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On The Ramayana Trail II: Reamker

On The Ramayana Trail II: Reamker

June 03, 2010

In the second post of the series, we trace the story behind the Cambodian Reamker.

Have you ever played the game of Chinese Whispers? You and your friends stand around in a circle and whisper a phrase into the next person’s ear and by the time, the final person in the group says it out aloud, it’s become something else completely. ‘Cocoa Cola’ becomes ‘Poke a roller’ and ‘I want a cookie’ becomes ‘My Aunt’s a bookie!’ It’s a fun game. And it was just what I was reminded of when I found myself staring at a panel on the Angkor Wat depicting a scene from the Ramayana.

Built in the twelfth century, the Angkor Wat was long renowned as the world’s largest Hindu temple complex. The clincher is, that even though India is the birthplace of Hinduism, the complex is located in Siem Reap in Cambodia. Its walls are covered with motifs from the great Hindu epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. And while the story of the Mahabharata has remained more or less unchanged and inconsequential in the nation, the Ramayana has metamorphosed into something a little more distinctly Cambodian.

Ram becomes Preah Ram and Sita becomes Neang Seda. The eternal bachelor in India Hanuman is seen in love with a mermaid in the Cambodian version. The Hindu ideas in the story are interpreted with a Buddhist touch and the characters are stripped of the divinity that Indians associate with them. The story is much more human, following the travails of an exiled prince as he is forced to go to war to retrieve his wife. Yet peel off the Khmerian essence and you can see Ram and his journey laid bare for all to see.

It’s interesting that in a land that is almost 3000 kilometers away from India, you are suddenly reminded of your roots and your epics. The fact that the story managed to travel so far away from its place of origin and influence an entire culture is just fascinating. And what is even more interesting is the fact that the story continues to enthrall and capture the imaginations of a population who are far removed from the Aryan -Dravidian invasion debate or the idea that the epic was just a re-telling of the invasion of Lanka or erstwhile Ceylon. The story must have reached Cambodian shores through the trade the ancient Khmerian kingdom had conducted with the South Indian kingdoms of lore. And with each re-telling the tale must have acquired not only a Cambodian flavour but also a personality that appealed to its listeners. Now you see why I likened it to Chinese whispers. Though in this case the story has not mutated beyond all recognition.

However, I believe that it is this depiction of the various scenes from the Ramayana on the Angkor Wat which convey the true message of the epic. We all know of religious fundamentalists who cling onto the ancient texts and insist that their way of reading it is the only way. Here in Cambodia, the epic has been passing on the Hindu way of living and adapting to its surroundings in as peaceful a way as can be. Here there are no tridents and forced conversions or oppositions to people who just do not agree with the Hindu way of living. Here there is no crying hoarse about which religion is superior. All that one can see here is that the life lessons written about in the epics can very well be adapted to different styles and times of living, no matter what the original environment of the tale was. No one dare accuse the Cambodians of cultural appropriation as far as the Reamker is concerned.

But what about those countries where the epic not only seems to be startlingly similar, but they also claim to be the place of origin of the Ramayana? Read more on this as we continue ‘On The Ramayana Trail’ next week. And meanwhile do leave us with your comments.

Click below to read the rest in the series:

On The Ramayana Trail: Hey Ram

On The Ramayana Trail III: Shadow Play

On The Ramayana Trail IV: A Filipino Twist

On The Ramayana Trail V: Alive And Kicking


  • dara
    07.05.11 02:22 PM
    Today everyone call it Angkor Wat..for older Khmer they call it Angkor Tor (small city) but the official name is PreahVishnuLoka which mean "One Who Walk with Vishnu"..this is the posthomonous name for Suryavarman II after he pass on.

    Suryavarman mean The Sun Shield.

    Surya=Sun Varman=Shield or Protector.

    Suryavarman decedant from the Sun Linage (Prince Kambu or Preah Thone)..while Mera or Neag Neak is the Moon Linage...Every Khmer kings claim the throne thru these two linage.
  • dara
    07.05.11 02:04 PM
    Thanks for visiting my old country. More than 2000 years ago India and China were the major power in Asia and their trade route took them to south east Asia..but it was India that brought her culture and spread it across South East Asia. China only brought their junk boats to trade their wares they DO NOT want to share their culture or knowledge to any outsider. They consider people outside their boundary barbarian.

    I'm kind of surprised that many Indian don't realize how far India culture has influenced ASEAN states. I'm a Khmer Do you know in Khmer (Cambodia) legend that our race originate from the union of an Indian Prince name Kambu who marry a local princess name Mera? In Khmer we call the Indian prince Preah Thone and the princess is call Neag Neak (Lady Dragon or Naga princess)...till this day all Khmer know this it been pass on from our from Wiki

    The legend holds that Kambu Swayambhuva was a learned prince who had initially been an Indian king. He had ventured into the Far East and entered an area having jungles that was being ruled by a king of Naga lineage. Defeating the Naga king, prince Kambu married his daughter Mera and developed the land into a fertile and flourishing country. The combination of Kambu and Mera names is said to have given rise to the name Khmer (Kambu + Mera =Khmer) according to George Coedes [1]. Sage-prince Kambu of the Cambodian legends, to all probability, belonged to the Kamboja lineage[2] and appears to have sailed from Indian subcontinent, probably from Saurashtra/Gujarat on the west coast of India and established a small Kamboja kingdom in Bassac around Vat-Ph'u hill in Mekong Basin...

    We Khmer NEVER forgot India gave us a lot of culture but we add a twist of Khmerness to it aka in Ramayana where Haknuman have a lover. We lay the seed of Indian culture in South East Asia. It just that we been in a 60 years civil war while the rest of Asia progress...but now we at peace and one day we will reclaim culture that has been stolen from us by the Thais..
  • Siem Reap Travel
    Siem Reap Travel
    28.04.11 08:30 PM
    Hi, nice article! Cambodia really is a magical place to visit!
  • Parwati
    14.06.10 02:47 PM
    Hello, nice to hear that. one more, there is also ramayana dance performs in Prambanan Temple (Central Java), Indonesia. there they use different language (Javanese language).
    if i can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to let me know.

    looking forward to the further news - take care//
  • Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    11.06.10 12:30 PM
    @ AmIHindu-Hello sir, I would suggest getting the book named "Temples of Angkor" as soon as you reach Siem Reap. It will enrich your experience of the Angkor Complex. Thanks for reading and commenting.
  • AM I A HINDU? International Best Seller
    AM I A HINDU? International Best Seller
    11.06.10 12:51 AM
    Shweta, Thanks for a spectacular description about the Angkor Wat.

    I came across this article very timely when my wife and I are contemplating of visiting there in Sept.

    Kindly provide me any more detail you have.

    May God bless you.

    On my part, I am an engineer and author of AM I A HINDU?[ ] international best seller about HINDU CULTURE as a very lively discussion between a 14 year old American born Indian teenager and his middle aged father discussing every aspect of Hinduism in 90 chapters. This book is translated to HINDI [ "Kya Mai Hindu Hai?" – Rupa Press, India ] HINDI and Indonesian languages [ Apakah Saya Orang Hindu?]
  • Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    10.06.10 12:15 PM
    Hi Parwati - Shweta here. Angkor Wat images are free-flowing on the net. But nothing compares to actually seeing the spectacular monument. And it's interesting that you mentioned Indonesia, as the next post will be on the Ramayana culture there.
    @ Sourav- It's always nice to find someone else doing the same kind of research. We will be covering the Indonesian and Filipino versions soon. Hope to see your feedback on those posts as well.
    @ Maria - Thanks for reading and commenting. Do stay tuned for the rest of the series. :)
  • Maria
    10.06.10 11:08 AM
    Wow..what a topic..nvr crossed my mind this one. But it makes perfect sense. Remember going to Bangkok ages ago and being surprised to see all our very own devatas n devis in their temples.And the Chinese whisper comparison..very apt!:)
  • Sourav Roy
    Sourav Roy
    10.06.10 12:33 AM
    After some exhaustive research, I have reached to a conclusion that versions of Ramayana exists in many languages, including Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, etc. In Sanskrit itself there are 25 different versions. According to A. K. Ramanujam, more than 300 tellings of Ramayana exist.

    Each has newer dimensions, more fascinating than the other.

    Read them in reverse order here-
  • Parwati
    09.06.10 09:18 PM
    Dear Kalpana,
    that's a great work. keep us posted.
    if possible to also show the photos of the temple itself so everyone can see.
    Ramayana also stick deeply in every Hindu followers in Bali, Indonesia.
    visitors can see Ramayana epic every evening at Uluwatu Temple, southern part of Bali//.
  • Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    05.06.10 07:14 PM
    @ Kalpana - Thank you. Please do stay tuned for the rest of the series
    @ Lazy Pineapple -Yes, it's fascinating how much of an influence Hinduism has had. In some places Buddhism as seen as an off-shoot of it.
    @ Melvin - Yes, the largest if you look at the ancient structures list. Though the latest record seems to be held by Akshardham in Delhi.
    It was actually built by the King Suryavarman II as his state temple. But of course you are right about the mingling of cultures producing something absolutely delightful. Thank you for reading and commenting :)
  • Melvin Pereira
    Melvin Pereira
    05.06.10 11:09 AM
    Interesting, Ankur Wat is on my list of places to go visit.

    It is supposed to be the biggest Hindu temple in the world right ??

    Actually being built by the farmers from India who used to go to Cambodia through the Bay of Bengal over during the rains .. of course when one culture blends with another the mix can be interesting .. .

    Indian food in London as an example ;)
  • Lazy Pineapple
    Lazy Pineapple
    04.06.10 09:47 PM
    Interesting facts about ramayana..never knew that Hinduism has so much of an influence that far away....I had always thought that Buddhism was the strongest of the religions in the far east.
  • kalpana
    03.06.10 03:44 PM
    well written shweta.

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