RAMAYANA in Southeast Asia - An Indo-ASEAN Cultural Bridge

Pic courtesy Benoy K Bahl
  • Article tells how Ramayana is inter-woven into the culture of ASEAN countries.
  • Indians practiced globalization differently from how the West and China do so such that Indonesians showcase Ramayana to this day.

We in India have celebrated 25 years of Indo-ASEAN relations but they go deep down the historical lane of two millennia. Among other cultural aspects permeation of the epic stories Ramayana and Mahabharata in the lives of millions of men and women in ASEAN countries plays a key role in building cultural bridges of everlasting friendship.


Ramayana does not belong to India only because over the centuries it has become the lyric of Asia and our common cultural heritage. Indonesia had celebrated the first Ramayana Festival in 1971.   


Ramayana itself speaks about Bali and Java islands. But the history of its first reaching the ASEAN countries is shrouded in mystery in-spite of its widespread popularity, publication of various versions created by these countries over the past centuries, discovery of a large number of panels based on the stories of Ramayana decorating the walls of temples instilling moral and social values in the minds of the people or for celebrating certain occasions.


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 ideal.


Episodes taken from them are played in the forms of shadow plays and dance dramas in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. Ramayana ballets in these countries are mesmerizing. The artists become one with the characters playing their roles. They feel sad for the agony of Devi Sita and find it difficult to act as Lord Rama because of their feelings honoring him as a lord. Most of the artists in Indonesia are Muslims but they find a great joy in performing it because it is their own culture.         


All over ASEAN countries there are many versions of Ramayana.


Kumaradasa composed Janaki-harana in Srilanka in 7th century CE; the Malaysians call it Hikayet Seri Rama; when was it adopted in Cambodia is not known but they call it Ramakerti; in Phillipines it is popular as Maharadia Lawana. Indonesia had several Ramayana texts composed by the Indonesians themselves.

The best known is Ramayana Kakawin written in 8th century which is compared to Bhattikavya. Its author seems to be a genius trans-creating the story in an amazingly simple structure and limpid flow of words. 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 best performance that I have seen is at the court yard of this temple where more than a hundred dance together with thrilling movements.


There are some variations as well in the story like when Devi Sita enters fire to prove her sanctity, the God of Fire appears and bows to her saying - it is not an ordeal for her but by her entry into fire Agni Deva itself is purified. The scene is really moving when hundreds of dancers come to the stage with fluttering garments where audience can feel the flames of fire full of sadness.


Ramayana has a very strong influence on the Thai way of life, from Royalty to commoners.

Bank of Ayudya, Bangkok. 

All the kings of the Chakri Dynasty, Thailand 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 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.

Ramayana painted on walls of Emerald Buddha Mandir, Bangkok.


Statues of enormous Asuras stand around the temple with their clubs to protect the place. Beautiful pictures of the main characters can be often seen printed on a variety of objects like skirts and shirts. Dolls representing these characters are quite popular with the tourists.


Two of their cities are Ayuttya and Lobpuri from Ayodhya and Lavapuri. To see pictures of Ayuttya or Ayutthya.


Hindu religion and culture was practiced during the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. Indian immigrants may be traders, mainly from South India going to Indo-China before 3rd Century B.C. might have carried it with them. It is mentioned in Cambodian Sanskrit inscriptions that copies of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas and Manusmriti were brought by the Cambodians for recitation in temples.


When and how Ramayana occupied a place of pride 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 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 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, Ramayana was the favourite theme. Contacts with neighbouring countries with Hindu cultural influence such as Linzin (Laos), Zimme (Chiengmei), Ayuthia (Thailand) and Malayu (Malaysia) further contributed to the development of Ramayana as the popular theme in Myanmar performing arts.


In spite of the mod and pop cultures through entertainment media, Ramayana remains to stay. New generations adopt 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 Ramayana. With the same title a pop song appeared and it was first sung by a note vocalist Accordian Ohn Kyaw and later by a pop-star Hlwan Moe. It is still the favourite of the young. There are yet other novels, short stories and songs with the trappings of Ramayana.


Looking at the scale of insightful bearing of Ramayana on the lives of the people of ASEAN countries it comes to my mind extemporaneously- 


यावत स्थास्यन्ति गिरयः सरितश्च महीतले /

तावत रामायणी कथा लोकेषु प्रचरिष्यति//


Meaning - the story of Ramayana will remain popular in the world as far as there are mountains and rivers on the earth.

Article was first published in The Statesman and here.  Author has permitted esamskriti.com to share on its platform. Thank you – Dhanyavad. 

AuthorProf. Dr. Shashibala, is Dean, Centre of Indology, BHARATIYA VIDYA BHAVAN, New Delhi. Article pictures courtesy Sanjeev Nayyar.


To read all articles by author


Also read

1. Ramayanas of South and Southeast Asia

2. Ramayana in Southeast Asia and India

3. Pictures of Emerald Buddha Temple Bangkok


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