Resources for K-12 Education
The Ramayanas of Southeast Asia
The Story of Rama, about a prince and his long hero’s journey, is one of the world’s great epics. It began in India and spread among many countries throughout Asia. Its text is a major thread in the culture, religion, history, and literature of millions. Through its study, teachers come to understand how people lived and what they believed and valued. As the story became embedded into the culture of Southeast Asian countries, each created its own version reflecting the culture’s specific values and beliefs. As a result, there are literally hundreds of versions of the story of Rama throughout Asia, especially Southeast Asia.
A curriculum could be developed based on comparisons between different versions. Possible goals could be:
1. To read rich historical and informational texts for the purpose of knowing more about the culture and literature of our district’s South and Southeast Asian community.
2. To conduct short research projects to answer questions about the ways important traditional literature has been re-imagined in the west.
Additionally, as teachers question the way the story continues to be re-interpreted, they can evaluate various texts for their relevance to their student community.
Cambodia – Reamker
Cambodia, like many countries in mainland Southeast Asia, has a population that predominantly follows Theravada Buddhism; therefore the Reamker has many Buddhist influences. In it, Rama is known as Phreah Ream, and Sita is known as Neang Seda. The Khmer text also contains unique episodes not included in the original Hindu texts. For example, the encounter between Hanuman, the monkey general, and Sovann Maccha, the mermaid, is a favorite in Cambodia. But perhaps a key divergence to the original Hindu text is that after Neang Seda’s trial by fire, in which she passes the test, she becomes deeply offended by her husband’s lack of trust. Instead of reuniting with him to rule the kingdom of Ayodhya, she decides to leave him and find refuge with Valmiki the wiseman (who is also attributed for writing the oldest version of the Ramayana).
Java, Indonesia – Ramayana Jawa
Although Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, the continued popularity of the Ramayana (and the Mahabharata) is testament to its enduring cultural legacy in Indonesia, as well as, according to Benedict Anderson, the tolerance of the Javanese. In fact, it should be noted that the name of the city of Yogyakarta is a transliteration of Ayodhya. In Java, the Ramayana is usually performed through wayang kulit, or puppet shows that can last multiple nights. While the first half of the Ramayana Jawa is similar to the original Sanskrit version, the latter half is divergent to the point of being unrecognizable by Indian scholars. One of the many major changes is the inclusion of the all-powerful Javanese indigenous deity Dhayana, Guardian God of Java, and his misshapen sons, Gareng, Petruk, and Bagong who make up the four Punokawan or “clown servants”.
Laos – Phra Lak Phra Ram
The story of Phra Ram is so important to the Lao people that it has become their national epic. Being a Theravada Buddhist country, however, it has lost its association with Hinduism and is instead considered a Jataka Story, or a recounting of the Buddha’s previous lives. Phra Ram is considered a previous incarnation of Gautama Buddha, and is regarded as the epitome of moral leadership and a true follower of his dharma. On the other hand, Hapmanasouane, the Lao Ravana, is considered the previous incarnation of Mara, the demon that tried to impede the Buddha’s ascent to enlightenment. Also, instead of being set close to the Ganges, the story takes place along the Mekong River, the “mother of waters” and perhaps the most important river for many inhabitants in mainland Southeast Asia.
Malaysia – Hikayat Seri Rama
The Ramayana came to the lands now known as Malaysia most likely through Tamil traders. Even after Islam was introduced to the region, the epic’s ideals of righteousness, loyalty, and selfless devotion ensured its popularity. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, the epic was written as a hikayat, an Arabic word that literally translates to “stories” and is regarded to be a form of Malay literature. The secularized wayang kulit version of the story, however, interestingly focuses on Maharaja Wana, or Ravana, who is depicted in this version as being more just and loyal than Seri Rama, who is perceived as being arrogant and vain.
Myanmar (Burma) – Yama Zatdaw (Yamayana)
In Burma, the Yama Zatdaw is also considered a Jataka Story of Theravada Buddhism, where Rama is known as Yama, and Sita is known as Thida. It was said to have been introduced during King Anawratha’s reign in the 11th century; however, the version currently popular in the country also has Thai influences that can be traced back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 18th century, as well as, to a lesser extent, Javanese and Malay influences. However, on the whole, its use of an exuberant, acrobatic, and highly stylized form of traditional Burmese dance as well as ornate costumes keep it unique from all other versions of the Ramayana.
Mindanao, Philippines – Darangen, Singkil
The Darangen is the ancient epic song of the Maranao people composed of 17 cycles and 72,000 lines. It existed before the coming of Islam to the islands and is connected to earlier Sanskrit traditions. Although the Darangen touches on topics such as social values, customary law, courtship, and others, it also recounts the history of the Maranaos as well as their folktales. One episode recounts the abduction of Princess Gandingan by the diwatas (nature spirits) of the Kingdom of Bumbaran. They cause an earthquake, which also causes the trees of the forest to topple around Gandingan, blocking her from Prince Bantugan. In order to save her, he has to navigate the trees. This episode is still being retold today through the Singkil dance where the dancers nimbly avoid clik-clacking bamboo poles that represent the trees.
Thailand – Ramakien
The Ramakien is Thailand’s national epic. Although the Ramayana is said to have arrived in Thailand as early as the 13th century, whatever was written about these older versions was lost during the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767. The version currently being performed all over Thailand and read in elementary schools is the one compiled and written by King Rama I. In it, the Ramayana was placed onto the topography of Siam. In fact, the name of the old Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya is a transliteration of Rama’s kingdom of Ayodhya. The Ramakien of Rama I is considered one of the masterpieces of Thai literature, and the Ramakien is the basis of all khon and nang dramas in Thailand today.
Because of the Ramayana’s continued popularity and cultural legacy all over Southeast Asia and the world, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations has, in recent years, spearheaded the International Ramayana Festival, where the many versions of the Ramayana are performed and celebrated. A great video featuring these many performances can be found here.
You can also read more about the Rama epic here.
Storytelling traditions abound throughout South and Southeast Asia, and these traditions provide the raw material for many great works of literature — literature important to know more about. We also encourage you to look at parables, fables, myths, legends in books, picture books and graphic novels from the many countries of Southeast Asia to see what other commonalities can be observed.