By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, November 30:

Sri Lankan Malays, who are Muslims, had, for at least two centuries, drawn inspiration from the Hindu epic Ramayana to overcome the traumas of exile to Ceylon from their native Java in the Indonesia archipelago.

The Dutch who ruled both Java and Ceylon in the 17 th and 18 th centuries, had brought the Muslim Malays (the Javanese were called Malays by the Dutch and the British) to Ceylon either as banished rebel princes or as soldiers in their army.

The Ramayana was already popular in Java as indeed in the rest of South Asia having been brought to it by Hindu Indian traders. The cult of Rama that got embedded in Javanese culture survived wholesale conversion to Islam by Arab traders and Sufi saints from West Asia. To this day, the story of Rama and Sita and their links with “Langkapura” are part of Javanese/Malay art, dance and theatre.

Strangely, an epic which had become part of the cultures of South East Asia, had very little impact on Ceylon which as “Lanka” in the Ramayana. In the Ramayana, Lanka was ruled by Rawana, the villain in the story of Rama and Sita. Lanka was also the scene of the epic battle between the Rama and Rawana.

Rawana and his brother Vibhishana are worshipped as “disciples of the Buddha” in the Kelaniya temple. But mainstream Sri Lankan Buddhist literature has little or no reference to the Ramayana. The odd references to it were derogatory,  with it being dubbed as “futile talk.”  

But the Malays brought to Ceylon by the Dutch had the Ramayana  as an integral part of their lived culture till about the middle of the 19 th.Century. Ronit Ricci of the Australian Nation University in her book: Banishment and Belonging (Cambridge University Press and Tambapanni Academic Publishers) describes in detail the place of the Ramayana in the Malay community in Ceylon.

Malay Ramayana

The earliest written version of the Malay Ramayana was the Kakawin Ramayana. The author of this poetic work was Yogiswara. According to Ricci, the location of the 9 th.Century Parambanan temple in Java, which is associated with the Ramayana, was originally known as “Langkapura”.

The next major version of the Javanese Ramayana was the Hikayat Seri Rama (Chronicle of The Great Rama)written in phases between the 13 and 17 th. Centuries. The Hikatat Seri Rama is generally regarded as an embodiment of the cultural ideals of the Javanese ruling elite, which were an admixture of Hinduism and Islam.

There are traces of Tamil and Jain Ramayanas in Hikayat Seri Rama as well the Hikayat Maharaja Rawana (The Story of King Rawana).  For example, the Tamil and Malay Ramayanas portray Sita as Rawana’s daughter, not King Janaka’s. And Tamil words are used. For example, there is a line which says that Sita ate mam palam (ripe mango).

The Hikayat Seri Rama uses Islamic terminology and Islamic references. Ronit Ricci describes it as a monument to the kind of connections and syntheses that were forged during the transition from pre-Islamic to Islamic culture in the Malay world.

Cerat Cabolek is a Javanese manuscript that illustrated the dialectic between Islam and Javanese traditions in the 18 th.and the 19th centuries. According to the Cerat Cabolek. the Ramayana, the Arjuna Wiwaha and the story of Bima Suci (a Javanese hero known for bravery and righteousness) were works of Islamic mysticism that contained all the necessary teachings for one to lead a virtuous life.

The Babad Tanah Jawi  (History of the Land of Java) also has stories paralleling the Ramayana. Just as Bharatha in the Ramayana refused to sit on the throne of Ayodhya saying the rightful king was not he, but his exiled elder brother Rama, Pakubuwana II of the Javanese kingdom of Kartasura refused to sit on the throne in 1726 saying the seat should rightfully go to his elder brother, Pangeran Arya Mangkuagara.   

Importance of Exile

For the Malay expatriates or exiles in Ceylon the Hikayat Seri Rama was more than the story of the banishment of Rama and Sita to “Langkapura”. The banishment of Rama and Sita seemed to parallel their own banishment from Java.

And just as the “Lanka” of the Ramayana was a rich idyll ruled by a powerful demon-king Rawana, the Malays’ “Langkapura” was also an idyll ruled by a demon, and that demon was the intolerant and exploitative Dutch.  The Malays of Sri Lanka welcomed the defeat of the Dutch by the British at the end of the 18 th.Century and the establishment of British rule.

The first Sri Lankan Malay language newspaper in the Jawi script Alamat Langkapuri,  launched in 1869 by Baba Ounus Saldin, described  British rule as “bright sunshine” in comparison with Dutch rule.  As a Sri Lankan expert on the Malays in Sri Lanka under British rule, Dr. B.A.Hussainmiya, pointed out, the community gained because of recruitment to the Ceylon Rifle Regiment set up by the British. The children of Malay soldiers got an English education which enabled them to enter the prestigious government service when the British opened the latter to Ceylonese.

In the Ramayana, banishment to Lanka was very hard on Sita. Similarly, the banishment from Java to Sri Lanka was hard on the Malay exiles and soldiers until much later when conditions improved.  The yearning to go back to Java was strong in the 18 th.Century,  just as Sita’s yearning to go back to Rama and Ayodhya in India was.

In the texts known as Wasilan (containing charms and incantations recited in life-threatening situations) the Ramayana’s concept of Lakshmana Rekha (the line one will cross only at one’s peril) is evoked. The Lakshmana Rekha was a boundary drawn around Sita in the forest that would have saved her from the abductor Rawana had she not been careless.

The Malay Garisan Laksamana is a Wasilan chant that was used in situations of mortal danger. It was believed that chanting it would result in the perceived danger disappearing or the aggressor dropping dead. Malay soldiers in battle were advised to recite the Garisan Laksamana at the right moment for maximum effect. 

Rawana and Nabi Adam

According to Ricci, there are two voluminous copies of the Hikayat Seri Rama in Sri Lanka. They contain a story which draws a parallel between Rawana and Adam (referred to as Nabi Adam in the Islamic way ). Both of them had defied a solemn pledge and incurred banishment.

According to the Hikayat Seri Rama, Rawana was a strong but a wild child. He was banished by his grandfather Bermaraja, the ruler of Lanka. Rawana, then just 12, wondered about and indulged in the severe penance of hanging upside down from a tree at the foot of Mount Sarandib (Adam’s Peak) for twelve years continuously.

Nabi Adam, who was also there, having been banished from heaven by Allah for disobeying him, spotted Rawana and told him that he could help him get his rightful place in his kingdom if he would only promise to strictly obey a set of divine commandments that would make him a just ruler of a vast domain. Rawana took the pledge and got to rule his kingdom. But he broke the pledge by abducting Sita. And in the war with Rama which followed, Rawana suffered a humiliating defeat and lost his kingdom.

There is an interesting parallel drawn between Sita and Nabi Adam. Both are connected to the earth. King Janaka had discovered Sita in a furrow while he was ploughing a field, and he raised her as his daughter. Adam comes from the Hebrew word Adamah which means  “son of red earth”.

On Sita’s return after the defeat of Rawana, Rama suspected her of infidelity and asked his brother to take her deep into the forest to live the rest of her life in a hermitage. But not long after her arrival in the forest, Sita looked at the ground and asked Mother Earth to open up and take her back. The earth opened up and Sita stepped in and never to be seen again. She had been found in the earth as a babe and returned to it as a woman.


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