The Ramayana: An introduction
The Ramayana is one of the most well-known stories in the world, but many people in the United States have never heard about it, or know only small bits of the plot. The epic is widely known and loved in South and Southeast Asia. There it is considered first as an exciting adventure tale about a banished prince who wanders for years in the wilderness separated from his beloved wife. In this way it is comparable to the Odyssey tale of ancient Greece, which continues to entrance the Euro-American world. (India’s other great ancient epic, the Mahabharata, is a battle tale compared in turn with Homer’s Iliad.)
Both scripture and literature
As with the Greek epics written by Homer, the Ramayana is considered to be a fictional account based on real historical events, specifically the expansion of Aryan groups from what is now northern India, and their battles with more southern Dravidian groups centered in the island now called Sri Lanka.
The Ramayana also has significance for many as a religious scripture whose performance conveys blessings and profound lessons about how a person should live with a faithful and noble heart. Prince Rama, the main character, is understood to be an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. The name “Rama” is used as a chant and prayer in many Hindu regions. Some Southeast Asian Buddhists think of Rama as the Buddha in a previous life, when he was incarnated as a Southeast Asian prince. One of their ancient kingdom capitals, Ayudhya, was named after the mythical kingdom of Rama.
More than good vs. evil
In simple outline, the Ramayana story pits good against evil, with good usually championed by humans and monkeys (who are sometimes incarnated gods), while evil is the work of demons and giant ogres. As in ancient Greek myths, the actual events complicate these generalities. Rama and the epic’s other heroes sometimes make morally questionable decisions, and the faithful action of one character often creates unexpected misfortunes for another. By contrast, the demon king Ravana and other demons sometimes show emotions that evoke sympathy and seem very human.
An exiled prince; a kidnapped princess
To summarize the Ramayana story briefly, Prince Rama is exiled from his rightful kingdom of Ayudhya for fourteen years because of a conspiracy by one of the elderly king’s wives, who arranges that her own son will rule in place of Rama.
Rama’s beautiful and perfect wife Sita, and his faithful younger brother Laksman, accompany Rama to exile. In the forest, Sita is abducted by a demon king named Ravana (called Tosakan in Thailand) who is overwhelmed by her beauty. Ravana takes Sita to his demon kingdom, the island of Lanka.
Battles between good and evil
Rama and Laksman are aided in their attempted rescue of Sita by many powerful creatures and deities including the eagle king Sadayu, the bird deity Garuda, and the monkey demi-god Hanuman. After many trials, arduous battles, false leads, and demon tricks, Sita is saved and the royal couple return triumphantly to rule Ayudhya.
A wife proves her purity; a family reunited
There is more trouble ahead, however. After the many years of separation, Rama doubts Sita’s faithfulness and puts her through an ordeal of fire to prove her purity. As the Hindu gods witness from above, Sita passes all tests, including a later misguided effort by the mistakenly jealous Rama to kill Sita when she is pregnant.
The gods repeatedly prevent disaster by protecting Sita and her son who hide in the forest with a wise hermit. The hermit even creates a second twin son when the first one is temporarily lost. In the Thai version, Rama encounters his two sons in the forest and asks Sita to return to him. The gods say that Rama and Sita were sent to this world to create harmony, so there will never be peace on earth until the royal couple rectify their marriage. Ultimately, the whole family is reunited as the righteous rulers of the kingdom of Ayudhya.
History, versions, and cultural impact
The most widely known version of the Ramayana is thought to have been composed over 2,000 years ago by an Indian poet named Valmiki who lived in roughly the fifth century BCE. Valmiki reportedly combined two sets of South Asian legends, northern Aryan tales about Rama, the prince of Ayudhya, and southern Dravidian tales about demons with supernatural powers. Oral versions of the Ramayana circulated in the Sanskrit language for centuries before they were written down by Valmiki and other writers.
Spread throughout Southeast Asia
Both Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana and other versions spread beyond India into Southeast Asia through maritime trade during the first millennium CE. Many Southeast Asians do not even know that the Ramayana was conceived and written in India. They assume it is a story created by their own ancestors, or given to their ancestors from the gods. In Thailand (formerly Siam), they call the epic the Ramakian and change the names of some of the characters.
Ramayana scenes are carved into ancient Hindu temple walls throughout both Indonesia and Cambodia. In several areas of Indonesia, versions of the Ramayana still are performed in live dances and in puppet theater, and the epic also is used as the basis for contemporary fiction and drama. Thus, despite its antiquity, the Ramayana’s complex plot and characters still hold great relevance for contemporary Southeast Asian arts and artists.
The Ramayana in Thailand
The king as god
Many early Southeast Asian Hindu kings identified themselves as Rama, and therefore as incarnations of the god Vishnu. All the Theravada Buddhist kings of the Chakri dynasty of Thailand take the name Rama. The currently reigning King Bhumibol of Thailand is known as Rama IX.
The Tai, the majority ethnic group of contemporary Thailand, were a late ascending group in Southeast Asia.1 The Tai people may have migrated south from China as early as the seventh century A.D., but they did not become a formidable power in Southeast Asia until the late 1200s. They adopted Theravada Buddhism first from neighboring Mon and Burman peoples.
The Tais’ greatest blueprint for imperial rule, however, came from the Khmer kingdom of Angkor, which they attacked and plundered in 1431. Tai peoples today live not only in Thailand, but also in Laos, Burma, northern Vietnam, and the Yunnan area of China.
Kings rewrite the epic
Some Siamese versions of the Ramayana (or Ramakian) were lost when the Burmese sacked the royal Siamese city of Ayudhya in 1767. A new version was created between 1797 and 1807 under the supervision of King Rama I, the founder of the Chakri dynasty.
A variety of styles and influences
Rama I’s version of the Ramayana is painted on over a mile of wall murals in the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok. This version shows all the characters and architecture of Rama’s world as if they were set in Siam. In addition to their knowledge of Siamese palace life and the Indian epic Ramayana, these murals also suggest the artists’ familiarity with Chinese styles of landscape painting.
The original mural paintings in the Emerald Buddha Temple galleries are two hundred years old, but scenes are repainted as needed under the supervision of the Thai royal family. This is why some images look precise and newly painted while others illustrate older painting styles or obvious deterioration. If you look at many of the images carefully, you can begin to recognize distinct styles from different artists and periods.
A later version of the Ramayana was created by Rama I’s son, Rama II, specifically for Siam’s classical dance dramas called Khon. In that version, the role of the athletic monkey god Hanuman, favored by Thais, is much expanded. In all the Thai and Indonesian versions, the clothes, tools, scenery, architectures, and even cultural emotions of the characters are revised to suit the expectations of Southeast Asian audiences.
Learn more about Ayudhya, Emerald Buddha Temple, Hinduism, Laksman, Rama, Ramakian, Ravana, Siam, Sita, Southeast Asia, Thai, Thailand, Tosakan, Valmiki, art, characters, epics, murals, mythology, and plot.