Malaysian Ramayana

EducationWorld September 2021 | Books

Hikayat Seri Rama — The Malay Ramayana
Harry Aveling
Writers Workshop
Rs.900; Pages 287

Shekhar Sen (The Book Review)

The remarkable story of the Indianisation of South-east Asia is an instance of historical spontaneity. Hinduism and Buddhism travelled there with indomitable traders, adventurers and priests carrying along their religion and culture which the local populace accepted enthusiastically. What impressed them most was perhaps tales from the two Indian Sanskrit epics. These permeated their social customs, religion, literature, folklore, art, sculpture and architecture. In time, they had their own Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The Ramayana underwent changes here to include local stories, non-Valmiki lores which sailors, traders and travellers heard during their visits to Indian ports. Thus we have Rama Zadtaw/Rama Thagyin (Burma), Ramakien (Thailand), Reamkien/Ramakirti (Khmer), Pha Lak Pha Lam (Laos) along with Phra Ram Sadok (a Buddhist Jataka version), Ramayana Kakawin (Indonesia), Ramacavacha (Bali), Hikayat Seri Rama (Malaya), and Maharadia Lawana (Philippines).

As Hindu and Buddhist influence waned in South-east Asia, by the early 16th century its Islamisation was almost complete. Interestingly, though the dominant religion changed, cultural traditions did not, but minor changes were brought in: “…the text was written down for a Muslim court… which was still conservative enough to like the old tales of the Hindu period, provided they were presented in a form which Muslim pundits could condone”. The Ramayana was Islamised in Malaya and named Hikayat Seri Rama (HSR), meaning, ‘The Story of Sri Rama’.

The script was Arabic and Allah replaced the Hindu Triad and his Prophet was named Adam/Nabi who blessed Rawana. Sita asked Hanuman to pay his respects to the stone on which Nabi Adam landed on earth; the roots, leaves and bark of the tree planted by Nabi Adam were medicines to revive Rama; and Dasharatha was Nabi Adam’s great-grandson.

Of the two major versions of the book extant in South-east Asia, author Harry Aveling chose HSR the older one, “an edition of the Malay manuscript… presented in 1633 by William Laud to the Bodleian Library at Oxford”, edited by WG Shellabear and published in 1915.

HSR follows the Valmiki Ramayana mainframe but woven into the narrative are motifs which can be traced back to Indian non-Valmiki stories and local tales. Travelling through time and space, a lot of confusion involving the characters and incidents entered the narrative. Dasarata (HSR spelling) is still Rama’s father who marries Mandu-dari, not Kaushalya, finding her in a bamboo bush, has two sons from her, Rama and Laksamana, and two from Bali-dari (Kaikeyi), a concubine, Bardan (Bharata) and Chatardan (Shatrughna).

Since Rama is naughty, Dasarata, at Mandu-dari’s suggestion, gives the kingdom to Bardan. It is also a reward to Bali-dari for saving the royal couple from a fatal accident and relieving the King’s pain by sucking pus out of a boil. The Manthara-Kaikeyi conspiracy is absent. Mandu-dari is Maha Bisnu’s daughter. This provides Rama with a great ancestry: on one side he descends from Maha Bisnu and on the other from Nabi Adam.

Sita is Rama’s wife but also Dasarata’s daughter. Rawana, hearing of Mandu-dari’s beauty, asks Dasarata for her. Dasarata agrees. Mandu-dari dupes Rawana by creating a replica named Mandu-daki. Rawana goes back happily, insulting Maharishi Kasubarasa on the way: “Are you a man or a monkey?” Kasubarasa curses him, “You will die at the hands of men and monkeys.”

Dasarata, discovering the deception, goes to Langkapuri, impregnates Mandu-daki and returns. Rawana is unaware. Sita is born, therefore, as Rawana’s daughter. Bibasanam (Vibhishana) predicts that Sita will be the cause of Rawana’s ruin. So, Rawana throws her into the ocean in a jewel box which reaches Maharishi Kala (Janaka). Adopting her, he names her Sita.

This HSR story is inspired by Sanghadasa’s Vasudevahindi and the Adbhut Ramayana. In the Buddhist Dasaratha Jataka too she is Dasharatha’s daughter, accompanies her brothers to the forest and on return becomes the queen. Marrying a sister did not invite any social stigma. Valmiki does not tell this story.

In HSR, Hanuman is Rama’s son. Rama and Sita, tired, jump into an enchanted pond and become monkeys. Climbing a tree they make love. Laksamana forces them into another enchanted pond where they regain humanity. The nurse, Baya Bata, helps Sita spew a jewel from her mouth which Baya Bata (Pavana) flies away with and puts in the open mouth of Anjati Dewi (Anjana). She gives birth to Hanuman, an ape with a human head, ears adorned with earrings. This is a HSR original, not found elsewhere.

Sita plays an important role in Rawana’s death. This too is original. She reveals to Hanuman how Rawana can be killed: smite the small head ‘as big as a candle-nut’ behind his right ear and steal the enchanted sword from Mandu-daki. He will not die but will be unable to stand up. Doing so Rama then stabs him brutally with a sword after he falls. Still he does not die. HSR is silent about Rawana’s death.
In HSR, Rama neither returns to Ayodhya nor gives Langkapuri to Vibhishana. He himself rules at Langkapuri, gets everyone married and settled. Finally, he retires to a hermitage and spends forty years with Sita, Laksamana and Hanuman peacefully before dying. Sita is spared the ignominy of the second ordeal and her tragic departure with Madhavi as recounted in Valmiki’s version.

In HSR, the grand scale of Ramayana is lost, but it represents the popular form of the Rama saga. It has a plethora of interesting local stories and mixed-up non-Valmiki traditions knit tightly in these 287 pages, such as Rawana’s birth and ascesis; Rawana as peacemaker among his fighting relatives; Rama slaying great monsters and subduing four angry princes; the conflict between Maharishi Mahaganta and the rakshasa king Jaya Sang; Rama’s monkey army defeating Jaya Sang’s relatives; Hanuman’s amorous escapades (a total deviation from Indian tradition); Mula Matani’s battle; the Lakshman-rekha; Sita’s single son and how she acquires a second son; Badayasa’s battle (Bhashmalochana of Krittivas), etc.

For this first translation into English of the Hikayat Seri Rama, the world readership will be grateful to Aveling who has been acclaimed for his commitment to the international understanding of Malayan literature. It is a straight translation without any explanatory notes.

Writers Workshop has done an excellent job in producing this volume. Sturdily bound, well-printed, without noticeable printers’ devils, this book is worth possessing.

Also Read:Book Review of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

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