Asian Art Newspaper discovers the places in Sri Lanka believed to have been connected to the story of The Ramayana, the epic tale of Rama and Sita.
The Ramayana, or Rama’s Journey, is India’s first great Sanskrit poem, composed by the Indian sage Valmiki in 400 AD, who based his epic work on stories, songs and prayers connected to Rama and Sita. Whilst the Ramayana’s origins are in Hinduism, it has since been retold in many different languages and art forms and is celebrated in cultures spanning South and Southeast Asia.
The epic tells the journey – both geographic and spiritual – of the dutiful Lord Rama, Prince of Ayodhya. Rama was exiled from his father’s kingdom for 14 years along with his wife Sita and brother Laxmana. His beloved Sita is later abducted by Ravana, the demon king of the island of Lanka – an act that leads to war, the burning of the capital city of Lankapura, and the besieging of Ravana’s fabled island fortress.
Places that Celebrate the Ramayana in Sri Lanka
Though an ancient story, rooted in universal themes such as love, valour, duty and human frailty, the Ramayana lives on in our present through the arts, architecture, and historic lore and legend. In Sri Lanka, widely identified as Valmiki’s mythical Lanka, the epic continues to inspire the faith of millions of people on the island and beyond. Parts of the island are steeped in the Ramayana – it lives on in people’s beliefs, their religious practices, and the landscape itself. This article considers the places and spaces that celebrate the Ramayana as a living tradition with some examples of Indian miniatures as a visual guide, which reflect the creative skill and imagination of the artist in capturing these episodes, as well as the landscape, flora and fauna, and symbolism of the Ramayana.
Renewed Interest in Ravana, the Demon King of Lanka
None of the early Ramayana versions, or the Mahabharata (another Hindu text which mentions Lanka), provide geographical certainty that Lankapura was actually Sri Lanka and the debate amongst scholars remains polarised. In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, there has been a nationalist and cultural revival of interest in the Ramayana story – and in particular – Ravana. Over the last decade, Ravana has become something of a cult hero and devotional figure among Sinhalese Buddhists, who claim that he is a distant ancestor and founder of the island’s legendary founding monarchy. The Ramayana trail for tourists and pilgrims encourages the island’s association with the epic, promoting famous religious Buddhist and Hindu sites that mark significant episodes in the story, such as the place where Sita was kept following her capture; the route taken across the ocean by Rama aided by the Monkey God Hanuman; and the site of the final battle where Ravana is killed.
Indian Miniatures of Epic Tales
Some of the finest examples of Indian miniature manuscripts bring to life what is essentially an oral tale, with exquisite portrayals of an artistically imagined landscape surrounded by the ocean with mountains and rocky crags, inhabited by bears, monkeys, and demons. The scriptures tell us that Kubera, the God of Wealth, once ruled Lanka, but was overthrown by his demon half-brother Ravana, who had built a ‘City of Gods’, as well as an impenetrable fortress made of gold and precious gems that was surrounded by a system of treacherous moats and trenches. Among the finest works depicting this epic are the Imperial Ramayana, translated into Persian and painted for the Mughal emperor Akbar, circa 1591, that is now held in the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum in Jaipur; and the British Library’s Mewar Ramayana painted for the Maharana Jagat Singh, in the mid-17th century.
Sita in the Ramayana
Sita was abducted from Panchavati Forest (Maharashtra, India) and flown by Ravana to Wariyapola, northwestern Sri Lanka, in his ‘miraculous air chariot’ (Pushpak Vimana), described as resembling a peacock in flight. However, for Sri Lankans, Ravana was not a demon but a learned statesman and brilliant monarch, who not only invented the aeroplane, and also made great strides in engineering and architecture.
During her captivity, Sita was kept at various locations such as the fabled garden of Ashok Vatika in the central highlands near Nuwara Eliya. Today, on the outskirts of town, there is the much-visited and venerated Seetha Amman Temple. The current temple only dates to 2000, but is built on the site of a much older temple and area devoted to the honouring of Sita. Beside the temple is a stream with a large flat rock bearing a giant footprint believed to be that of Hanuman, who jumped into the garden to deliver Rama’s ring to a desolate Sita. The blackened soil is explained by the torching of Lanka by Hanuman, who upon capture in the garden had his tail set alight. He escapes and burns the island with his tail before jumping back across the ocean to be with Rama and the bear and monkey armies that had assembled and were poised for the crossing.
Rama, Laxmana, and the bear and monkey armies cross into Lanka by building a bridge – the ‘Ram Setu’, or Rama’s Bridge. Such is the enduring belief in the existence of the bridge, that in the 10th century, the invading Chola armies from Tamil Nadu thought of themselves as guardians of the bridge and Rama’s legacy. For some geologists, the presence of an area of limestone shoals – clearly visible from satellite imagery – is evidence of a former man-made land connection between India and Sri Lanka. The bridge would have been built across from Rameswaram Island – a place of Hindu pilgrimage, off the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu opposite Sri Lanka’s Mannar Island in the northwest, at the eastern end the limestone shoals reaching across to India, commonly called Adam’s Bridge.
In Valmiki’s Ramayana, the god Brahma created an army of tens of thousands of super-intelligent warrior monkeys (vanaras) to construct the bridge over five days. The drama of bridge-building is a popular artistic theme for painters.
The Battle in Sri Lanka and Sanjeevani
The invasion of Lanka leads to the besieging of Ravana’s fortress and culminates in the final battle with its multiple twists and turns. At one point, Laxmana is fatally wounded and Hanuman is asked by Lord Rama to fly to the Himalayas to fetch sanjeevani – an ayurvedic herb with magical life-giving properties. In one of the most iconic images, Hanuman, unable to identify the correct herb, lifts the entire Sanjeevani mountain, scattering splinters of the mountain across five places in Sri Lanka, including the sacred mountain of Dolukanda in Kurunegala District in the North Western Province, which is now the site of a Buddhist temple and an ayurvedic institute. Locals believe that the abundance of ayurvedic herbs and alpine Himalayan plant species found in the area were scattered whilst Hanuman was in flight with the mountain in his palm.
Another location connected to the Ramayana in Sri Lanka is Ravana’s formidable fortress, which is described as being situated on a plateau between three mountain peaks known as the Trikuta Mountain. Some historians believe that the plateau is situated on top of Sigiriya (the Lion’s Rock) site of the ancient rock fortress and palace built by the 5th-century King Kashyapa I, near the Dambulla Buddhist temple complex in Central Province.
The Great Battle Begins
Once the great battle begins, Valmiki describes how there is no respite between Rama and Ravana, the demon army, serpents and ogres pitted against the bear and monkey troops who fight valiantly as missiles, arrows, thunder bolts shower them from sky. The fierce fighting rages for seven days taking place in the sky, on the ground, and on the mountain. The whole of nature stands still and the gods watch from the heavens. In direct combat, Rama is unable to cut off Ravana’s many heads as they magically regrow. Rama finally deploys the mystic missile – a blazing arrow gifted by the Gods. The missile, the Brahmastra, is believed to have been fired from Dunuwila, (in Central Province), killing Ravana by piercing his heart. Legend has it that Ravana is killed at Laggala, derived from the Sinhala name Elakke Gale, which means target rock, or the highest point of Ravana’s fortress. Once the battle is over, the monkeys and bears run through the ruins of Ravana’s palace, looking for Sita. They eventually find her and she is set free with great rejoicing. Ravana’s younger brother, Vibhishana, has helped Rama defeat Ravana and his reward was to crowned king of Lanka. This is believed to have taken place near the modern town of Kelaniya, the closest site to the current capital city of Colombo.
And so from art to the landscape of Sri Lanka, the Ramayana endures the test of time – fusing a unique bond between faith, painting, and pilgrimage – a bond that provides valuable revenue to the island and its communities, whilst spreading the message of this glorious story, where evil is defeated by good.
BY RITA DIXIT
The British Library, which holds most volumes of the Mewar Ramayana, has now digitised the text pages and united text and illustrations for the first time in almost 200 years, so that Valmiki’s work can now be read in the original Sanskrit online.