Images of the Ramakien from the Royal Palace in Bangkok.
It’s been a long time since I read the entire translation of the original Ramayana, but I recognized it everywhere in my travels across Southeast Asia. I cannot overstate the importance of this 2500-year-old Sanskrit epic to the region. Indian culture was thoroughly embedded before Arabic traders and Buddhist monks traveled here and layered their teachings over those of this ancient Hindu epic. The Ramayana is in everything that can be considered part of a culture: It is danced, sung, taught in monasteries and schools, acted by people and shadow puppets, dyed into clothes, painted on everyday ceramics, woven into scarves, and carved into temple walls.
The Story of the Ramayana, Briefly
The story begins with the gods deciding they’ve had enough of the rampaging demon king, Ravanna, but Ravanna can only be killed by a mortal human. Vishnu volunteers to kill the demon by being reborn as a human avatar, Rama. Rama grows up as crown prince of an earthly king, and wins the princess Sita—an avatar of Lakshmi, Vishnu’s wife—in a spectacular show of archery prowess. They love each other happily until one day, the king’s third wife demands he put her own son on the throne and exile Rama to the forest. None of Rama’s brothers support the king’s ruling, but Rama goes obediently, and Sita follows despite his urging her not to. Sita catches the attention of Ravanna, who kidnaps her and takes her off to his kingdom, Lanka. Rama searches all over for her, gaining allies along the way, including the beloved Hanuman, a divine monkey king. Hanuman finds Sita as Ravanna threatens to kill her if she doesn’t marry him. She gives the demon the brush-off, and Hanuman saves her from suicide. He tells her to hang on, that Rama and his army will soon rescue her.
Spoiler Alert – if you don’t want to know what happens skip this paragraph. [can a 2500-year-old epic be spoiled? - ed.] In the ensuing fantastical battles, Rama fulfills his destiny to kill Ravanna. Rama and Sita return home where Rama, his years of exile over, claims the throne. But their happy life doesn’t last long. Rama’s subjects suspect Sita of not being “pure.” She undergoes a fire purification ritual that publicly proves her loyalty, but ultimately Rama must drive her out. She lives in a hermitage, gives birth to twins, and, really, they are never reunited or happy again. Despite Rama’s perfection of kingly virtues, Hanuman’s testimony, and Sita’s divine evidence, public opinion dooms their happiness. What a strangely current problem for public figures to have!
Divergent Versions and Cultural Pride
Dozens of divergent versions of the Ramayana exist, and people have very strong opinions about them. Each cultural region of Southeast Asia has a least one variant. The Thai version, called Ramakien, was written down in the late 1700s after a great Thai military victory, during the reign of a king who adopted the name Rama I. Online arguments viewed by tens of thousands debate the merits of the Indian original versus the Thai version. Defenders say the Thai is more fun, more of a fantastical story and less an in-your-face allegory of role models. In the Thai version, the monkey Hanuman is a charming rake who can get distracted seducing women as he tries to find Sita for Rama. Defenders of the Indian version say the Thai version is too dark (Rama has much stronger doubts about Sita’s fidelity) and, basically, why change what is perfect?
Malaysia and Indonesia are officially Muslim countries, but the epic remains of enormous importance, a part of the fabric of daily life. A favorite topic of Indonesian wayangs (puppet shows) are Ramayana scenes. These shows can be viewed from the front side with candlelight illuminating the puppets as shadows, or from the back so you can watch the puppeteer using the beautiful puppets.
Despite that I knew all this before going to Laos, I was quite surprised to learn that the Lao version, Phra Lak Phra Ram, is taught as a jataka. Jatakas are past lives of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, in which he is reborn to perfect all the virtues necessary before he can become a buddha. Holding out Rama as a past incarnation of the Buddha makes the story a completely Buddhist epic. There is no hard and fast a barrier between Buddhism and Hinduism in Southeast Asia as Western eyes might expect. Both were integral to the culture of the Khmer, for example, and Angkor Wat was both Hindu and Buddhist at different times.
In fact, Phra Lak Phra Ram is so important to the Lao that scenes from the epic ring its national monument, Patuxai, finished around 1968. The monument commemorates the Lao victory over the French, but takes a form similar to the French Arc de Triomphe. Note the odd juxtaposition of French and Lao architecture. Wisely, the Lao used concrete donated by the USA and built this monument instead of the airfield the Americans had designated. The last thing the Lao needed was to be more accessible by the US military. The monument thumbs its nose at Western colonial powers, twice.
You can walk up to the top and get a grand view of Vientiane, but be sure to notice that ringing the ceiling inside the monument are scenes from the Phra Lak Phra Ram. You can identify Hanuman by his monkey feet.
You Should Read it.
If you plan to visit the region, you really should take the time to read a version before you go. First, because it’s one the greatest and most influential epics of all time, and it is much more culturally relevant to the present day than The Iliad or The Odyssey are to modern Western society. Billions of people grew up watching it as a dance or play that could last for days or weeks, making shadow puppets of its heroes and heroines, and worshipping in temples decorated with its scenes carved or painted on walls. You will walk the overcrowded halls of Angkor stunned by the artistry of the reliefs showing wild battles between multi-headed Ravanna with his demons and Rama with his monkey army. You’ll go to rural markets and buy batik designs of Rama and Sita flying together on a new sarong. You’ll sit for hours watching the Royal Lao Ballet perform just one scene of their Phra Lak Phra Ram.
Second, the Ramayana’s themes are timeless and universally appealing. It is a tale of multi-generational divine vengeance, but at the heart of the tale is Rama and Sita’s love story. (And they are betrayed by, yes, an evil stepmother—stepmothers can’t catch a break in any culture, it seems.) Most of all, it is an allegory that teaches people how to behave in their roles as son, wife, husband, brother, servant, king, and mother.
Lastly, you should read it because if you read this blog, you’re a lover of science fiction and fantasy, and this is a gripping tale lengthy enough to keep devourers of fantasy tomes satisfied for days! Come on, we’ve got talking, rakish monkeys; a heroic prince who wins his beloved in an archery contest, by breaking the unbendable bow; that evil stepmother, wicked servants, seductresses, greedy kings, crazy cranky hermits, and multiheaded demons; and a classic hero’s journey, as Rama perfects his virtues to become worthy to claim the throne at last. What’s not to love?