Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation


Translator, folklorist and poet, A. K. Ramanujan wrote this essay for a conference at the University of Pittsburgh in 1987. It was later collected into the anthology Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia edited by Paula Richman. The copy carried here comes from that book published in the University of California Press in 1991. 

In this essay, Ramanujan traces the history of the Ramayana through its various tellings found across India and Asia. He cites work by the missionary and scholar Camille Bulcke that counts three hundred tellings or versions of the Ramayana and offers a nuanced view of a story, shaped depending on the region and culture of its storytellers. He also discusses how the story in turn shapes the beliefs and traditions of the people who hear the story. 

The Rama story exists in many languages including Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Odia, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, and several Western languages. It also exists in multiple forms like kavya, puranas, dance-drama, mask-plays, puppet plays, sculpture, bas-reliefs and others. Ramanujan is insistent on calling these ‘tellings’ as opposed to ‘versions’ or ‘variants’ as the latter terms suggest the existence of a single primary or original text on which the rest are based. 

The essay illustrates the point using a story of Rama, Hanuman and a ring that falls to the netherworld. Ramanujan states, “some shadow of a relational structure claims the name of Ramayana for all these tellings but on closer look one is not necessarily all that like another.” The essay brings to light these differences by a comparative analysis of the Ahalya episode as it appears in the Rama tellings by Valmiki and Kampan. It posits that even when the story is fairly similar, the “style, details, tone, and texture” would result in a different discourse. 

According to Ramanujan, in Valmiki, Rama is god-man forced to live within human limits whereas in Kampan “he is clearly a god.” Kampan’s Rama (and the story as a whole) shows the influence of the Tamil bhakti tradition. In a similar manner, in Jain tellings the story carries Jain rather than Hindu values. In Vimalsuri’s Paumacariya, it is Laksamana who stands as the antagonist to Ravana and who goes to hell for killing him. 

Ramanujan also dwells on the Thai Ramakirti bringing out the differences between it and the Indian tellings discussed earlier. He explores the way in which the dissimilarities reflect the concerns of the society telling the story. He concludes that these tellings not only borrow or lend to one other directly but together form a common pool of narratives in conversation with each other.

Focus by Ishita Banerjee.


A. K. Ramanujan


University of California Press