AK Ramanujan’s 300 Ramayanas come to mind when one reads the book ‘Ramayana -Footprints in South East Asian culture and Heritage’. Author Anita Bose has spent five years in Thailand immersing herself in the cultural tradition of Ramayana or as it called Ramakien in Thailand, Kakawin in Indonesia, Hikayat Seri Rama in Maharadia Lawana in Phillipines ,Phra Lak Phra Lam in Laos, Reamker in Cambodia and Thiri Rama in Myanmar. In a book numbering not more than 170 pages she has lucidly documented the cultural traditions of the S E Asia, traditions that draw their sustenance from Ramayana.
Ramayana is alive here, a testament to the universal appeal of the epic and the attraction of Indian culture in the region that began with trade and later expanded into a rich cultural exchange. The business interactions were not limited to trade and commerce and in due course of time it gradually influenced all aspects of life-culture, religion, politics, literature, customs and beliefs.
Anita Bose moved to Thailand when her husband was posted there and it was an opportunity to take further her earlier work on Pattachita. She says she was destined to write about another Vishnu incarnate – Sri Rama and credits this work to the grace of Ma Sharada and the blessings of swamis of Rama Krishna Mission
In this interview with CSP she talks about her love of the ithihasa and Sri Rama
What triggered your interest in Ramayana in SE Asia?
My husband was transferred to Bangkok in 2014 , before which I had completed three beautiful courses: Appreciation of Indian Art , Indology and Ramakrishna Vivekananda Movement from Golpark Ramakrishna Mission Institute Of Culture, Kolkata.These courses had enhanced my understanding of our and I started working as independent researcher. I did my first research on Odisha Patachitrain related to Jagannath Dev. When we reached Bangkok, I was a little unsure about what I would do. Soon, I found myself involved with the National Museum Bangkok, Siam Society, Seameo SPAFA and few more organizations. And that is how the journey started.
Rama idol in front of Budhaiswan Chapel, in National Museum Bangkok
I saw that Rama was everywhere in Thailand. I joined as a volunteer at the National Museum and did a guiding course from Bangkok NMV. I can say, this course opened a flood gate of knowledge about South East Asian culture and heritage. With my earlier education on Bharatiya heritage, I could easily connect the historical and cultural links between India and Asia very well.
Reading your book one gets the feeling that…there is not one Ramayana. Each country of the region has its own. How far have different countries of the region adapted Ramayana and which version of Ramayana from India has made a greater impact in this region?
Well, Yes! Every South East Asian country has a different Ramayana. Mostly they are derived from Valmiki’s Ramayana, Kirtibasi Ramayana, Kombo Ramayana and Tulsidas’ Ramayana.
Adaptations always change few things; localisation is an obvious part of that adaptation. So, while in someplaces Lakshman is more powerful than Rama, in some other place Hanuman is a very attractive playboy-like character, while in yet another version it may be shown that Sita is daughter of Ravana, etc. Another important thing is that most versions of ASEAN Ramayana don’t end their version with the saddest part of Sita’s Patal Probesh. Mostly they end the drama after Agni Poriksha and they live a nice life together. Their libraries are full of different Ramayana versions.
How is Sri Rama regarded in SE Asia?
Sri Rama is a symbol of identity for Indonesian people, he is symbol of Thai Kings till date, he is symbol of life in most ASEAN countries.
Sri Rama is treated as king, as hero and as an avatar of Vishnu. He is considered to be the ideal king because of his benevolence. I believe that Southeast Asian countries took the inner philosophy of Bhartiya belief from Ramayana more than its literal meaning. In Cambodia, Sri Rama is treated as a chivalrous human being of superior nature but not exactly as a God.
What was the reason for the popularity of Ramayana in this region, a tale from a land across the seas?
What I feel, from my last six years stay in Thailand, is that humanity always needs a benevolent character as well as a father figure who can stand for the truth, who can fight for his love, who can treated common mass with respect and love and who will pay attention to his people. We should remember Southeast Asia has a great culture of Vishnu and Shiva worship. They worship Rama as an incarnation form of Vishnu. There is a popular idea and iconography of ASEAN countries called the Devaraja concept – the King and God. Vishnu is symbol of the king and Shiva is a symbol of Godly consciousness. They believe Sri Rama is a Devaraja too.
What was the role of royalty in adopting and sustaining the Ramayana?
First, Ramayana is not a ‘myth’ for them. That’s why all the royals of Thailand, Cambodia, Laoshave taken the name Rama or Ramakhamyang.
Secondly, Ramayana is a way of life for them. Ramayana is a symbol of most auspicious cultural events. Although, they may not worship Rama daily yet for special events and in times of crisis they will arrange for Ramayana plays. They arrange Ramayana plays from cremation to coronation, from wedding to crisises of life. Southeast Asia depends on Ramayana greatly.
Apart from all this, Ramayana has shaped the cultural landscape of the region.It is the source for all cultural activities in South East Asia; drama, literature, dance, painting, sculpture, leather puppet, wooden dolls, souvenirs and so on.
Do you remember your first experience of encountering Ramayana in SE Asia? What resonated most?
Ah that’s a great memory. My first memory is of the huge Sri Rama idol inside the national museum Bangkok - a 5 ft Bronze idol of beautiful Rama. While the second memory is from the Siam Society Library, a whole section of books on the Ramayana of different countries. These two incidents have influenced me lot. The most vivid recollection is of standing in the mural gallery at the Grand Palace in Bangkok enjoying the visual depiction of the various episodes from Ramayana and feeling exceedingly proud of my origin, my land and my Ramayana.
In addition, I have received a lot of support and respect from scholars, archaeologists, historians and Libraries in the region for which I am extremely grateful.
Which are the countries which have kept alive the tradition of Ramayana?
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia are closer to the Ramayana. As the great poet Rabindra Nath Tagore said, “Rama- Lakshmana-Sita are like their family members.”
Khon dance and Wang Li (shadow puppetry) are enacted in Thailand every day. In my stay of five years in Thailand I could never get the ticket for the performance in China Town!
The WayangKulit (Shadow dance of puppets) in Indonesia has influenced similar forms in rest of the region. I remember a performance of Ramayana in which many of the key characters were played by Muslims. The ballet artists performing at Prambanam temple in Java are Muslims, their religious beliefs have never come in the way of their cultural upbringing.
In war devastated Laoswe, one can find Ramayana in the architecture of temples and sculptures at monasteries in the form of wooden carvings and mural paintings
In Cambodia apart from the temple at Angkor vat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, and many walls of the temples are adorned with carved friezes exquisitely depicting the scenes from the Ramayana.
Bali and Sugreev fighting, Cambodia
Personally, I feel Thailand has a rich syncretic culture. In a Buddhist country the Monarch was always named after Sri Rama. When the reigning monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama1x passed away in 2016 the stadium in Bangkok was created in the image of Puranic Swarga, the golden chariot bore his body to the pyre to be cremated to merge with Maha Vishnu. In which part of the world do we get to witness something like this?
How far has the traditions of enacting Ramayana survived in non-Hindu countries of SE Asia?
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma are Buddhist countries, which have been enacting Ramayana with great popularity. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country, yet they have a very pure love and passion for Ramayana. Philippines is a Christian country, but they also perform Ramayana regularly. Only Malaysia has changed. It is indeed strange because earlier many generous and accomplished Sultans liberally acknowledged the teachings of the Vedas and Ramayana and Mahabharata as a part of their cultural heritage. These traditions were not lost even after the colonial rule. Things changed after the legislation of 1971 that discontinued Ramayana, Mahabharata and non-Islamic books were discontinued by the military regime.
How is the tradition of Ramayana kept alive in present times?
The tradition is kept alive mostly through performing arts, studies. Thai people greet each other by saying SawadiKha, in Bali people say Su Asti to greet one another (both derived from the Sanskrit word Swasti meaning well- being), DirghaAyu Indonesia (Long Live Indonesia) is the collective invocation. From their school curriculums, administrative policies and festivals, the Royalty has patronised Ramayana and various allied art forms in a very big way. I would like to mention the role of Queen Preah Hahaksatriyani Sisowath Kossamak in reviving the famous dance form of Cambodia. In the 1970’s most of the Khmer artists lost their lives or freedom under the brutal communist regime of Pol Pot. Under her guidance the royal court revived the almost extinct dance form and it is today protected by UNESCO, French Protectorate and the Royal University of Fine arts together.
Likewise, in Thailand the kings invested their energies in perpetuating the traditions of Ramayana.The famous murals 178 in number at the Grand Place in Bangkok sections are a painted homage to the sacred Ramayana, where the students of Arts College frequently visit either to learn or to restore the artwork.
Ramakien is a taught in all Thai Government schools. Under the patronage of the Ministry of Culture and as per royal instructions Ramakien is practiced all over the country even in these times.
In this region patronage from the royalty, support from the government and institutions has gone a long way in nurturing these art forms. Thailand’s Ministry of Culture, Indonesia’s Government of Art and Culture Department have put in great efforts to kept it alive. Same can be said for Cambodia and Laos too.
I feel Indians should change our thoughts and attitude regarding our culture and heritage. We must feel proud of our rich legacy and make it a part of our lives. We must teach our children about the values enshrined in Ramayana
How many more miles do you have to cover still in S E Asia?
I feel I have to travel much more. There are so many historical linkages which are yet to be discovered in ASEAN countries. Plenty of information about eternal Hindu civilization is scattered all over Southeast Asia. I would love to research more. I will be giving more time to Cambodia because recent scientific explorations have revealed traces of an advanced civilization beneath the temple of Angkor Wat which was bigger than the city of London!
How did the journey of unravelling strands of Ramayana in SE Asia impact you? Did you start seeing Ramayana differently?
It has changed my life immensely. I can relate with the sentiments of Mr Suniti Chattopadhyay when he says after visiting the temples of Java, that he was on a quest to discover my country in them. I found my Bharat which was the dream of Swami Vivekananda. I am starting to see my country in a differently - with more love and more respect than before and also with a great sense of pride that I belong to such a land that shaped the civilization of a region thousands of miles away and became a part of theirs to the extent that locals trace every event of Ramayana in their own region!
I am an artist also, a self-trained one. My stay in Thailand greatly influenced the expression in my paintings. I feel the paintings show a state of mind at great peace and quiet.
What are you currently working on?
I am presently working on the second part of my book– Ramayana’s influence in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and South Korea. In addition, I am also working on a piece on Ma Durga – A journey of Vedic mother goddess to Nana/Anahita, and few more Indian heritage connections through painting and travel.
From February 15, I am embarking on a journey with my friends from National Museum Thailand. This is a quest which will explore the connection between SE Asia and Bengal and Odisha.
To end I will quote Sri RamakrishnaParamhamsa without whose blessing this exploration would not have been possible, “Whichever way you go, you will reach the same place.” I humbly bow before Lord Rama.
(Ramayana – Footprints In South East Asian Culture And Heritage Published by BEE Books Kolkata)