Ramayana Synopsis

"Both teller and listener shall be treasurers of wisdom for Rama's tale is mysterious." Indian saying.

Valmiki narrating the Ramayana

The poet Valmiki collected songs and legends connected to Rama, and wrote down his version of the Ramayana in 400 AD. He is said to have invented the verse metre known as the sloka, in which he wrote his poem. This metre has influenced Indian poetry every since. Valmiki wrote 24, 000 verses in his Ramayana and arranged the story into 7 books. But there are numerous and diverse versions of the epic throughout India and South Asia. Some notable examples include the 11th Century Tamil version by Kamban etched on palm leaves, and the 16th Century version Ramacharita Manasa by North Indian poet Tulsi Das - this version is very much beloved today.

A note on Hindu deities

Image of Vishnu and Lakshmi

Rama and Sita are actually incarnations of Gods.

Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu, God of Protection. Vishnu is one of a trinity of the three most important Hindu Gods  Brahma the creator, Vishnu the protector, and Shiva the destroyer. Vishnu has had nine incarnations on earth as different beings. One of these is as Rama. Vishnu will have ten incarnations in all, the tenth is yet to happen!

Sita is an incarnation of Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and prosperity.

Lakshmi is Vishnu's wife and whenever Vishnu incarnates she incarnates with him.

Teachers might like to look at paintings of Vishnu and Lakshmi, as both Gods have specific attributes which are always included in the paintings. The Ramayana begins in heaven as Vishnu and Lakshmi look down and see the earth over run with demons. They decide to come down to earth to get rid of the demons. They are born as Rama and Sita.

Brief overview of The Ramayana

Detail showing birth of Rama

The birth of Rama and Sita.

The marriage of Rama and Sita.

Rama's banishment in the forest for 14 years. Sita and Lakshman (Rama's brother) go with him into the forest.

Ravana, King of Demons, falls in love with Sita.

Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her to the Demon Kingdom, Lanka.

Rama and his brother Lakshman enlist the help of the Monkeys and the Bears to search for Sita. Hanuman the monkey heads the band as General.The band discover that Lanka is an island in the middle of the ocean.Hanuman leaps to the island. He find Sits and gives her Rama's ring and promises she will be saved. Hanuman is captured. His tail is set alight by Ravana. Hanuman escapes.

The Bears and Monkeys build a bridge to Lanka.

Battle ensues.

Lakshman is fatally wounded.

Hanuman flies to the Himalayas to get the magic healing herb to save Lakshman. Hanuman brings back the whole mountain. Lakshman is saved.

Ravana is killed.

Sita is set free.

Rama doesn't believe that Sita has been faithful to him.

Sita proves her innocence by walking through fire, the flames turn to flowers.

The band go home, crossing the whole of India. As they walk people leave lamps on their doorsteps to light the path. This is still celebrated today as Divali.


Detailed synopsis of the suggested episodes:

Sita's Kidnap

The story of Sita's kidnap:

Ravana, King of the Demons, with 10 heads and 20 arms, watches Sita in the forest and falls in love with her. Ravana gets his evil servant, Maricha, to disguise himself as a golden deer and tempt Rama and Lakshman away from Sita. Lakshman draws a circle in the dust around Sita to protect her and tells her not to step out of the circle. Ravana disguises himself as an old beggar man and begs Sita for food and drink. Sita takes pity on him and steps out of the circle. The beggar man becomes Ravana. Ravana catches Sita in his arms and pulls her into his magic flying chariot, Pushpak, which is like an aeroplane, but is powered by thought. Ravana is a very clever King and the inventor of many things, among them the aeroplane. Sita cries for help and throws her necklace to the ground, in the hope that Rama might save her.

Hanuman's story

The story of Hanuman:

Rama and Lakshman set out looking for Sita.

They meet Sugreeva the Monkey King. He agrees that the Monkeys will join the search and the Monkey Hanuman will be General and lead the band. On the way they come to Bear Kingdom and Jambuvan, King of the Bears and all the Bears join the search too. They search for Lanka the Demon Kingdom and eventually come to the blue sea, nothing but blue water.

Hanuman leap's to Lanka:

The Monkeys and Bears decide that since Hanuman is the son of the Wind God, Vyu, he is the best at jumping and must leap to Lanka. Hanuman has his father's energy and swiftness, power and strength. (When Hanuman was a child he thought the sun was a ripe fruit and tried to jump up and catch it. He jumped so high he nearly got burned, but the Sun was impressed and gave Hanuman the gift of immortality as a reward for his courage and cleverness.)

Rama gives Hanuman his ring, to give to Sita. Hanuman prays to his father and jumps. (Hanuman's leap is the subject of many paintings.) Hanuman leaps over the ocean, escaping several devouring demons that he meets on the way.

Hanuman in Lanka:

Hanuman shrinks to the size of a mouse and runs through Lanka, looking for Sita. He finds her sitting under a tree crying. Hanuman climbs the tree, drops Rama's ring into her lap, and tells her Rama will come and save her. But some Demons catch Hanuman, squeeze him tight, and carry him to Ravana. Ravana and the Demons decide to set fire to Hanuman's tail. They wrap his tail in strips of cotton and soak the cotton in oil. As the Demons begin to wrap cotton round Hanuman's tail, Hanuman makes his tail grow longer and longer and longer. (The subject of many paintings.) The Demons run out of cotton and oil. They set light to his tail anyway. But Hanuman shrinks back to the size of a mouse, his tail shrinks too, and Hanuman escapes, setting Ravana's throne alight, and leaving a trail of flames throughout Lanka. Hanuman dips his tail in the sea, and leaps back to Rama, Lakshman, the Bears.

Building the bridge:

The band decide they must build a bridge to Lanka. There are many, many versions of how they do this. So you might come across several different stories, and comparing the different versions is fascinating. All versions involve magic of some kind: the monkey's throw rock into the water, the rocks float, making the shape of Rama's name in the water; the Ocean God helps the rocks float; a golden mermaid queen who lives at the bottom of the sea helps the bridge to be built; the fish carry the rocks on their backs...

Hanuman and the Medicine Mountain:

A battle ensues between Ravana's demon army and Rama's animal army. (The subject of many paintings.) Lakshman is so badly wounded in the battle it seems that he will die before sunrise. (In some versions of the story many Monkeys and Bears are wounded too.) The Monkeys and Bears decide that Hanuman must leap to the Himalayas and bring back the healing herb from the Medicine Mountain to save Lakshman's life. So Hanuman leaps over the ocean, and across the whole of India, to the Himalayas. When he arrives at first he can't find the Medicine Mountain. When he finds it at last, it is covered with herbs and he doesn't know which is the magic healing herb. So Hanuman wraps his arms around the whole mountain, pulls it out of the ground, lifts it up onto the palm of his hand and flies with it back to Lanka. (Hanuman carrying the mountain is reproduced again and again in all forms of art.) On the way the sun begins to rise and Hanuman captures it under his arm so that he can arrive back before sunrise in time to save Lakshman. The healing herb is picked and given to Lakshman. Lakshman is healed and filled with energy. (Or the whole animal army is renewed.)

The Final battle:

Detail showing Ravana losing his heads

Rama and Ravana fight, using magic weapons, called astras. Then Rama and Ravana fight in hand to hand combat, Rama cuts off one of Ravana's heads. It falls to the ground, but instantly another head grows back in its place. Rama cuts again, a second head falls but another head grows in its place. Ravana seems to be indestructible. His death is hidden in his body. How Ravana meets his death again varies from version to version, sometimes his death is: in his big toe; in a special tiny head hidden behind the others; behind his ear; or one of the most popular places - in his belly button! Wherever his death is hidden, Rama discovers it and Ravana is finally killed. The Monkeys and Bears run through the ruins of Ravana's palace, looking for Sita. They find her and she is set free with great rejoicing.

Sita's fire test

The story of Sita's fire test:

When Rama finds Sita he is suddenly unable to trust her. He believes that she has betrayed him with Ravana. Sita is outraged and protests her innocence. She tells Lakshman to build a fire, the fire will burn her if she has done anything wrong. Rama forces his brother to build the fire. Sita steps into the flames. The flames crackle and burn but refuse to burn her. Sita walks through the flames, unharmed. As she walks the flames turn to flowers. (The subject of many paintings.) Rama begs for forgiveness.

Walking home ? Divali

Rama and his band go home:

The band set off, with Hanuman in front as General. They cross the bridge. When they get to the other side the bridge sinks down under the sea, leaving a trail of rocks jutting out in the sea towards Lanka (still there today ? look on a map and the internet.) The band walk across India, and on the way people came out of their houses and place little lamps on their doorsteps to light their way. More and more people light lamps, and the band follow the trail of lights, home. This is still celebrated today in the Festival of Lights ? Divali ? where people celebrate light in the darkness, placing lights in their windows to welcome Sita/Lakshmi, wealth and prosperity, into their homes.

"When ever Rama's story is told, my spirit will be there, animating you all." Valmiki

Important characters

  • Rama
  • Sita
  • Lakshman
  • Ravana
  • Maricha
  • Sugreeva, King of the Monkeys
  • Hanuman, Monkey General
  • Jambavan, King of the Bears

Other characters you might come across:

  • Kumbharkarn, Ravana's giant brother
  • Indrajit, Ravana's warrior son
  • Vishnu, God of protection and preservation
  • Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and fertility
  • Garuda, the scared flying eagle who always carries Vishnu

Sally Pomme Clayton 2005

All images ?The British Library Board