Indian epic from which many episodes are interpreted in India and all of South East Asia, in Sanskrit and other languages, in shadow theatre and puppetry as well as by storytellers, dancers and actors. The Ramayana, like its epic-sister the Mahabharata, is one of the foundations of Indian culture.
The poem seems to be, for the most part, the work of a single author, Valmiki, from the Tamil Nadu region, who gathered and structured several century-old songs derived from sacrificial incantations and mythic tales. The actual poem seems to have been composed around 100 BCE, placing it after the core of the Mahabharata, but before its finished version. In any case, the Ramayana reflects a refined society contrasting with the coarser image given by the Mahabharata.
The Ramayana comprises 24,000 verses allocated into seven books (kanda) and 500 cantos (sarga) which narrate the “Chronicle of Rama” or “Rama’s Way” (which is the meaning of the title), in essence: the coming of a god to the world of men, as Prince Rama is an avatar of Vishnu and his exemplary spouse, Sita, is the daughter of the goddess Earth.
Rama, banished from the court of Ayodhya by his own father Dasharatha (to redeem a promise made to his junior wife, Kaikeyi), goes into exile in the forest for fourteen years with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana. Sita is coveted by the demon-king Ravana who sends a golden deer to entice her. When Rama goes into the jungle to hunt for this amazing animal to bring back to her, Ravana uses trickery to whisk Sita into the air all the way to his island of Lanka (traditionally known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka today).
To rescue his wife, Rama raises an extraordinary army comprised of monkeys commanded by Hanuman. The soldiers decide to make a bridge of stones from the mainland to the island kingdom of Lanka, filling in the channel that divides the two landmasses. Unwilling to wait, Hanuman, sent by Rama, crosses the sea in a prodigious leap. In the Ashoka gardens, Hanuman finds Sita in a state of terrible sadness as everyday she must resist the seduction attempts of Ravana. Before returning to Rama and the waiting army, Hanuman sets fire to Ravana’s palace. (In some versions of the epic, as the construction over the channel takes too long, Hanuman extends his tail from the island of Lanka to the continent and the monkey army crosses over on this magical bridge.) Crossing the bridge of stones, the monkey army ransacks the palace of the demons. Rama kills Ravana in single combat and is reunited with his love (who, by trial of fire, proves that she has remained pure throughout her capture) and later regains his kingdom.
In the last book (parva) of the epic, which undoubtedly came later, after having given birth to twin sons, Sita returns to her mother, Earth, and Rama returns to his cosmic form of Vishnu.
Theatrical productions derive almost all of their dramatic themes from Book III (“The Forest”) and Book VI (“The War”). Shadow theatre and puppetry most often perform certain episodes:
Rama hunting the golden deer;
The abduction of Sita;
Sita in the Ashoka gardens (Ravana’s fruitless seduction attempts and the meeting between Hanuman and Sita);
The monkey army crossing the sea;
Hanuman’s ransacking of the Ashoka gardens and setting fire to Ravana’s palace.
Several versions of the Ramayana in regional or non-Indian languages derive from traditions distinctive from that of Valmiki’s. The most famous are those Ramayana versions from the writers Kambar (Kamban) in the Tamil language (12th to 13th century), Krittibas Ojha in Bengali (15th century), and Tulsidas in Hindi (the Ramcharitmanas, end of 16th century). In Southern India, shadow theatre was able to conserve the themes of the Ramayana while adapting them to local cultures and thus preserved the vitality of the poem. In Karnataka, this is done by the puppeteers who introduce improvised sections in the dialogues; in Kerala, the tolpava koothu mixes verse and prose, acting and narration in Tamil and Malayalam languages; and in Andhra Pradesh the tolu bommalata presents the Lanka and War episodes in separate parts.
During the 12th to 13th centuries, the Ramayana made its way to South East Asia and gave birth to literary as well as theatrical works. After having inspired the royal shows in Thailand, where the shadows were manipulated by dancers, the Ramakien (Glory of Rama) remained popular in the southern part of the country thanks to the introduction of modern episodes. In Cambodia, the Reamker (Glory of Rama, in Khmer) incorporates popular elements, which can notably be seen in Siem Reap shadow theatre. In Myanmar (Burma), puppets perform a Buddhist Ramayana in which Rama is a Bodhisattva. At Kelentan in Malaysia, wayang siam shadow theatre stages the story of Rama. In Java, Indonesia, the Rama cycle constitutes one of the principal themes of wayang kulit purwa and wayang golek purwa, whereas in Bali, the genre takes on the name wayang Ramayana.
Like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana tells the story of demigods, heroes, forest exiles and war, and suggests a return to nature in an India that is becoming feudalized and urbanized. It adds to the message of the Vedas, reserved solely for the highest caste responsible for officiating at religious rites and studying and teaching the Vedas, the Brahmans (also Brahmins). Just like its epic-sister, the Mahabharata, it provides an almost inexhaustible body of work for all other dramatic forms and remains surprisingly present at the heart of contemporary preoccupations, even outside of Asia. Proof of this can be found in several successful Western theatrical adaptations of the Ramayana, among which, in puppetry, is by Michael Meschke (1984).