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On The Ramayana Trail IV: A Filipino Twist

On The Ramayana Trail IV: A Filipino Twist

June 19, 2010

The epic becomes the story of a Sultan’s sons and a monkey named Laksmana in the Philippines.

Since moving to the Philippines in January last year, I have been trying to find that elusive link that connects the islands to the rest of South Asia. Walking through Manila you wont find old architectural monuments that betray an Indian influence or Buddhist monks or signs written in flowing scripts. You’ll find instead a fluently English speaking population, tall buildings from which the oldest might be from the seventies and hardly anyone walking around in the Philippine national costumes of the Barong or the Baro’t Saya, unless you walked into a wedding of course. It is hard to think of the Philippines as a Southeast Asian nation when there are hardly any of the characteristics that you associate with them. A friend of mine told me, that even Tagalog is written in English as the indigenous script had died out long ago and today only exists in the dusty old tomes found in university libraries.

I had all but given up on my quest to tie the Philippines with the rest of Asia, when I chanced upon an exhibit of ancient gold artifacts that was organized by one of the museums in the city. It was here that I first saw a copy of the Laguna copperplate inscription. An inscription that dated back to 900 AD, it was written in a combination of old Tagalog, old Malay, old Javanese and Sanskrit. Other gold artifacts like a gold Upanayanam or the sacred thread used by Brahmins was evidence that the Philippines along with a few other Southeast Asian countries had been part of the Sri Vijaya Empire. This was an empire that had originated in the south of India and had strong trade relations with several southern princely states. A little more research later, I discovered that it was the South of the Philippines that had been part this empire. Today this part of the islands is the lone cluster of Islam dominated provinces in a staunchly Catholic country. Yet it is here where I found a story that was vaguely familiar.

Here was the tale of the eight-headed Maharadia Lawana, a prince who was banished to another island to rule because of his unworthy ways. Later on in the story come Radia Mangandiri and Radia Mangawa, two sons of a Sultan who are on a ten-year journey to ultimately court Malaila Ganding, a princess in a distant land. Radia Mangandiri wins her hand and they journey back home. But on the way Malaila sees a golden-horned deer, and sends her husband and brother-in law to capture it. At this point, Maharadia Lawana abducts her. A heart-broken Mangandiri tries to find her and dreams of being blessed with a monkey-child by the name of Laksmana. Laksmana duly appears and helps Mangandiri get his wife back. In the end Lawana becomes a just king, Laksmana grows into a man and Mangandiri returns to Agama Niog, his kingdom with his wife and brother.

So yes, Rawana seems to have become Lawana and Hanuman Laksmana while Ram, Sita and Lakshman became Mandangiri, Malaila and Mangawa. Different names but the same old story about life, death, courtship and politics! While the Ramayana stamp is undeniable, it is also clear that the story has undergone quite a lot of localization. Today the tale is part of the oral tradition that exists here and apart from references in scholarly works it is hardly a popular muse unlike the Ramayana.

So the more I see the epic emerge from the shadows, the more I feel like it’s turning out to be the common thread that links the kaleidoscope that is South Asia. And yet the Ramayana continues to be interpreted today in ways that Valmiki probably never imagined possible. But before we get you more on that, do write in if you have seen glimpses of the Ramayana in places where you would have never thought it possible. We would love to read your comments.

Click below to read the rest in the series:

On The Ramayana Trail: Hey Ram

On The Ramayana Trail II: Reamker

On The Ramayana Trail III: Shadow Play

On The Ramayana Trail V: Alive And Kicking


  • Rick Hilario
    Rick Hilario
    23.06.14 01:30 PM
    your observations are correct. many filipinos don't realize how much island southeast asia, the philippines included, were one part of a cultural continuity
    called a 'Greater India' [Suvarnadvipa].

    i have long been intrigued by the
    affinities of word similarities among
    Philippine languages and Sanskrit and the Dravidian languages. I have studied
    these in comparative lexicons i have
    compiled out of curiosity.

    The cultural continuity with Bharat
    (India) and the Philippines extends beyond the lexical evidence. There are
    shared traditions in folklore and belief
    systems, pre-colonial fashion and body
    ornamentation, and certain culinary traditions as well.

    The work i have compiled in the past 3 years is still in-progress and unpublished. should you be interested
    to know more of them, i would gladly be
    able to share them in the pursuit of cultural understanding.
  • Nikeet
    23.09.12 01:56 PM
    Thanks a lot !!!! Its a great article indeed. I have many friends from Philippines. I will be glad to share these updates with them. Many have wondered about the stories which Hinduism believes in but now they have a easier way to understand through their own Filipino version. Thanks a lot. Keep up the good work.
  • Mo Lim
    Mo Lim
    26.07.12 10:16 AM
    Very good article Shweta Ganesh Kumar. This epic from the Philippines is of the Maguindanaon(which I belong to), Maranao and Iranaun epics. Other than this, we also have Raja Indarapatra and Raja Sulaiman, Distillation of Bantugan and a lot more which are also similar to the Ramayana. You might also want to research on that.
  • champak tank
    champak tank
    16.01.12 11:37 PM
    Since long time it was my deep desire to know some connections between Ancient India and Philippines as it is my favorite place to visit. I was looking some details and thanks for writing this article. I have just visited and have many friends there whom i use to talk about this connections but no concrete information.
    Thanks once again
  • Jec
    13.01.12 10:46 AM
    Wow. I never thought I would come across your article. I have a game in my mobile phone called Ramanaya, but I never thought we Filipinos have a version of it. It is such interesting the read the ideas of other nationalities pertaining to the Philippines. Anyway, I came across this while surfing for Philippine myths, legends, and epics..

    Thanks a lot..
  • Cristina
    21.01.11 11:20 PM
    I certainly appreciate the connection. I am half filipino but have accepted sanatana dharma as my way of life. To see that India's influence had reached my mother's land warms my heart. As a big foodie here are some food similarites.
    Achara (Achar) is the same word for pickles/relish. Also the drumstick is malungay in tagolog, murungai in tamil.
  • Ramprasad
    15.12.10 06:24 PM
    Came across the reference to Radia Mangandiri in Shashi Tharoor's "The Elephant, Te Tiger & the cell phone" n was browsing the web to look for more information on the same... Thanks.
    I hail from Mangalore and interestingly the word for monkey in Tulu, my mother tongue, is "Manga". I would be most pleasantly surprised to find some similarities between Tulu & Tagalog...
    I used to call at many a Filipino port when I was at sea... I wish I had heard of this earlier...
  • Pingkan
    13.10.10 08:34 PM
    this is my first time too to know that Ramayana is exist in Philipine, even in different version.
    I am in a kind of Ramayana trail too before I found your site, but I am seeing Ramayana as a dance-drama performance.
    Besides shadow puppet play, we Indonesian also make it as dance-drama show, especialy in Java and Bali.
  • sivadasan
    30.07.10 10:23 PM
    wonderful article. This is first time i heard the philippine version of Ramayana.
    i came to know that many words in tagalog derived from sanskrit.
  • Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    22.06.10 01:22 PM
    @ Lazy Pineapple - Thank you. And like you said that it's quite probable that we imbibed quite a lot of foreign cultures and appropriated it as our own. It's interesting to see two totally different lands display the same sort of cultural rites and traits. Thank you for reading and commenting.
    @ Appu - Yes, most interpretations of already existing tales are the indeed personal visions of how the new author believes that the story should have been. So you could be right.
  • Appu
    19.06.10 05:53 PM
    Own interpretations maybe own vision
    - present day acceptance maybe.
  • Lazy Pineapple
    Lazy Pineapple
    19.06.10 03:20 PM
    wow...very interesting...
    I have read your entire series...looks like Ramayana has influenced many a cultures..I think travellers and Buddhist monks carried the tales with them when they travelled is quite possible that we might have imbibed some of the mythology of these countries and we are not aware of it...

    Waiting for more articles from you :)

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