Updated: Sep 22, 2021
As India starts the process of building a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya, based on its oldest epic, the Ramayana, it is important to understand that this old story builds many a bridge between India and the world.
Balinese performers dance the Ramayana.
The story of Ram, the exiled god-king, who fights the malevolent ruler Ravan (the kidnapper of Ram’s wife, Sita) has been told and retold, read, sung, and philosophized in India for more than three thousand years.
But the Ramayana is not confined merely to the shores of India. Its global-ness is embedded at the very heart of the tale where Ram must cross the sea to take on Ravan in Lanka (present day nation of Sri Lanka), the island kingdom from where the rival king rules.
The Ramayana, in various shapes and forms, is suffused across Asia, from Myanmar to Indonesia, from China to Thailand, in many-a tale, in myriad art forms and architectural and social formats and rituals. As the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted in 2018, the Ramayana is like a bridge between India and the countries ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations). It serves as a connection, also, between India and Japan, and even, India and China.
In the Indonesian island of Bali, “the Old Javanese Rāmāyaṇa is regarded as the Ādi-Kakawin, that is, as both the first Kakawin and as the preeminent example of the Kakawin genre,” as the researcher Helen Creese has written. Kakawin, in Old Javanese, are long narrative poems, with rhythm and metre often taken from Sanskrit literature.
In Cambodia, the Ramayana has been indigenized to Ramakerti which retains much of the main geography and storyline, the great kingdoms of the epic, Ayodhya, Mithila, and Lanka appear, as does Dasarath, the father of Ram, and key queens, Ravan and others. When Buddhism came to Cambodia, Ram even started to be referred there as ‘bodhisattva’.
Thailand goes a step further. Here the Ramayana, called Ramakien, is the national epic of the country. The region even had the Ayutthaya kingdom (from Ayodhya) in the 18th century, and its lineage of kings even derived their names from Ram (the current king is titled Rama IX).
In neighbouring Laos, the national epic is the Phra Lak Phra Ram, the tale of two brothers, Lak and Ram, or Lakshman and Ram, as in the Ramayana in India. The case is similar in Myanmar when, again, the national epic, Yama Zatdaw, is the regional retelling of the Ramayana. All the primary dramatis personae appear here too – Ram is Yama, Sita is Thida, Lashman is Lakhana, Ravan is Yawana and Hanuman remains Hanuman.
The Ramayan is the Hikayat Seri Rama in Malaysia and often shadow puppets are used to tell the story. The puppets are usually made by Muslim craftspeople. The Philippino version of the Ramayana (Maharadia Lawana) gives precedence to a monkey-king (in the Ramayana elsewhere, the monkey king/god is an important but secondary character). The money-king legend is much loved as Sun Wukong in China and is likely to have started life inspired by Hanuman, the devoted monkey-prince in the Ramayana.
Japan not only has two versions of the Ramayana, Hobutsushu, and Sambo-Ekotoba, it was a Japanese filmmaker Yugo Sako who made one of the best animated versions of the Ramayana ever.
Since coming to power in 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has projected such ties across Southeast Asia, and indeed other parts of Asia, as a tool of cultural diplomacy. With Korea, for instance, where ancient texts mention that a princess from Ayodhya married a Korean king, the Ramayana has been used several times to underline ties. Many Koreans visit Ayodhya each year as they consider it a home of their ancestors. Old Korean tales mention that a princess from India called Suriratna (Heo Hwang-ok) married a Korean king about two thousand years ago. In one of the Korean texts, Samguk Yusa, Ayodhya is referred to as Ayuta (not very different, phonetically, from the Thai Ayutthaya).
After Modi came to power, India has organised a Ramayana Festival each year involving all major countries which have a connection with the epic. During a state visit in 2018, the First Lady of South Korea even attended a ceremony dedicated to highlighting the memory of the Ayodhyan princess who went to Korea.
The Ramayana, then, is a silken thread cultural diplomacy that runs through Asia, and as the Modi government starts to construct a great new Ram temple, the real importance of Ram in Indian international relations may have only just begun.