By Nithin Sridhar
Lord Rama occupies a very unique space in the psyche of Hindus. He is considered as the personification of Dharma (righteousness) and an ideal man. The story of his life (i.e. Ramayana) have been spoken, song, dramatized and celebrated in various other ways for many centuries.
‘Ramlila’ or ‘Rama’s play’ is one such dramatized folk enactment of Lord Ram’s life that celebrates his incarnation on earth.
It is performed every year during the month of October or November on the occasion of Dusshera. The folk enactment of Ramlila not only serves as a medium for people to connect with their beloved Lord Ram, but also serves as a platform for various artists to exhibit their creativity.
Historically, the enactment of Ramlila, as witnessed today in India, can be traced back to the 16th century, when Tulasidas composed Ramacharitmanas in Awadhi language, though there are evidences for the presence of some form of staged performances of Ramayana even before that time. In 2005, UNESCO declared the tradition of Ramlila as among the ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
The enactment of Ramlila is mostly predominant within North India and performances in Ayodhya, Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, and Sattna are especially famous. But, Ramlila enactment is not limited to India. Just as Hindus have spread across the world over the last 2 centuries, the celebration of Ramlila has also spread along with them.
Here is a list of Eleven countries where Ramlila performances are staged:
Trinidad & Tobago
The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago consists of two islands and is located just off the northeastern coast of Venezuela in the South American continent. Ramlila entered into the twin-island country when indentured immigrants were brought into the country from India 1845. The earliest record of Ramlila celebration in Trinidad goes back to 1881 in Dow Village. Recently, in 2012, ‘The National Ramlila Council of Trinidad and Tobago’(NRCTT) was made into the main representative body for Ramlila in the twin-island country, through an act of Parliament.
The Republic of Suriname is an independent country located northeastern coast of South America and share borders with French Guiana, Guyana, and Brazil. Hindus are second largest religious group in Suriname and comprise around 22.3% of the total population. In Suriname, like in Trinidad & Taboga, Ramlila was introduced by the Indian immigrants around 150 years ago. In February 2015, it was reported that as part of India’s engagement with Indian diaspora in Suriname, Indian group of Ramila will perform in Suriname and Suriname group will perform in India.
Just like other Caribbean countries, Ramlila practice is well known in Guyana as well. But the regular staging of Ramlila had more or less died down a few decades ago. The practice has now been revived, thanks to Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha. The Sabha revived the Ramlila tradition around 10 years ago and has been continuously striving hard to promote Ramilila performances across the country.
Republic of Mauritius is an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of Africa. It is a multi-ethnic society with Hinduism as the largest religion practiced by around 48.5% of the total population. Mauritius has a very vibrant and long tradition of Ramlila performance. It is also famous for its Ramayana singing on Jhal and Dholak. The Mauritian Ministry of Arts and Culture along with Mauritius Sanatan Dharma Temples Federation support and encourage Ramlila tradition. Recently, Mauritius also hosted the International Ramayana Conference.
The Kingdom of Cambodia located in Southeast Asia, was once part of the mighty Hindu Khmer kingdom that had ruled for 600 years. Though, it is now primarily a Buddhist country, the Hindu influences are still visible in the country. Cambodia has its own version of Ramayana called ‘Reamker’, wherein Lord Rama is known as ‘Preah Ream’, Sita as ‘Neang Seda’, and Lakshman as ‘Preah Leak’. Reamker is the most popular Khmer literature and its influence extends to art, dance, and theater. Unlike the Ramlila performed in Trinidad and other Caribbean countries where the story is based on Tulasidas’s Ramacharitmanas, the Cambodian Ramlila is based on Reamker, which is again based on Valmiki Ramayana.
The Kingdom of Thailand, which was formerly known as Siam, is another country located in Southeast Asia. Thailand’s national epic is ‘Ramakien’, which is a version of Ramayana adopted from Valmiki, but has an influence of Indian vernacular versions as well. Ramakein has been adopted into widely adopted into art and theater. Thus, Thailand has a rich culture of Ramlila of its own.
Laos is another country in Southeast Asia, where one can witness thriving Ramlila tradition. Though, it is a Buddhist country, Ramayana is quite popular and central to Laos’ culture and tradition. The Laos version of Valmiki Ramayana is called as ‘Phra Lak Phra Ram’,named after Lakshmana and Rama, and is the national epic of the country. Lao legends attribute the introduction of the epic from Angkor. Phra Lak Phra Ram plays a central role in song, dance, painting, sculpture, and theater.
Though Indonesia is a Muslim country, Ramayana runs through the veins of Indonesians. A popular adage in Indonesia goes: ‘“Islam is our religion. Ramayana is our culture.’ Indonesians follow an old Javanese version of Ramayana written in around 9th century called ‘Kakawin Ramayan’. Ramayana plays a central role in Indonesian culture and expressions of art- painting, music, dance, and theater. It has a lively and rich tradition of Ramlila.
The Kingdom of Netherlands is a sovereign country in the Western Europe. The country has more than 100,000 adherents of Hinduism, mostly Indo-Surinamese immigrants who emigrated there from Suriname in 1960’s. These Hindus in the Netherlands have the tradition of Ramlila alive and thriving. The Ramlila performed in Netherlands is usually based on Ramacharitmanas and is usually staged in Hindi or its dialects. In 2015, a Dutch version of Ramlila was also staged.
Republic of Fiji is an archipelago of more than 300 islands in Melanesia in the South Pacific Ocean with Indian origin Hindus constituting around 28 percent. Fiji has a rich tradition of Ramayana going back to around 130 years. Every settlement have their own ‘Ramayana Mandalis’ that preserve and transmit the culture and values of Ramayana. Fiji was among the eight countries that participated in the first ‘International Ramayan Mela’ held in February 2015 in India.
The Southeast Asian nation of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar has a rich tradition of Ramayana. Myanmar’s unofficial national epic called ‘Yama Zatdaw’ is the Myanmar version of Ramayana. Zatdaw literally means ‘acted play’ and Yama refers to Rama. Thus, Yama Zatdaw is the dramatized play of Ramayana. The oral tradition of Ramayana is believed to have been introduced into Myanmar during the reign of King Anawratha, the father of Burmese nation, in the 11th century CE. The performance of the Ramayana play in the Royal courts can be traced to King Bodawpaya who ruled towards the end of the 18th century and early 19th century. Yama Zatdaw plays a very important role in Burmese arts, literature, culture, and tradition.