In Cambodia, the 7th century stele of Veal Kantel mentions that the Ramayana had to be recited daily, without interruptions, as did the Harivamsha and the Puranas. Sanskrit literature was already popular with the Khmers from early times, probably appreciated both for its ethical and religious function.
At the time of Jayavarman VII, the Ramayana may have been seen as an allegory of the king’s life. Like Rama, the king had been unjustly exiled and had to fight evil forces (the Chams being equated with the rakshasas), before being able to return to Angkor (or Ayodhya in the case of Rama) and regain the throne. Sita was the symbol of Cambodia, and making her free was the objective of the king.
Since the 17th century the Rama legend has become known in Cambodia as the Reamker (Rama’s glory) or Ramakerti (Rama’s story), most probably passed down on palm-leaf manuscripts or by oral tradition. It differs from the original Valmiki version in several places, and it is also incomplete, with fewer events than in the original Indian text.
Amongst the most striking differences from the Valmiki text is the event when Rama, in order to win the beautiful Sita, had to prove himself able to lift the ancestral bow. In the Cambodian version the archery competition is more complex requiring the contestant to hit a bird behind a moving wheel. This should not be seen as a bastardisation of the original, but as a ‘telling’ influenced by local folklore or by the Tamil tradition.
Thus, whether it is the Tamil narrative by Kampan, the Cambodian Reamker or any of the other tellings of the Ramayana, they should be seen as different voices within the same tradition. The Reamker does not emphasize Rama’s heroism, or his victory over life’s adversity, but his ‘glory’ which is spiritual in value. The Kampan rendition is shaped by the Tamil bhakti tradition, emphasising different religious aspects and the relationship between god and devotee.
The most popular Ramayana scenes illustrated in the Angkor reliefs are the battle scenes at the climax of the ‘Battle of Lanka’, particularly for large-scale compositions, which are developed with great narrative fervour.
The real protagonists of the action are the monkeys, who are depicted with greater verve than the infantry and the generals, or Rama and Ravana. They fly through the air attacking Ravana’s army, and crowd around the main characters in the battle, often grabbing the demon warriors by the hair, or biting them and pulling them to pieces.
The monkeys are also often shown playfully fighting each other, playing drums and dancing, or just sitting quietly and in compassionate attitudes.
Few events from the Bala Kanda (the first book of the Ramayana) are illustrated in the reliefs, especially of Rama’s father and childhood, his upbringing in Ayodhya and his learning of magic spells from a hermit. Only the episodes when Rama killed Tatata and Sita’s svayamvara, where he bent the Great Bow, are often depicted.
The events of the last book, the Uttara Kanda, are ignored completely. These were later additions, and it may be that these texts were not known in Cambodia at that time, or, if they were, that their content was not agreeable to the Khmer elite, who may have considered them a departure from the purest tradition.
Events from the other five books are amply illustrated. The most popular reliefs depict Rama’s exile and wanderings, meetings with ascetics and the confrontation with great ogres and ogresses.
The abduction of Sita itself is common, but the attempt to save her by the brave vulture Jatayu is unknown in Angkor. The favourite events relating to Sita show her in exile, distressed under the acacia tree or receiving the visit of Hanuman, to whom she gives a ring for Rama as a symbol of the success of the mission.
Here in My Journal, we shall examine the Angkor reliefs that the depict of the Legend of Rama. We will focus on the most popular stories and the most significant, complete and well-preserved reliefs, but I will continue to add images of less complete reliefs, and those depicting less significant incidents from the Ramayana, to my gallery at Images of The Ramayana at Angkor, Cambodia ⧉.
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