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'Ramayana' in Northeast India- Dr. Prasanna Chakraborty

'Ramayana' in Northeast India


Dr. Prasanna Chakraborty

 

Written in Sanskrit, Maharishi Valmiki’s Ramayana is the original one wherein we find how Sri Rama became victorious in the battle against the 10-headed Ravana, the king of Lanka. The epic narrates how good prevails over evil. Over 300 versions of the Ramayana are found with most of these in Southeast Asia. In these versions of the Ramayana, folklore and cultural beliefs have been implanted by the authors of their own over the years, changing the plots, the characters, the dress and weaponry of the characters. The locations too have been changed. This, in turn, offers a display of refreshing perceptions of the original treatise. In many of these versions, the readers don’t find the Brahmanical values found in the Valmiki Ramayana prevalent among the upper caste Hindus. Even in India, versions of the Ramayana are many, where new characters are introduced or the old ones are remodelled. Interestingly, the more the Ramayana spread its influence on other cultures, creeds and religions, the more its events and characters with their dress, weaponry and world-views are modified.


In Northeast India, the Ramayana has several versions as per the mythologies and cultural beliefs of the people of this region. The poets of this region gave these mythical characters like Rama and Lakshmana an exceptionally new dimension unlike that of the Valmiki Ramayana.


The Mizos, even after their conversion to Christianity, also have folk stories inveigled by the Rama legend. They believe Sri Ram and Khena (Lakshman) guided them in cultivating paddy. Ram Katha is narrated in Manipur through Wari-leeba (traditional story-telling), Pena-sakpa (ballad singing), Khongjom Parva (narrative singing accompanied by Dholak) and Jatra (folk-theatre) styles. Interestingly, Buddhism became a main source of Ramayana tradition among the East, South, Southeast Asian and North-east Indian communities.


Referring to the Ramayana tradition, Ms Ankita Dutta, an alumnus of JNU says that there are a variety of the Ramayana written in Assam, the most prominent among them is by a 14th-century poet Madhav Kandali who adapted the epic. On Kandali’s Ramayana, Indira Goswami observed that although his Ramayana ends with Lanka Kanda, it has the substances of all seven Kandas in it. Interestingly, all other versions of the Ramayana by any Assamese poet contain five Kandas only as they dropped Adi and Uttara Kanda. What is unique about Kandali is that he elaborates some Kandas while condenses others according to his necessity as well as for entertainment. His Rama and Sita are very much human and are directly from the Assamese society itself. As a human being, Rama has his weaknesses too. Kandali adds incidents like Suparsva’s fight against Ravana while he was carrying Sita away with him. In another episode, Indra sends Savari a vimana and she disappears in it. In the Sundara Kanda, Hanumat took the form of a Sourastra-brahmin before he went on destroying the Asoka forest. Kandali’s work reveals much of the political thoughts of the time. In Kandali’s epic, Dr. Neog observes, we find six different methods to approach an enemy. Significantly, the dominance of Saktism is very much felt in this epic.


During Kandali’s period, the dancing girls were looked down upon by the society at large. So, when Rama asked Sita for a fire ordeal, she scornfully questioned Rama if she was treated as a dancing girl. The use of some perfumes, mentioning of some unique hairstyles and the names of some games are there in Kandali’s work not to be found in Krittibasi Ramayana. Women were given high regard in the 14th-century society of Assam.


There is a lot more rewriting of the Ramayana in Assam according to Ms. Ankita. These are the Giti-Ramayana of Durgavara Kayastha. There is Ananta Kandali’s Ramayana with a Vaishnavite touch (mid-16th century); (iii) Srirama Kirtana by Ananta Dasa, based on the famous Kirtan-Ghosa of Srimanta Sankardeva (mid-17th century); and, (iv) Ramayana-Katha, a prose version by Raghunath Mahanta (late 18th century). Some works have come up based on the episodes of The Ramayana like Laksmanara Saktisela by Ramasarasvati, Mahiravana Vadha by Chandra Bharati, Ganaka-caritra by Dhananjaya, and Adbhuta Ramayana and Satrunjaya by Raghunath Mahanta. Some plays like Srimanta Sankardeva’s Ramavijaya have also been written. The Ramayana in the Assamese language, more or less, was influenced by local motifs and local elements.

During the reign of Meidingu Garibniwaj, Manipuri Ramayana prepared by Kshema Singh and his team was an adaptation of Krittibasi Ramayana having a Vaishnavite flavour of the Manipuri culture. The Manipuri Vaishnavas considered Ramji Prabhu as their general enjoying many martial qualities. The Manipuri Ramayana dropped many episodes which have little relevance to Manipuri society. Its language is simple and sweet suited to be recited and sung.


Mizo Ramayana or Rama-tale has some features distinctly different from the Valmiki Ramayana. Here, Sita being kept in an iron box, her painting of Ravana, Ravana’s attempt to vanish Sita, the depiction of her protective garment etc. are all non-Valmikian.  Another interesting fact is the use of guns by the main characters. The Mizos used guns in the 17th -18th century. Probably, the Rama tale was written during this period only. Interestingly, the story of Rama never went to the Mizo land from the mainland.


The Karbi has a folk version of Ramayana popularly known as Sabin Alun. It means Sabin’s songs are composed by Hemphu, the Supreme Creator similar to Lord Vishnu. It is a ballad of 562 lines. Sabin Alun had its punch of local Karbi influence. Sita is renamed as Chhinta Kungri, a weaver carrying a bamboo basket on her back tied to the forehead like other Karbi girls. Her father is Bamonpo, a rich person having large agricultural farms. According to the folktales of the land, Chhinta Kungri was the daughter of Mother Earth born through a peahen’s egg. She was sent to the Earth at the request of Hemphu to defeat Ravana. Chhinta is portrayed as a physically strong beautiful woman doing the same household work as all other Karbi women as well as helping her father in the field and feeding him too. Having no pretension of being a princess, she skilled herself in preparing harlong, the local rice beer. King Dasaratha is renamed Dahram, a childless king of a state adjacent to the sea. Ravana in Sabin Alun is a twelve-headed demon having twelve hands. He was there in the Swaymbara of Sita to marry her but he failed to break the haradhanu and so couldn’t marry Sita. Lakshmana is renamed as Khanbeni, Hanuman as Ulyman. Jatayu is Rama’s maternal uncle. Ravana himself, instead of Maarich took the shape of a golden deer.  The singers of Sabin Alun have provided us with a positive image of Sita as loving and caring like other Karbi girls, the same being replicated in her relationship with her brother-in-law. Thus, Sabin Alun shows that the Ramayana had an immense impact on Karbi's life. Thus Karbi people,confined to the remote Northeastern part of India, have their version of Ramayana.


Among the Jaintias, Ramayana impacted much with their Hindu kings but after their Conversion, the Ramayana’s influence decreased gradually in the society.


Durgabara Ramayana is a collection of songs with a reference to 21 ragas with little mention of talas. We find five Kandas of The Ramayana – From Aranya to Uttara Kanda beginning with the death of King Dasharatha and closing with the enthronement of Rama. But there are some differences with the Valmiki Ramayana. The death of Dasaratha has been included in the Ayodhya Kanda. Rama, after bidding farewell to his family, went with Laksmana and Sita to Gaya to offer the post–demise dish to Dasaratha. Sita was approached by the shadowy Dasaratha to give him the ceremonial dish out of the sand of the river Falgu. Sita could not refuse him but she appealed to the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, and the Brahmin et al to be witnesses before making such an offer, which they turned down. Sita cursed them as they refused to be witnesses in front of Rama.


In the same Ramayana, Rama frequently reminisces about his Ajodhya days. So Sita made an imaginary Ajodhya, where Rama, Sita and Laksmana played the game of Mote with imaginary subjects and courtiers. Such inclusion is because of the effect of the Madan Chaturdashi festival, Dr. Maheswari Neog pointed out. There are deviations like: instead of Marisa, Ravana himself devised the deceit of appearing before Sita in the guise of a golden deer. He took away forcefully Sita to Lanka. Sita saw Ravana in the guise of a golden deer when they were in Dandakaranya. Another deviation is Rama and not Laksmana marking three lines to caution Sita not to go beyond the lines. The other one is Ravana’s introduction of Sita as his daughter while he was eloping with her. Another variation is in the portraiture of Ravana’s chariot. Another departure from the original is in the Uttarakanda when after the return of Rama and Laksmana from exile to Ayodhya, Kaikeyi wanted to kill herself by taking poisoned sweet. She was scared that Rama wouldn’t show respect to her.


Tripura too has a variation of the Ramayana in the poetic work Coronation of Sri Ramachandra written by a 17th-century poet, Bhavaninath. The work begins with the coronation of Sri Ramachandra. Veer Rasa has been provided through the tales of conquest by the four brothers but the style of narration is folkloric. One of the special features of this Ramayana is that women characters like Sita, Urmila or Chandrakala (the second wife of Laxmana not found in the original Ramayana) are vocal and maintained a distinctive identity even in a patriarchal society. In Bhavaninath, we find a different Laxmana who is braver than any of his three brothers. This Kavya also portrays the harassment of the Gods by Rama and his brothers, who had to act like slaves for the Rama brothers. Structurally, this Kavya has seven Cantos.


What comes out from the study is that Rama is either a mythical or a folkloric character and not a historical one. A survey of the several Ramayanas in Northeast India itself reveals that there is more than one Rama. He is portrayed compatible with the culture or creed of the poets’ community and the age they lived in. A historical character cannot be portrayed so variedly by a poet to suit the culture of the community and the age he lives in.



Dr Prasanta Chakraborty is a Professor and writer from Northeast India.

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