The digitisation of the Mewar Ramayana has enabled the ‘virtual’ reunification of India's masterpiece, bringing together paintings from the manuscript held across continents in different locations. Originally composed in India in Sanskrit centuries ago by Valmiki, the Ramayana is also one of the most popular masterworks throughout Southeast Asia. This is reflected not only in the literary traditions, but also in the performing and fine arts, as well as in architecture and modern design. The epic tells the story of Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Rama’s wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The main part of the epic is about the fight between Ravana and Rama, who wants to get his wife back. In this battle, Rama is supported by his brother and a vanara chief, Hanuman, with his armies.
Knowledge of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia can be traced back to the 5th century in stone inscriptions from Funan, the first Hindu kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. An outstanding series of reliefs of the Battle of Lanka from the 12th century still exists at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ramayana sculptures from the same period can be found at Pagan in Myanmar. Thailand’s old capital Ayutthya founded in 1347 is said to have been modelled on Ayodhya, Rama’s birthplace and setting of the Ramayana. New versions of the epic were written in poetry and prose and as dramas in Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Javanese and Balinese, and the story continues to be told in dance-dramas, music, puppet and shadow theatre throughout Southeast Asia. Most of these versions change parts of the story significantly to reflect the different natural environments, customs and cultures.
When mainland Southeast Asian societies embraced Theravada Buddhism, Rama began to be regarded as a Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, in a former life. In this context, the early episodes of the story were emphasized, symbolising Rama’s Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. Throughout the region, Hanuman enjoys a greatly expanded role; he becomes the king of the monkeys and the most popular character in the story, and is a reflection of all the freer aspects of life. In a series of posts we will be exploring how the Ramayana epic has been rewritten and reimagined in the different parts of Southeast Asia, starting with the Khmer version, the Reamker.
Royal Reamker performance, accompanied by the royal orchestra, at the ancient site of Ta Prohm, one of the temples of Angkor. Postcard from around 1915 published in Paris by the Anciens Etablissement Gillot, from a collector’s album of postcards from Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Siam. British Library, ORB. 30/6309, p. 
The Ramayana very early reached the ancient Hindu kingdoms (Funan, Chenla, Champa) in the territory of present-day Cambodia, southern Vietnam and eastern Thailand through contact with the south Indian kingdoms, but the oldest extant literary version, the Reamker in the Khmer language, appears to date from the 16th century. It preserves closer links to Valmiki’s original than do the other Southeast Asian versions. The Rama story became a favourite theme for frescoes on temple walls and was the exclusive subject of the traditional Cambodian shadow play. The popular masked dance drama, lkhon khol, was based on certain episodes from the Ramayana, and with Rama being regarded a former incarnation for the Buddha himself the story forms part of the repertoire of the Royal Ballet to the present day.
Dancer of the Royal Ballet in the costume of Hanuman. Postcard from around 1915 issued by the Comité Cambodgien de la Société des Amis d’Angkor, from a collector’s album of postcards from Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Siam. British Library, ORB. 30/6309, p. 
The literary text Reamker has the form of a dramatic recitative that was intended to accompany a mimed dance performance. Live recitations of parts of the Reamker by one of the most famous Cambodian storytellers of the 20th century, Ta Krut, had been recorded in the 1960s and are available online from the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.
Thailand and Laos
The Thai version of the epic is known as the Ramakien. The Rama story is thought to have been known to the Thais since at least the 13th century. It was adopted from older Khmer sources, hence the similarity to the Khmer title Reamker. Various new versions of the story have been composed, often by royal authors, since the 16th and 17th centuries. However, large numbers of Thai manuscripts were lost with the destruction of Ayutthya in 1767, and the Ramakien known today was compiled only between 1785 and 1807 under the supervision of King Rama I (1785-1809).
The famous reliefs depicting about 150 scenes from the Ramakien at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok date back to the early 19th century. Manuscript and mural paintings showing scenes from the Ramakien are particularly famous for their illustrations of the monkey armies. Best known are the mural paintings at the royal temple Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok. In King Rama I’s version of the Ramakien all names, places, traditions, and flora and fauna were adapted to a Thai context. In this form, the Rama story has become an epic of national character in Thailand, and it is very popular not only as a literary work, but also as a mask dance (khon) and even TV drama. It has been re-published many times in the form of children’s and juvenile literature, and characters from the Ramayana have featured on series of postal stamps and trading cards. The title of Rama constantly re-occurs in the royal genealogies of Thailand.
Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace. This drawing is from a 19th century album of ink drawings by an anonymous Thai artist of scenes from the Ramakien, with some text captions in Khom script (a variant of the Cambodian Khmer script used in Thailand). Hanuman can be seen with his sword, teasing Ravana who is fast asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. The palace resembles 19th century architecture in Bangkok. British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59
Phralak – the Thai and Lao name of Lakshmana, Rama’s brother – served Rama and Sita reverently and played an important role in the war with Ravana. In the Thai and Lao traditions, he is a symbol of brotherly love, loyalty and commitment. He gave his life in order to protect Rama and Ayodhya . This illustration of Phralak is from a folding-book with Thai character drawings including figures from the Ramakien, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or.14229, f. 29
The Lao version of the Ramayana is known as Phra Lak Phra Ram (or Pha Lak Pha Lam since in modern Lao R is often replaced by L), the title referring to both the brothers Lakshmana and Rama. Sometimes it is also called Phra Ram sadok (Rama Jataka) as it is widely believed that Rama was a former incarnation of a Buddha-to-be. The Rama story featured in many mural paintings and wood relief carvings on temple doors and windows. It was also one of the favourite themes in the repertoire of the Lao Royal Ballet until 1975, and this tradition has been revived since 2002 by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.
Numerous palm-leaf manuscripts from all regions of Laos containing shorter versions of the Lao Ramayana, Lam Pha Lam, show that the story was very popular all over the country in urban centres as much as in rural areas. These versions were created in order to be sung by a Mor Lam, a traditional expert singer who can melodically recite lengthy poems and epic literature while being accompanied by a Khaen (bamboo mouth organ).
In both Thai and Lao traditions, Hanuman was part of a favourite Yantra design used by soldiers and martial arts specialists. The leader of the monkey armies represents strength, stamina, agility, intelligence and devotion. Hanuman Yantras would either be drawn on protective shirts, headbands, battle standards of entire armies, or, most efficiently and durably, tattooed on a fighter’s body.
Hanuman as part of a Yantra design for tattooing or to be drawn on protective clothes and battle flags. From a Yantra manual written in gamboge ink on blackened mulberry paper, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or.15596, f. 9
The oral tradition of the Ramayana in Burma is believed to date as far back as the reign of King Anawrahta (1044-77), the founder of the first Burmese empire at Pagan. Documented in Ava by the end of the 13th century, the Rama story – known as Rama Zatdaw in Burmese – continued to be transmitted orally from generation to generation up till the 16th century. In the 18th century, the Ramayana had come to be regarded as a noble saga even among Buddhist monks. The story of Rama, based on the oral traditions of Old Pagan, may have been committed to writing between the 16th and the 18th centuries, in verse and prose as well as in dramatic form, but the first known written Burmese version of the Ramayana is Rama Thagyin (Songs from the Ramayana), compiled by U Aung Phyo in 1775.
Ravana (called Dathagiri in the Burmese tradition), the ten-headed demon king of Lanka (Thiho), sends Gambi in the form of a shwethamin (golden deer) to Sita (Thida) (top right). Sita persuades Rama to go and catch the golden deer for her (left), and so he leaves Sita under the protection of his brother Lakshmana (Letkhana), and goes after the golden deer (bottom right). British Library Or.14178, f.8
The popularity of the Ramayana in Burma reached its zenith in the first half of the 19th century, when the story of Rama was depicted in a continuous series of 347 stone relief sculptures at the pagoda of Maha Loka Marazein of Thakhuttanai built in 1849 during the reign of King Bagan (1846-1853), of the Konbaung Dynasty.
Thakin Min Mi, the Chief Queen of Singu Min 1776-1781, was a poet and writer who encouraged the performance of the Ramayana. The Rama play was performed on the stage in full splendour in the royal palace beginning with the reign of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). During the reign of Tharrawaddy Min (1837-1846) and his son Pagan Min (1847-1853) the Rama Zatdaw regained its popularity and became established as part of traditional court entertainment. In the 19th century stage performances and marionette performances of the drama of the Ramayana were presented in the palace by royal troupes of professional artists. During the reign of Mindon (1853-1878), the Rama Zatdaw was rarely performed in its entirety, with favourite episodes only usually being presented to please the court.
The king’s minister Myawady Mingyi U Sa converted the Ramayana Jataka into a typical Burmese classical drama, and he also composed theme music and songs for its performance. Ever since then, Ramayana performances have been very popular in Burmese culture, and Yama zat pwe (dramatic performances of the Rama story) marionette stage shows are often held. Scenes from the Ramayana can also be found as motifs or design elements in Burmese lacquerware and wood carvings. By the late 19th century, the Ramayana story was being printed in Burmese: an early example in the British Library is Pontaw Rama (Part 1) by Saya Ku, published in 1880 (14302.e.3/5).
Ravana returns to his own form of a horrible giant with ten fearful heads and twenty great arms and begs Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refuses, Ravana summons his magic chariot and sweeps Sita up and away, into the sky and over the forests (top). When Rama and Lakshmana finally find their way home Sita is gone (bottom). British Library, Or.14178, f.10
The images shown here are from a Burmese folding book manuscript or parabaik (Or. 14178) dating from around 1870, which has 16 pages with painted scenes of the Ramayana story with brief captions in Burmese. The paper covers are painted in red, yellow and green with floral borders and prancing lions. One cover has an inscription in black ink in Burmese, giving the title, Rama Zat, and a brief identification of the contents. The manuscript has been fully digitised and can be read here.
Indonesia and Malaysia
That the Ramayana was already well known in Java by the end of the ninth century is evident from the magnificent series of reliefs carved into the walls of the temples of Prambanan in central Java around 900 AD. However, the first literary version in Old Javanese, the Ramayana Kakawin, appears to date from a century later. It is based not directly on Valmiki’s Ramayana but on a later Indian poetical version, the so-called Bhattikavya, a Sanskrit poem written by Bhatti (6/7th century), which both tells the story and illustrates the rules of Sanskrit grammar. The first five cantos are a fairly exact translation, while the remainder is a much freer version.
With the spread of Islam across Java from the fifteenth century onwards, the strongly Indianised Old Javanese culture and traditions retreated eastwards to the island of Bali, which today remains the only majority Hindu region outside India. Nearly all Old Javanese literary compositions or kakawin survived only in Bali, although their stories continued to be known in Java through the shadow-puppet tradition. The late 18th-century renaissance of literature at the central Javanese courts of Surakarta and Yogyakarta saw the rewriting of the Ramayana Kakawin in modern Javanese. In Bali, the story of Rama still plays a central part in the religious and cultural life of the island, and in the twentieth century became a popular subject for illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts.
Two scenes from a Balinese palm leaf manuscript of the Ramayana, written and illustrated by Ida Bagus Adnyana of Geriya Gunung Sari, Pliatan, Bali, c. 1975. (Top) Sita sees the golden deer and urges Rama to catch it; (bottom) Ravana in the guise of an old hermit lures Sita out of the safety of her magic circle. British Library, Or.14022
The tradition of shadow-puppet theatre seems to have been in existence in Java for at least a thousand years, and the stories which are used in the wayang kulit shadow puppet theatre are taken from the Indian epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. While the characters and the plots remain basically Indian, the way the stories have been developed over the past 1000 years in the oral dramatic tradition reflects Javanese culture rather than Indian. The iconography of the shadow puppet theatre – with heads in profile, angular shoulders, slim torsos and pivoted limbs – has strongly influenced Javanese manuscript illustration.
In the Malay Muslim courts of the archipelago, literary traditions now transmitted using Arabic script continued to reflect deep-seated Hindu-Buddhist roots. The Malay version of the Ramayana, Hikayat Seri Rama, is believed to have been committed to writing between the 13th and 15th centuries. One of the oldest Malay manuscripts in this country – and probably the oldest known illuminated Malay manuscript – is a copy of the Hikayat Seri Rama now held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, which was in the possession of Archbishop Laud in 1635. The Malay version originated not from the classical Ramayana of Valmiki, but from popular oral versions widely spread over southern India.
As attested to in media ranging from the great 7th-century Ramayana stone pedestal in the Cham temple at Tra Kieu in Vietnam, to 20th-century performances of the Ceritera Seri Rama in the wayang Siam shadow puppet theatre of Kelantan and 21st-century Indonesian comics, the Ramayana has retained its position as a literary classic in Southeast Asia through the centuries.
(Published with permission from the British Library. Copyright @British Library Board)