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.
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