Maharishi Valmiki’s Ramayan is a much-loved tale of good triumphing over evil, the world over. Valmiki Ramayan is recognised as the original but over 300 Ramayan versions are known to exist, especially in South East Asia, when around the 12th and 13th centuries, the region received and imbibed many of the cultural traits, along with goods and services, travelling from Bharatiya shores.
The Ramayan adaptations have influenced their folklore and culture beliefs, changed plots, character traits, attire, choice of weaponry, and locations, and in turn offer an array of refreshing perspectives on the original version.
Many of the versions may not ascribe to certain values in the original Ramayan but different versions and interpretations are found in Bharatiya versions of Ramayan as well. For example, some different characters are found in Jain texts. Such texts seem to have influenced Ramayan versions outside Bharat. Ram is depicted and considered as a respectable figure in the Buddhist version in South Asian countries. The Buddhist version of Ramayan is called `Dasarata Jataka’. We find two versions here. Firstly, Dashratha sent Ram, Sita and Laxman to live in the forest to protect them from his third ambitious wife. The second version does not have the abduction of Sita. The fact is that both versions got immense popularity and gained social acceptance. It is seen that Ramayan was even used by the rulers to legitimise their kingship. Eleventh century Burmese stone is found, with inscription in Mon language. The inscription describes King Kyanzittha, who belonged to the Bagan dynasty, as Ram’s close relative. In several countries like Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, Hindutva had a large following before Buddhis entered in these regions. Orissa and Tamil sea merchants were responsible for the proliferation of Bharatiya culture to Southeast Asia, when they would undertake an annual voyage, and along with the goods exchanged stories. In some Southeast Asian versions, Hanuman is depicted as someone playing mind games, who charms and outwits especially the female characters. Despite having multiple versions, Ram continues to be a dominant character in these countries.
The Cambodian Ramayan is known as Reamker (Ramakerti–Ram+Kirti/glory), a text of Khmer literature, which takes from both Hindutva and Buddhism to demonstrate the balance of good and evil. In Cambodia, Ram is known as Phreah Ream and Sita, Neang Seda. A corridor with carved episodes on Ramayan is seen in 12th century Angkor Wat ruins. Some murals are also noticed on the walls of Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Interestingly, Hanuman is shown expanding his body between Bharat and Sri Lanka so that Ram’s army could cross the sea.
The monarchs of Thailand, erstwhile Siam, used to call themselves as descendants of Ram. Their names had Ram either as a prefix or suffix. Its capital city was Ayutthaya, which sounds similar to Ayodhya. In the 18th century, Burmese soldiers invaded Ayutthaya and the name was changed to Rama I, this happened despite him being a practicing Buddhist. Later, he wrote the Thai version of Ramayan, which is known as Ramakien and it is still considered as a national epic.
Myanmar (Burma) has a national epic, known as Yamayana; Yama or Zatdaw was introduced during King Anawratha’s reign in the 11th century CE. This version calls Ram as Yama and Sita as Thida. Ravana is called Yawana. Ram is portrayed as a Bodhisattva. The narrative is mostly the same as Valmiki’s Ramayan, except for localised names of places and characters.
In Laos, the national epic is Phra Lak Phra Ram. Lao devotees believed that their ruler King Lava was Ram’s son. They believe that Lava gave Laos its name. This is viewed as a Jataka story. Malay version of Ramayan – Hikayat Seri Rama – is very similar to the original Sanskrit text. But the central character in Malaysia is Laxman and not Ram.
Spread and versions of Ramayan in Southeast countries can be understood by the fact that every island has different versions….
In Bali, it is Ramakavaca, in Java its Kakawin or Yogesvara Ramayan, and in Sumatra it is Ramayan Swarnadwipa. In the latter version, Tamawaka (Ram) rescues Himegini (Sita), from Baramon (Ravan). The Javanese Kakawin is a Sanskrit-metre-poetry composed during the Medang kingdom era. In some Indonesian versions, Sita is shown as a fierce lady, who fought against Asuras on her own. In the Maranao version of the Philippines, which is called as Maharadia Lawana, a completely new version is seen, in which adventures of monkeys can be seen. Deep influence of Ramayan on Southeast countries continues even today. The opening ceremony of the 2017 ASEAN summit involved a staging of the musical version of Ramayan.
In China, few parts picked up orthodox and ethical values noted in the Bharatiya epic. Jataka Katha of Ram are popular with the Chinese. China has also a Buddhist text Liudu ji jing. This is an elaborate account of the Ramayan, while in Sun Wukong, Hanuman finds some representation in the form of a monkey-king.
Japan has two versions namely, Hobutsushu and Sambo-Ekotoba. Hanuman has a diminutive role in another adaptation titled, Ramaenna or Ramaensho, and in the Bontenkoku version, Tamawaka (Ram), a flute player rescues his wife Himegini (Sita) from King Baramon (Ravan).
In Nepal, Mahakavi Siddhidas Mahaju Amatya wrote Siddhi Ramayan in the Nepal Bhasha. There’s also Bhanubhakta Acharya’s Bhanubhaktako Ramayan in Khas language. However, the revelry of Dussehra called Dasain or Mohini in Nepal is more about the Goddess Durga, than Ram’s triumph over Ravan.