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The story of Rama is one of the oldest Indian stories and the subject of one of the great Sanskrit epics of Hinduism, the 'Ramayana', attributed to the poet Valmiki.

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Ramayana, by Sahib Din. Battle between the armies of Rama and the King of Lanka. Udaipur, 1649-53
British Library Add. MS 15297 (1), f. 91
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is Hinduism and where is it practised?

Hinduism is one of the world's oldest religions, dating back 3,000 years to the Indus Valley.There is no single founder or central historical figure. Among world religions, it has the most adherents after Christianity and Islam: of India's population of 1.14 billion, over 80% - more than 900 million people - regard themselves as Hindu. Hindus are also found elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent (Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan) and its maritime spheres (Indonesia [Bali], Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad and so on). There are around 560,000 Hindus in the UK.

What do Hindus believe?

Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, governed by karma: the quality of the next life is determined by one's conduct in the current one.

There is an omnipresent, eternal being called Brahman, who created everything, and various deities are worshipped, including Ram(a), S(h)iva, Lakshmi and Hanuman. The vast majority of Hindus worship only one of these (normally either Vishnu or Siva) as the Supreme Principle of the Universe, while duly acknowledging a selection of the others for personal worship.

What Hindu festivals are there?

There are many holy days in the Hindu calendar. The most familiar is Diwali, the Festival of Lights (and fireworks); the date varies but by coincidence it is usually only a few days away from 'Firework Night' (5 November) in the UK.

What are Hinduism's holy texts?

Hinduism contains a vast body of scriptures, principally the Vedas and the Upanishads. Other texts include the epic stories of Mahabharata and Ramayana.

What is the Ramayana?

The manuscript of the text was copied in seven large volumes in 'nagari' script by Mahatma Hirananda between 1649 and 1653, and illuminated by Sahib Dib, Manohar, and other artists in the court studio of the Ranas of Udaipur, Jagat Singh (1628-1652) and Raj Singh (1652-1680).

The 'Ramayana' tells of the heroic deeds of Rama, Prince of Ayodhya, who wins the hand of Sita, Princess of Mithila, but is exiled to the forest for 14 years through the plotting of his evil stepmother. In the forest, Sita is carried off by King Ravana, and Rama gathers an army of monkeys and bears to search for her. Following a battle, and Sita's rescue, the couple return to Ayodhya, inaugurating Rama's rule (Ram-raj) and a golden age for mankind.

Who commissioned this manuscript and who made it?

Commissioned by Jagat Singh, this illustrated manuscript of the 'Ramayana' is on the grandest scale, consisting of seven large volumes with over 400 paintings. Four of the original seven volumes are in the British Library, having been given by Maharana Bhim Singh to James Tod, the historian of the Rajputs, in about 1820.

The principal artist working in the Udaipur court studio in the 17th century was Sahib Din. His known works span the years 1628 to 1653. By select and inventive borrowings from the type of popular work produced in the Mogul capital, he was able to transform Rajput painting into a sophisticated vehicle for the depiction of Rajput society and ideals.

What does this illustration show?

Sahib Din's illustration shows in grisly detail a fierce landmark battle. It takes place between Rama's army of monkeys and the King of Lanka's army of demons, as Rama (together with the only other human, his brother Lakshmana) fights to free Rama's kidnapped wife Princess Sita. Following a gruesome series of hand-to-hand combats, the fortitude of Rama's monkey army wins through.

The illustration is not a 'single frame', but shows several stages of the battle alongside each other. For example, in this scene of battle between the demons and Rama's monkey army, the three-headed figure of the demon general Trisiras occurs in several places – perhaps most dramatically at the bottom left, where he is shown beheaded by Hanuman. The ultimately victorious Rama is shown at the top left, splendidly coloured in blue, calmly contemplating the carnage.