Rāmāyaṇa tradition in northeast Bhārat
By Virag Pachpore
Sri Rāma is worshipped and adored as national hero of Bhārat, an epitome of ‘Purushāthartha’ and his stories find diverse manifestation all over the country and even abroad. The story of the Prince of Ayodhya finds its way in the folk art, folklore and folk dances of the region. During his entire life, there is seldom any reference to Sri Rāma traveling to northeast Bharat as compared to Sri Krishna. His entire sojourn was from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka through the thick Dandaka forest covering the present states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. One finds ample evidence of his presence in these states. But that is not the case here in the northeastern states of Bhārat. There is ample scope to believe that the Rāmāyaṇa tradition must have travelled to the hills and dales of the enchanting northeast Bhārat through the South East Asian region. This was later adapted by the people making some changes to suit their cultural surroundings and religious beliefs. Assam has a very rich Rāmāyaṇa tradition preserved in oral and written form and also as a performing art. The famous Rāmāyaṇa written by the great Assamese poet Madhav Kandali is still relevant to the people of Assam and held in great reverence to that of Valmiki’s work.
Nevertheless, there is evidence to prove the presence of Rāmāyaṇa tradition among the various janajāti people and communities in the northeast Bharat. Most surprising is the presence of folklore among the Mizo people expressing their belief that Rama and Lakshmaṇa taught them the art of cultivation of rice! However, they have a treasure trove of evidence and that too live ones, to prove their strong links – emotional, ethnic, political and cultural and linguistic etc. with the rest of Bhārat. The references to places, people and plants of the Mahābhārata period are amply found in these north-eastern states. And now, this seminar has brought to fore its connection to the Rāmāyaṇa tradition which is older to Mahābhārata in its historicity.
Many Muslims today accept Sri Rāma as Imam-e-Hind. Even the famous Muslim poet Mohammad Iqbal, who composed ‘Sāre Jahan se Achcha Hindosta Hamārā’, described Sri Rāma as ‘Imām-e-Hind’. Iqbal wrote:
“Hain Rāma ke Vajud Pe Hindosta ko Naaz, Ahle Nazar samajhte hain usko Imam-e-Hind.
During the late 80s, a seminar on Rāmakathā Traditions in the Northeast Bharat was organized under the auspices of Guwahati University wherein scholars from various states of the region participated and it was then this presence of Rāmāyaṇa became known to the people. Rest of Bhārat is yet to connect itself emotionally with the people of northeast, though the latter consider them as ‘True Bhāratiya’, and they have proved their loyalty to Bhārat during the 1962 Chinese invasion and on many other occasions. But it is most unfortunate that we still consider them as different from us, mostly due to their facial features and languages. Examples of such discrimination galore in the national capital and other metro cities.
However, what is more interesting is the presence of Rāmkathā among the various janjatis of the region. The Karbis, inhabiting the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, have a great tradition of Ramayana which is basically oral. The story of Rāma is known as ‘Sabin Alun’ and it is set in the milieu of Karbi customs and culture, traditions and beliefs and of course, their way of life. I was first introduced to the ‘Karbi Rāmāyaṇa’ by Swami Bangovind Parampanthi of Assam Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The great savant Lakhiman Guru who worked among the Karbi people, had revived this tradition. The Karbis believe that they are descendants of Sugriva, the King of ‘Kishkindha’ who helped Rama in finding Sita and eliminating Rāvaṇa, the King of Sri Lanka with his army of ‘Vānara’.The name ‘Karbi’ is also supposed to be a corrupt form of ‘Kaveri’, a river in south Bhārat considered as pious as the Ganga from where these people are believed to have migrated to their present habitat.
The people who can recite Rama’s song are held in very high esteem in the Karbi society. According to Karbi tradition, Rama goes to his would-be Father-in-Law’s house and works there in fields etc. to prove his competence as a ‘good’ groom who can take care of his daughter. Tiwa people in Assam also have oral tradition and preserve Rāmakathā as ‘Rāmāyaṇa Kharang’. The Rabha people have a folk song that says “let’s go and see the horse of Sri Rāma’.
Khamtis of Lohit district in Arunachal Pradesh also have their own version of Rāmāyaṇa which seems to bear the influence of Jataka Tales and Buddhist philosophy. The Khamtis are Buddhists. Their Rāmakathā is known as ‘Lik Chaw Lamang’. The Mismis, another janjati in Lohit district has a folk tale that has closeness to Rāmakathā. The Aka people in Arunachal’s Kameng district also relate them to Jambavana, a lieutenant in Rama’s Army.
In Meghalaya, a Christian-dominated state, the story of Rāma is equally popular. Especially, during the first telecast of Ramanand Sagar’s Rāmāyaṇa, a Serial on Doordarshan in 1987, most people in Meghalaya watched it with utmost devotion and concentration. The Khasis, Jaintias and Garo people have their own versions of Rāmāyaṇa. In 1900, the founder of the Seng Khasi movement Jeebon Roy, brought the story of Rāma in Khasi language first.
Similarly, Rāmāyaṇa was translated into Garo language by Redin Momin and was published years after his death in 1992. Among the Jaintia people there is tradition: If twin boys are born in any house they are named as ‘Rama and Lakhon’. But more interesting is the belief of people in the Ri-War area. This is an orange producing area and the oranges are sweet because they believe that Sri Rāma had brought them from Sri Lanka and dropped them in this area!
Most interesting folklore is available in Mizoram, a tiny state that has now adopted Christianity. Here Rāmāyaṇa is a story of ‘Khena (Laxman) and Rama’. There are various characters in this story such as Khena, Hawlaman, Luppirabon, Lucarina that can be identified with Lakshamana, Hanuman, Mahiravana and Ravana. The Mizo folk tradition accepts Ram and Khena as ‘Gods’ and believe that they taught them how to cultivate paddy. Rice is used in various religious ceremonies and in invocation to rice these two characters are invariably mentioned. The invocation to rice goes like this:
While the earthworm took earth for shaping world,
While Mother Nature modelled the world,
You were created by Khena and Rama
In Tripura also we find a rich Rāmakathā tradition. ‘Rajratnākara’ a historical chronicle composed in the 15th century mentions Puru Sena, a King who was contemporary to King Dasharatha of Ayodhya. He had attended a sacrifice ceremony performed by Dasharatha at Ayodhya. King Ramganga Manikya of Tripura was an ardent devotee of Sri Rama. Manipur, which has a dominance of Vaishnava sect, has rich Ramayana tradition preserved through kathak, folk dances, kirtan, and songs. The ‘Jatra’ tradition in Manipur also preserves this story as ‘Lairik-Thiba-Maiba’.
However, due to the advent of Christianity these historical records were either destroyed or made untraceable. It is however heartening to note that of late various universities in the northeast Bharat have started unearthing these ancient hidden treasures. In the advent of Sri Ram Mandir at Ayodhya such discoveries would prove to be the best adhesive to bridge the emotional gap between the people of northeast and the rest of Bharat.
- 90 percent of the Mizo community have been converted to Christianity.
- They called Lakshmaṇa as ‘Khena’
- Originally published at News Bharati