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: