Meeting the Ramayana

Now I shall perform

what the Gods and the World,

the moving and the still,

shall keep narrating

so long as Earth endures.

(One way of starting Ramayana, North India.)

The epic Ramayana has been performed throughout India and South East Asia for at least 2000 years. The earliest written text dates back to 400 AD, and was written by the poet Valmiki who brought together stories, songs and prayers connected to Rama and Sita. The epic's origins are in India and Hinduism, but over the centuries the story has crossed seas and mountains, languages and religions, performance styles and art forms. There are Muslim versions in Java, and Buddhist versions in Thailand. The story exists as shadow plays in Indonesia, temple carvings in Cambodia, dances, plays and ritual enactments throughout India. The text lives in books made of ola leaf in Sri Lanka and on painted boxes in North India. One of the phenomenons of this epic is its migration around the world, which has led to multiple versions and tellings, each storyteller re-composing the story for each audience. Ramayana is still a living performance tradition today.

During 2004 I created my own performance of Ramayana with The Unicorn Theatre. I researched translations of many versions and gradually stitched my own version together. Then in August I set off to Sri Lanka, the home of Ravana demon King and the place where Sita was held captive, I wanted to see the landscape the story inhabits.

Sri Lanka is the lushest and most fertile country, even in the dry zone resourceful communities manage to grow crops. The country has several climates and landscapes ranging from humid jungle where the pages of your book get damp, to cool mountains that resemble Scottish highlands. Ramayana has left story imprints everywhere: in rocks, caves and waterfalls; in buildings and fine art, and in the names of streets, houses and businesses. On a mountain pass I saw a gleaming truck named after Rama's brother, 'Lakshman motor horse' inscribed above the window.

The highlands near Nurwara Eliya are where Ravana is supposed to have hidden Sita. For Sri Lankan's Ravana is not a demon, but a brilliant King and the inventor of the aeroplane. This version of the story perhaps reflects Sri Lanka's history of ancient engineering and architecture, and its deep relationship to demons as agents of health and well being.

One misty afternoon I went with a driver to a Hindu temple - Sita Amman Kovil. In the shade of a mountain is Sita's blue temple with shrines to Rama, Sita and Hanuman the monkey God. Beside the temple is a stream and a large rock with giant footprints on it - the footprints of Hanuman as he jumped to find Sita and give her Rama's ring. The looming mountain is the Medicine Mountain that Hanuman carried from the Himalayas to heal Lakshman. Black earth covers the region of Nurwara Eliya; it is good for growing tea and very different from the usual Sri Lankan red dust. The earth is black because it was burnt when Ravana set fire to Hanuman's tail.

I wanted to do a Puja, a blessing, for my performance of the story. My driver was Christian, but he knew what I needed to do. He took me to a shop and they made me an offering, arranging mango, coconut, apples, little sweet bananas, camphor and incense on fresh green beetle leaves, and decorating it with hand-picked blossoms.

As we entered the temple a few monkeys leapt over the walls and bared their teeth at us. A radiant priest took my offering and touched the food to the lips of all the statues, feeding the Gods of the story. He sung a prayer with my name entwined into it, and rested a shining gold helmet on my head – momentarily I was imbued with the spirit of Rama. A large saffron and red tikka was painted on my forehead.

The ritual was repeated at the Hanuman shrine, the offering rearranged for Hanuman and the coconut split open. Another tikka was marked on my brow and the sacred tikka paste wrapped-up in the beetle leaves and pressed into my hand. The camphor was set alight and I walked round the temple three times, thinking of all the fires in the story, culminating when Sita walks through flames and they turn to flowers. All the time my driver stood beside me, partaking in every aspect of the ritual, like me, this was not his religion, but unlike me, he knew all the gestures and the prayers as if they were his own. Finally a long orange thread was wrapped around my wrist and a blessing chanted.

This is a place where Ramayana is all around you, living in the landscape and in people's beliefs, where the characters in the story are real and you can be imbued with their power. I felt that not only had I met the story, I was inside it. We fed the remains of the offering to the greedy monkeys. And as we left my driver nodded, "it makes your heart calm," he said.

©Sally Pomme Clayton 2005