Story posted: Tuesday, 24. May 2011 by CPA Media
Pictures From History / Themes / RAMAYANA
The Ramayana, Great Epic of Hinduism - and Buddhism
It's a story as old as time and - at least in the Indian subcontinent and across much of Southeast Asia - of unparalleled popularity. More than two thousand three hundred years ago, at about the same time as Alexander the Great invaded north-west India, in another, less troubled part of that vast country the scholar-poet Valmiki sat down to write his definitive epic of love and war.
The poem Valmiki composed is styled the Ramayana, or "Romance of Rama" in Sanskrit. The shorter of India's two great epic poems - the other being the Mahabharata, or "Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty" - the Ramayana is, nevertheless, of considerable length. In its present form, the Sanskrit version consists of some 24,000 couplets divided into seven books. It's astonishing, then, to think that people beyond count have memorised the entire work, and that at no time, probably, since Valmiki's initial composition, has the Ramayana not enjoyed passionate recitation somewhere in Asia. Today it remains as vital as ever, though television, film and radio have brought it to a wider audience than Valmiki could ever have conceived. It's the favourite story of half the world - and its appeal continues to grow.
The Ramayana, which scholars consider more of a romance than an epic, begins with the birth of Prince Rama in the Kingdom of Ayodhya, commonly associated with the ancient city of Oudh, on the banks of the Sarayu River near Lucknow in northern India. Rama's youth is spent in the royal palace, under the tutelage of the sage Vishvamitra, from whom he learns patience, wisdom and insight - the necessary qualities for a just and perfect king.
As a young man Rama enters a bridegroom contest for the hand of Sita, the beautiful and pious daughter of King Janaka. Rama alone has the strength to bend the great bow of Shiva, and by this supernatural act he wins Sita, his beloved, to be his wife. The peerless couple marry, and for some time all is well at Ayodhya - but then Rama falls victim to intrigue at the royal court, loses his position as heir, and withdraws to the forest for a period of fourteen years. Sita accompanies Rama into exile, as does his favourite half-brother, the loyal Lakshmana.
During this time word of Rama's exile reaches the ear of Ravana, demon-king of the island of Lanka. Ravana lusts after Sita and, having sent a magical golden deer to lead Rama and Lakshmana off hunting, he seizes Sita and carries her off to his fortified palace in Lanka. Although a helpless captive, Sita resolutely resists all Ravana's advances, whilst Rama and Lakshmana, realising they have been tricked, set about organising her rescue.
The defeat of Ravana and his devilish cohorts is no easy task, however, and the royal brothers need help in their endeavour. Fortunately, allies are found in Sugriva, King of the Monkeys, Ravana's own brother, Vibhishana, and - above all - the noble monkey-general Hanuman. Acting in unison, and overcoming great difficulties, the forces of light invade Lanka, rescue Sita, and overthrow Ravana who is killed by Rama.
At this point in the story a darker side of Rama becomes apparent, as he accuses Sita of infidelity and requires her to undergo an ordeal by fire to prove her innocence. Rama seems satisfied, but on returning to Ayodhya he learns that the people still question Sita's virtue, and he banishes her to the forest. In exile, Sita meets the sage Valmiki and at his hermitage gives birth to Rama's two sons. The family is reunited when the sons become of age, but Sita, after once again protesting her innocence, asks to be received by the earth, which swallows her up.
The Ramayana soon became immensely popular in India, where its recitation is considered an act of great merit. It was translated from the original Sanskrit into numerous vernacular versions, often works of great literary merit themselves, including the Tamil version of Kampan, the Bengali version of Krttibas, and the enduringly popular Hindi version, the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas. Other vibrant celebrations of the Romance of Rama which continue to flourish in India today include the annual Ram-Lila pageant of north India, and the elaborate Kathkali dance-drama of Kerala in the south.
But the story doesn't stop there. So powerful was the drama of the Ramayana, and so appealing its universal message to mankind, that it could not be constrained by the bounds of the subcontinent, and soon spread throughout the Hindu-Buddhist world, especially to Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and, of course, to Siam.
The impact of the Ramayana - known in Thai as Ramakien - on Siamese, and subsequently Thai culture can scarcely be overstated. The love of Rama for Sita, the loyalty of Lakshmana and the heroism of Hanuman have left an indelible mark on many aspects of traditional Thai drama, literature and dance. Even today every Thai schoolchild learns the story of how Nang Sida, the consort of Phra Ram, was abducted by the wicked King Thotsakan of Longka, and how Phra Ram, aided by his faithful brother Phra Lak and the monkey-god Hanuman brought about her rescue. In the same way the tale is celebrated regularly, at displays of ritualised Khon dancing in Bangkok, or at less formal Lakhon performances up country.
It is impossible to state with any certainty when or how the Ramayana first reached Siam. It may have travelled directly by sea, via the legendary Kingdom of Srivijaya, or by land, by way of the great Khmer civilisation of Angkor. Either way, we may be sure that the story of Rama and Sita was known and revered in the Kingdom of Sukhothai. Also, when Rama's namesake, King Ramathibodi, established the Second Kingdom of Siam in the Maenam-Chaophraya Basin in 1351, he named his capital Ayutthaya in honour of Ayodhya, the City of Rama, on the distant plains of north India.
Ayodhya, in Sanskrit, means "not to be warred upon". Unfortunately this intelligence escaped those other Ramayana enthusiasts, the Burmese - or, at least, they chose to ignore the admonition. In April, 1767, Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam, was sacked and burned by the victorious armies of King Hsinbyushin of Ava. Not until 1782, with the founding of the present Chakri Dynasty, was Siam fully re-established as a secure and independent Kingdom. Phra Phutthayotfa, the first Chakri monarch, founded his new capital on the east bank of the Chaophraya River, at a small fortified village called Bangkok, or "Place of the Olive Trees". The name he gave the new royal city remains the longest place-name in the world, and may be rendered in English: "Great City of Angels, City of Immortals, Magnificent Jewelled City of the God Indra, Seat of the King of Ayutthaya, City of Gleaming Temples, City of the King's Most Excellent Palace and Dominions, Home of Vishnu and All the Gods".
The re-establishment of the Kingdom of Siam with its new capital at Bangkok - generally known in Thai by the abbreviated form of its royal name, Krung Thep, or "City of Angels" - marked the foundation and rise of the modern Thai state. It also reconfirmed and strengthened the already pivotal importance of the Ramayana to the Thai polity. Once again, Rama's royal city was remembered and recreated in Krung Thep - "Seat of the King of Ayutthaya". Beyond this, the hero-king Rama is generally identified with the seventh worldly incarnation of the God Vishnu - "Home of Vishnu and all the Gods". As if this were not enough, the new dynasty, which continues to rule Thailand today, was named Chakri, after the chakra, or discus, which is one of the four attributes of Vishnu. Furthermore all Chakri monarchs, from Phra Phutthayotfa (Rama I) down to the present ruler, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) are styled Rama in honour of the perfect monarch of the Ramayana.
Beyond the founding of the Chakri Dynasty and the establishment of Bangkok as the new capital, some other good came out of the Burmese destruction of Ayutthaya. According to Thai sources, all written records of the Ramayana were lost when the court of krung kao, the old capital, went up in flames. The new monarch, King Rama I, proved to be a lavish patron of the arts, sponsoring translations of many literary works from Chinese, Mon, Persian and Javanese. Most importantly, under Rama I's direction and with the assistance of literary members of the court, the first full translation of the Ramayana from Sanskrit to Thai - the Ramakien -was completed in 1798. Subsequent additions and refinements were added by Phra Phutthaloetla (Rama II) at the beginning of the 19th century. Truly, the Romance of Rama, in it's Thai form, owes a great deal to the ruling Chakri Dynasty. Yet what could be more fitting and correct than that a royal house, founded on the aspirations and ideals of Valmiki's timeless epic, should sponsor its translation from the Sanskrit, thereby making it accessible to the entire Thai people?
The Ramakien Murals
When King Rama I established his new capital at Bangkok in June, 1782, his first action was to establish a new residence on the site which would later become known as Rattanakosin Island. Here, sheltered to the west by the broad sweep of the Chaophraya River, and to the east by a series of concentric canals, he oversaw the construction of the Chakri Grand Palace and its associated temple, Wat Phra Kaeo - the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This latter structure was erected specially by Rama I to house and honour the celebrated Emerald Buddha, an image discovered in 1434, in the Province of Chiang Rai, when a bolt of lightning split an old chedi to reveal a jasper Buddha figure of great beauty. The Emerald Buddha - which became the palladium of the Thai Kingdom - was installed at Wat Phra Kaeo by Rama I, but it was King Rama III who initiated the decoration of the royal temple with unforgettable scenes from the Ramakien.
In 1831, during the seventh year of Rama III's reign, master-painters began the great task of telling the Romance of Rama in murals. The version adopted was, appropriately enough, the Ramakien translation sponsored by Rama I and elaborated by his successor, Rama II. Over the next several years the story of Rama, Sita, Ravana and Hanuman unfolded over hundreds of square metres of cloister wall, shaded from the fierce tropical sun by long roofs of burnished orange tiles. Fittingly, much celebration is made of Hanuman, the albino monkey-general beloved of generations of Thai children. Considerable emphasis is also laid on Hanuman's love-life - in marked contrast to South Asian versions - thus the painters lingered lovingly over the monkey-general's beloved Suwanna Malee. Similarly Ravana's harem - though here the demon king is cast as Thotsakan - and, in particular, his beautiful first wife Queen Monto, are represented with exquisite care. The murals encompass broad sweeps of landscape, great scenes of battle contrasting with minute detail of personal scenes within palace walls...
Unfortunately, the original murals soon began to deteriorate, and had to be restored during the reigns of both Rama IV and Rama V. The work was completed in time for Bangkok's first centennial, but half a century later they were once again so faded that Rama VII ordered the restoration of those panels still in reasonable condition, and the recomposition of those too badly damaged for repair. Some art historians bemoan, no doubt with justice, the consequent loss of aspects of the original murals, but the fact remains that the Ramakien depicted at Wat Phra Kaeo, even in its revised form, remains a startlingly vivid portrayal of the Romance of Rama and Sita, seen through Thai eyes. As a lasting memorial to the poetry of Valmiki, the taste and sophistication of the first Chakri monarchs, the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and the enduring appeal of epic romance, it can have few equals.
Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011Category: India
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