The Ramayana might have its roots in India, but Prince Rama’s quest to rescue Sita from the ten-headed Ravana is among the world’s most popular stories, one that plays out in many, colourful ways across South East Asia. How Valmiki’s epic tale made its way across the oceans is undocumented, but we know that pilgrims and trading merchants—the most well-travelled at the time—played a vital role in its dispersion. With every retelling, the story borrowed more and more from local culture, until it ceased to be foreign anymore. Today, nearly every part of India and South East Asia has its own adaptation and over 300 Ramayanas are believed to flourish.
Case in point: the Silver Pagoda temple in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that has intricate murals depicting scenes from the Cambodian version of the Ramayan, called Reamker. In the neighbouring country of Laos, the Royal Ballet enacts Phra Lak Phra Lam, the Lao version of the story, through dance and elaborate costumes, while in Thailand, the 18th-century Temple of the Emerald Buddha is guarded by a pair of giants, one of whom is Ravana himself.
But perhaps the most interesting assimilation of Valmiki’s myth is Hikayat Seri Rama, the Malay version that is enacted by Islamic communities in Malaysia, through the art of shadow puppetry.
Here are glimpses of the Ramayana, from across South East Asia. Notice how the same characters, and the landscapes around them, change with the geography.
Amrita Lall is a former Web Intern at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves people-watching, reading books, and all the dogs in the world. She strongly believes that the best stories are right here, in our everyday lives.