Ramayana - Pages 1 and 2
Copyright © The British Library Board
Inside cover and first flyleaf
The Ramayana was composed in Sanskrit, the classical language of India. It is traditionally attributed to the poet and sage Valmiki, who plays a minor role in the story. The epic tale of exile, struggle, loss and redemption on a human scale had assumed roughly the shape of the central five books by the middle of the first millennium BC. During the next millennium the epic grew gradually to its present size of seven books and 24,000 verses through the addition of the first and last books. These books tell the history of Rama's ancestry, birth and boyhood and of Ravana the demon king, as well as the tragic parting of Rama and Sita. These outer supplementary books add a cosmic dimension to this ancient tale of the perennial battle between good and evil. Rama has become an avatar of the preserver god Visnu, born on earth to redress the balance when evil in the shape of the demon Ravana had grown too powerful.
The rulers of Mewar, the Sesodiya Rajputs, claimed descent from the Sun and numbered among their ancestors Rama himself, so that Maharana Jagat Singh commissioned this immense manuscript of the epic as a kind of family history. Both he and his father Maharana Karan Singh (1620-1628) would have been familiar with the ancestor-glorifying illustrated histories of the Mogul emperors of India from their visits to the Mogul courts. The Ramayana is essentially a tale about dharma, the Hindu concept of duty: duty to one's family, to oneself and to the position into which one has been born, and the need to perform one's duty, whether it is for good or bad, in a way that is consistent with one's own dharma. It appealed particularly to the Rajputs with their own conception of their dharma of personal honour and heroic chivalry. Although the epic is set in ancient times, Jagat Singh's artists depict their contemporary world of the mid-seventeenth century in costume and architecture. In the hands of Sahib Din, the principal artist and apparently a Muslim, the story of Rama's suffering, heroism and devotion to duty has been turned artistically into a sophisticated expression of Rajput ideals and society.
Traditional Indian manuscripts derive their structure of unbound paper folios from that of palm-leaf manuscripts, the most ancient format of Indian manuscripts. Piles of prepared palm leaves, long and narrow in shape, were encased between wooden boards and holes drilled through them for threading. The text was written on the leaves parallel to the long side and the leaves were turned over along the long axis. Foliation was noted always on the verso of each leaf in the centre of both right and left margins. This format was retained for paper manuscripts after the thirteenth century: paper was cut into long narrow rectangles and written on in the same way, also without being bound. Over time the proportion of height to width was gradually increased but was always kept to a horizontal landscape format. Holes and threads were found unnecessary with paper, but the traditional place for such holes was invariably marked in western India by gaps in the text or by red spots, which also mark the traditional places for foliation. This can be seen in some books of this Ramayana manuscript. The piles of paper were kept between wooden boards, wrapped up in cloth and stored in chests.