cultures with flavours that are borrowed from either of these religions.There have been continuous migrations and settlement of Brahmins and Buddhist monks, who went along with Indian merchants to the Southeast Asian kingdoms of Java, Cambodia and Indonesia, thus bringing with them their religions, cosmologies, concepts of social and political structure, the Sanskrit alphabet and the rich religious literature of India. India continued to be a source of inspiration for Southeast Asian cultures for years after the sixth century when the Southeast Asian kingdoms were first established. Buddhist and Hindu devotees visited holy sites in India, returning with first hand impressions of Indian art and architecture, religious texts, and images of Buddhist and Hindu deities.

If you look at the arts, especially at the performing arts of places like Thailand, there still are very obvious traits of an Indian influence. The khon is a form of dance drama that originated in the 16th century in Thailand and uses as its source the Thai version of Valmiki’s Ramayana, called the Ramakien. The Ramakien is the same story as the Ramayana and exists in Thai oral culture before King Rama the first wrote it down in book form. But the characters differ in name, and some differences exist as a result of  adaptation into a different culture.

Hanuman in their version is a lover of women unlike our celibate Hanuman. Ayodhya is Ayuttaya and the story is set in an actual place in Thailand. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata still appear widely in popular folk drama, tales and art all over Southeast Asia. The content and nature of these epics is universal and encompassing so as to allow the freedom for them to be understood and adapted in all the myriad cultures of these countries. They are illustrated in the relief sculptures of temples such as the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Rama temple in Malaysia, and mural painting in Vat Oup Moung, a Buddhist monastery in Vientiane, Laos. The Cambodian version is called Ramkear in the Khmer language.

The Wayang Kulit, the famous Javanese shadow puppetry also draws its inspiration from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bharatavarsha (a tale depicting the war of the Kauravas and the Pandavas).Wayang Kulit siam performed in a region of Malaysia called the Kelantan draws from the Hikayat Seri Rama, which is a Malay adaptation. The interesting thing about this art is that most of the puppeteers (called Kelantan dalangs) are Muslims. Kelantan is a strongly Islamic region, but it is also the main base forthe Malay shadow puppet theatre. Like other adapted forms, the wayang throws in a handful of Javanese and Malay characters for good measure and then pits good against evil in a classic plot. Warrior animals, giants, princes, and priests are all created in intricate and detailed leather puppetry and come together in rousing music and drama.

Performances of the Ramayana, such as our local Ramlilas are still popular in temples such as the Hindu Civa temple of Prambanan in Yogyakarta, Central Java. This temple was built in the ninth century and has an open amphitheatre and arena theatre now to stage the Ramayana epic. The Indonesians have an annual opera based on the Ramayana that includes a cast of hundreds of players. Performances by Thai exile-es became extremely popular at the Burmese court where most traditional dramas were serious Buddhist stories such as the Jataka Tales. There are streets, banks, and travel agencies, and other places of business, which carry the names of characters from the Ramayana in Indonesia. These epics continue to appear in media such as film, comic books and television. Like all great stories they are not time-bound, and remain great sources of entertainment and wisdom, brought to life by the arts of these different cultures.

2 thoughts on “On versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in South-East Asia

  1. After some exhaustive research, I have reached to a conclusion that versions of Ramayana exists in many languages, including Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, etc. In Sanskrit itself there are 25 different versions. According to A. K. Ramanujam, more than 300 tellings of Ramayana exist.

    Each has newer dimensions, more fascinating than the other.

    Read them in reverse order here- http://souravroy.com/?s=too+many+ramayanas

  2. Thanks for the write up. There’s so little information in the English language Internet about the influence of Indian civilisation in SE Asia. Most in the Anglo world ignorantly believe that SE Asia is like China. Not hating on China here, I’m Malaysian Chinese. I’m just annoyed at the misrepresentation of my region.

    Btw, the national language of Malaysia is Malay, not Malaysian.

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