We in India are celebrating 25 years of Indo-ASEAN relations which has a history of over two millennia. Among other cultural aspects, the epic stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata play a key role in building cultural bridges across countries of this region. The Ramayana does not only belong to India. Over the centuries, it has become the lyric of Asia and our common cultural heritage. Indonesia had celebrated the first Ramayana Festival in 1971.
The Ramayana itself speaks about the Bali and Java islands. But the exact history of how this epic reached the ASEAN countries is shrouded in mystery. However, it is to be noted that the Ramayana enjoys widespread popularity and has been published in various versions by these countries in the past. The discovery of a large number of panels based on the stories of the Ramayana, decorating the walls of temples in these countries, strengthen the claim.
The Ramayana is adopted in a number of spheres of society as a source of leading an ideal life. It is not just a book of beautiful poetry; it is a Dharma Shastra expounding lofty ethical ideals. Episodes taken from them are played in the forms of shadow plays and dance dramas in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. The Ramayana ballets in these countries are mesmerizing. The artists become one with the characters. Most of the artists in Indonesia are Muslims but they find great joy in performing it because it is their own culture.
There are various versions of the Ramayana that are prevalent in these countries. Kumaradasa composed Janaki-harana in Sri Lanka in 7th century CE; the Malaysians call it Hikayet Seri Rama; it is not known when it was adopted in Cambodia but they call it Ramakerti; in Philippines it is popular as Maharadia Lawana. Indonesia had several Ramayana texts composed by the Indonesians themselves. The best known is Ramayana Kakawin written in the 8th century which is compared to Bhattikavya. They also wrote Kakavin Janaki and Ravana-vadha etc. The earliest engraved Ramayana can be seen on the walls of a 9th century Shiva temple – Prambanan.
The Ramayana has a very strong influence on the Thai way of life. All the kings of the Chakri Dynasty are given the title of “Rama” because Rama was an incarnation of Vishnu – the sustainer of the world. The former King Bhumipol Adulyadej ruled as Rama 9th. People of all classes and education levels know the stories from their childhood. King Rama 2nd translated the Indian version of the Ramayana into Thai and it is included in school and university curricula. It has become part of Thai literature and has been adapted to suit Thai culture. Ramayana story has been painted on the walls of the Royal temple. Statues of enormous Asuras stand around the temple with their clubs to protect the place.
Hindu religion and culture was practised during the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. Indian immigrants, mainly from South India going to Indo-China before the 3rd Century B.C. might have carried it with them. It is mentioned in Cambodian Sanskrit inscriptions that copies of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas and Manusmriti were brought by the Cambodians for recitation in temples.
When and how Ramayana occupied pride of place in Myanmar’s heart is a topic for academic debate. But the oral tradition of the Rama story can be traced as far back as the reign of King Anawrahta (A.D.1044-77), the founder of the first Myanmar Empire. In later periods, there are ample archaeological, historical and literary evidence to show that the Ramayana entered into Myanmar culture at an early date. At old Bagan is a Vishnu temple known as Nat Hlaung Kyaung which is adorned with some stone figures of Rama and Parasu Rama. The Rama story is depicted in the Jataka series of terra-cotta plaques on the panels of Petlcik Pagoda in Bagan.
In a stone inscription in the Mon language, King Kyanzittha (A.D.1084-1113) of the Bagan dynasty proclaimed that in his previous existence, he was a close relative of Rama of Ayodhya. Rama has been continuously present in the cultures of the post-Bagan periods. In all media of visual arts and all forms of literary art, the Ramayana was the favourite theme. Contacts with neighbouring countries with Hindu cultural influence such as Linzin (Laos), Zimme (Chiengmei), Ayuthia (Thailand) and Malayu (Malasia) further contributed to the development of Ramayana as the popular theme in Myanmar performing arts.
New generations adopt the Ramayana as the theme of their artistic creations and means of expressing their inner feelings. One modern novelist pen-named Chit Oo Nyo of Myanmar wrote a fiction entitled Achit Shone Thama, Dasagiri (Ravan, the Loser of Love) based on the Ramayana. Popular songs have also been written on the Ramayana.
Looking at the scale of insightful bearing of the Ramayana on the lives of the people of ASEAN countries it comes to my mind extemporaneously –
(The story of the Ramayana will remain popular in the world as far as there are mountains and rivers on the earth).