Quick guide to the Ramayana

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Background

The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit
epic which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife
Sita from the clutches of Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys.
It is traditionally attributed to the authorship of the sage Valmiki
and dated to around 500 BCE to 100 BCE.

Comprising 24,000 verses in seven cantos, the epic contains the
teachings of the very ancient Hindu sages. One of the most important
literary works of ancient India, it has greatly influenced art and
culture in the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia, with versions
of the story also appearing in the Buddhist canon from a very early
date. The story of Rama has constantly been retold in poetic and
dramatic versions by some of India’s greatest writers and also in
narrative sculptures on temple walls. It is one of the staples of
later dramatic traditions, re-enacted in dance-dramas, village theatre,
shadow-puppet theatre and the annual Ram-lila (Rama-play).

Origins

The original five books of an oral epic of local northern significance
dealing with a hero and his exile, the abduction of his wife by
a rival king and her rescue became conflated into seven books in
which the hero Rama became an avatar of the god Vishnu, the scene
shifted to encompass the whole of India, and the struggle to recover
his wife became a metaphor for the final triumph of the righteous.

A brief summary of the Ramayana

Sita

Rama, prince of Ayodhya, won the hand of the beautiful
princess Sita (seen here), but was exiled with her and
his brother Laksmana for 14 years through the plotting of his stepmother.
In the forest Sita was abducted by Ravana, and Rama gathered an
army of monkeys and bears to search for her. The allies attacked
Lanka, killed Ravana, and rescued Sita. In order to prove her chastity,
Sita entered fire, but was vindicated by the gods and restored to
her husband. After the couple’s triumphant return to Ayodhya, Rama’s
righteous rule (Ram-raj) inaugurated a golden age for all
mankind.

Characters of the Ramayana

Rama is the hero of the Ramayana
epic, an incarnation of the God Vishnu. The eldest and favourite
son of Dasaratha, King of Ayodhya, he is a virtuous prince and is
much loved by the people. He is exiled from Ayodhya due to the plotting
of his stepmother, Kaikeyi.

Sita is Rama’s wife and daughter of King Janaka
of Mithila. Sita is the epitome of womanly purity and virtue.

Lakshmana with bow

Laksmana (seen here) is Rama’s younger brother.
Completely loyal to Rama, he chooses to go with Rama and Sita when
they are exiled from Ayodhya.

Ravana is the king of Lanka and has 10 heads and
20 arms. He received a boon from the God Brahma that he cannot be
killed by gods, demons or by spirits, after performing a severe
penance for 10,000 years. After receiving his reward from Brahma,
Ravana began to lay waste to the earth and disturbed the deeds of
the good Hindu sages. Vishnu incarnates as the human Rama to defeat
him, assisted by an army of monkeys and bears, thus circumventing
the boon given by Brahma.

Dasaratha is the King of Ayodhya, Rama’s father.

Kausalya is Rama’s mother, Dasaratha’s chief wife.

Kaikeyi is Dasaratha’s wife and Rama’s stepmother.
She demands that Rama be banished to the forest and that her son
Bharata be awarded the kingdom instead.

Bharata is the second son of Dasaratha. When he
learns that his mother Kaikeyi had forced Rama into exile, causing
Dasaratha to die broken hearted, he storms out of the palace and
goes in search of Rama. When Rama refuses to return from his exile
to assume the throne, Bharata obtains Rama’s sandals and places
them on the throne as a gesture that Rama is the true king.

Sumitra is Dasharatha’s wife and mother of the
twins Lakshmana and Satrughna.

Hanuman is the wise and resourceful monkey who
helps Rama in his quest to defeat Ravana and rescue Sita.

Sugriva is the ruler of the monkey kingdom. His
throne was taken by his brother Bali, but Rama helps him to defeat
the usurper in return for his assistance in finding Sita.

The importance of the Ramayana in Indian culture

The epic’s poetic stature and marvellous story means that the story
of Rama has been constantly retold by some of India’s greatest writers
both in Sanskrit and regional languages. It is one of the staples
of various dramatic traditions, in court drama, dance-dramas, and
in shadow-puppet theatres. In northern India, the annual Ram-lila
or ‘Rama-play’ is performed at the autumn festival of Dassehra
to celebrate with Rama and Sita the eventual triumph of light over
darkness.

A hugely popular television series, ‘Ramayan’, was aired in India
1987-1988, drawing over 100 million viewers to become ‘the world’s
most viewed mythological serial’. Dubbed ‘Ramayan’ fever by India
Today
magazine, it was reported that India came to a virtual
standstill as so many people who could gain access to a television
stopped whatever they were doing to watch the small screen adventures
of Rama. From January 2008, a new big-budget primetime series of
the Ramayana has been appearing on television
screens across India.

The Ramayana manuscripts of Jagat Singh of Mewar

Rama was of a royal race descended from the Sun, and Rajput clans
of the Solar dynasty, among them the rulers of Mewar or Udaipur,
claimed Rama as their ancestor, making the Ramayana
something of a family history.

The Ramayana manuscripts commissioned
by Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar (1628-52) are among the most important
documents of 17th-century Indian painting. Unlike most other Ramayana
manuscripts, they have not been dispersed as individual paintings
into various collections but remain largely intact. The huge scale
of the project (with originally over 400 paintings) allowed the
artists to focus on telling an epic story on the grandest scale.

The seven books of the Ramayana are illustrated
in three different styles of Mewar painting, including two books
by Sahib Din, the greatest Mewar artist of the 17th century. Four
of the seven books and part of a fifth are in the British Library.
The two remaining books are still in India.

The British Library’s four volumes were given by Rana Bhim Singh
of Mewar to Col. James Tod, the historian of the Rajputs, who brought
them back to London in 1823. Bhim Singh also gave Tod a separate
manuscript of the first book of the Ramayana
dated 1712. They were all acquired by the British Museum in
1844, and from there came to the British Library.

How to read a Rajput painting

Image selected from a magnificent manuscript of the Ramayana produced in Udaipur, India, in 1653 (British Library Add. MS 15296(1), f.114r)

Buy the print

The Ramayana manuscripts commissioned
by Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar (1628-1652) were illustrated on the
grandest scale so that no episode or detail of importance was omitted.
This necessitated the revival of the ancient narrative method of
simultaneous narration used in both sculpture and painting. In European
or Islamic illustration, each picture usually concentrates on depicting
a single episode of the story – but in the Indian method, each picture
might capture several episodes in the story so that the characters
appear more than once in the same picture.

In the example shown above, reading anti-clockwise, we can follow Rama, Bharata and Satrughna from the top of the hill, down to the river (in the lower right corner) and back up again to where they sit outside the hut.

You can find out more in our Online
Gallery: Sacred texts
showcase.

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