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Ramayana - Introduction

The Ramayana cover
British Library Add. MS 59874
Copyright © The British Library Board

The Ramayana is one of the two ancient Sanskrit epics from India. It tells the story of the righteous prince Rama and his rescue of his wife Sita after her abduction by the demon king Ravana. The present illustrated manuscript is laid out on the grandest scale with over 400 paintings originally. It was commissioned by Maharana Jagat Singh (1628-1652), the ruler of Mewar, now part of Rajasthan in western India. The copying of the text was begun in 1649 by Mahatma Hirananda in Jagat Singh's court studio at Udaipur, and finished in the first year of the reign of his successor Maharana Raj Singh (1652-1680). Three different studio masters organised the illustrations. Internal evidence suggests that the paintings were finished before the copying of the text was begun.

The work was originally in seven volumes corresponding to the seven books of the epic. Four volumes (Books 2, 4, 6 and 7) were given by Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar (1778-1828) to Col James Tod, who in 1818 had become the first British political agent in Rajasthan. Tod presented these volumes to the royal bibliophile the Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) after his return to England in 1823, along with a later manuscript of the first book. They were acquired by the British Museum library (now the British Library) at the sale of the Sussex collection in 1844 and became known as the 'Sussex Ramayana'. Books 1 and 3 remain in India, in Bombay (mostly) and Udaipur respectively. The dismembered fifth book is represented now only by an album of eighteen paintings also in the British Library.

All the originally loose leaves of these Indian manuscripts were inlaid into heavy, sized paper and bound up in three handsome European goatskin covers tooled and gilded. The covers measure 32 by 49 cm. The original folios vary slightly in size from book to book but measure approximately 23 by 39 cm. In this digitized version the page sizes have been standardised, and the pictures cut out from their mounts and resized. The book has also been rotated 90 degrees so the folios can be viewed, as originally intended, in a landscape format.

British Library Add. MSS 15296-15297 and IO San 3621


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