Hero of the epic Ramayana, and as such the central character in all puppet theatre and the shadow theatre in India and in South East Asia. Rama is an incarnation of the god Vishnu on earth. His character, closely associated with the royal and warrior class (kshatriya), reinforces the existence of castes, undoubtedly in their formative stages at the time of the first oral transmissions of the stories of the Ramayana.

Rama is the young husband of Sita, the beautiful princess born from Mother Earth who fell victim to the carnal desires of the demon-king Ravana and was carried off to the kingdom of Lanka. In retaliation, Rama unleashes a war with the help of the monkey inhabitants, a war that, ultimately, makes neither conqueror nor conquered of those involved, since the existence of rakshasas (demons) is considered just as indispensible in the world order as are humans and the gods.

Rama is represented in puppet theatre and the shadow theatre as a “dark-skinned” prince with a noble bearing, with his hair worn long and his clothing richly ornamented. He is also shown as a warrior carrying a bow and an inexhaustible quiver of arrows. If the character of Rama is made of leather, the figure appears almost androgynous, with a delicate profile and eyes highlighted with make-up, often shown beneath a parasol, as in the togalu gombeyata.

All the shadow puppet traditions of India revolve around the story of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata but within the traditions the stories vary. Many local legends, regional versions of the Ramayana, improvisations of the puppeteers, and the role played by the vidushakas (clowns) make each rendition of the Rama story different.

(See India.)