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Friday, August 14, 2020

The King’s Decree

A look at how the Ramayana came to be linked to the idea of kingship

Written by Valay Singh | Updated: August 25, 2019 6:11:21 am
Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute,, SundayEYE, Eye stories, indianexpress, Ramayana, Ram's coronation, valmiki, Ramavilas Kavyam, A watercolour-and-gold-on-paper depiction of Ram’s court from the Chamba school of painting, 1775-1800. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It rarely happens that questions raised by the Supreme Court during trials are answered by members of the public. But, in yet another sign of how the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute has been the object of national fixation for over two decades now, an inquiry made by the apex court pertaining to the existence of Ram’s descendants in Ayodhya was answered by those not involved in the legal case. Diya Kumari, BJP MP from Rajsamand, and a member of the former royal family of Jaipur, was the first to tweet that descendants of Lord Ram are spread all over the world and her family, too, was one of them; she traces her lineage back to Kush, one of the twins born to Rama and Sita in the epic Ramayana.

Next in line to claim direct lineage from Ram through his other son Luv, was Mahendra Singh Mewar of the Udaipur royal family. Both erstwhile royals have denied any interest in staking a claim to the disputed site in Ayodhya. Subsequently, a number of other self-declared princelings as well as commoners (all belonging to different Rajput clans) have come forward to flaunt their Ramayanic origins. However, it’s not just Kshatriyas (Rajputs are a subset) who have come to link themselves with the Ramayana in order to appropriate some of the effulgent glory of the great epic and its even greater hero, Ram, the most revered prince of the mythical solar race, Suryavansha.

Valmiki, the non-Brahmin bard who first narrated the Ramayana, is himself claimed as an ancestor by a number of caste groups who call themselves Balmikis and are spread across the north and central regions of the Indian subcontinent. The worship of Ram erupted slowly and quite late in Indian religious history (as evidenced by most Ram temples and Ramayani art dating from the medieval period), and, notably, the Ayodhya of today offers us reason to believe that it developed even later as a place of Ram worship. This late development of present-day Ayodhya as the centre of Ram worship also explains why the royal house that ruled over Ayodhya under British tutelage is of Brahmin origin, and, therefore, quite understandably, it has not claimed descent from Ram.

Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute,, SundayEYE, Eye stories, indianexpress, Ramayana, Ram's coronation, valmiki, Ramavilas Kavyam, An unusual coronation scene in which Ram is shown with 12 arms in a postcard by SS Brijwasi and Sons, circa 1920s. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Composed over a period of nearly 800 years (500 BCE- 300CE), Valmiki’s Ramayana is considered one of the first (the Buddhist and Jain Ramayanas belong to the same period) versions of the epic, and is the basic structure around which countless retellings have sprung across languages and regions. Arguably, the most famous retelling is Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas which was written in the late 16th century. Significantly different from Valmiki’s, it spawned a new set of Ramayanas that were localised and contextualised to fit the audience.

The Ramayana’s conversion into a divine or holy text began in the second millennium CE. It was looked upon as a fable to emulate, a utopia to fight for and a template to consolidate kingly power, especially when it is incipient. It gave the Indian kingship a template of an ideal divine-king as Ram being an avatar of the god Vishnu was both a temporal king as well as godhead. And, even though the Ram cult took a long time to gain a stronghold in the Indian subcontinent, once it captured the imagination of kings, it became the canonical template through which rulers sought to establish their legitimacy to rule. Rajput kings in medieval Rajasthan, in an attempt to become superordinate, often envisioned themselves as Ram. The earliest example of a ruler projecting himself as Ram comes from the kingdom of Mewar, whose ruler, Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar (1628-52) commissioned 120 miniature paintings in the Rajput style depicting him as Ram and the Mughals as Ravana. That, perhaps, explains why the richly coloured paintings show Ravan taking a ceremonial bath in what resembles a royal Mughal tent.

The second example is of a later origin but is also against the backdrop of Mughal rule. In 1708, Jai Singh, the Kachvaha ruler of Amer depicted himself as Ram setting out for battle against Ravana. In her talk at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, titled Visions of Kingship in the Twilight of Mughal Rule (2005), academic Monica Horstmann says, Ramavilas Kavyam, a poem composed around the events of the battle of Sambhar by “ritual specialists” at the royal court, Jai Singh is “portrayed as the quintessential dharmic king…” for he “is identified with Rama, Visnu this time not embodied to kill Ravana but the Mughal troops, called the Yavanas or Mlecchas, foreigners and barbarians”.

The Thai Rama dynasty follows Theravada Buddhism, which has incorporated many Hindu elements including the Shaivite ‘Holy jewel’ or lingam. It is not Hindu by any measure but its incorporation of the Ramayan exemplifies the hydra-headed nature of the epic and its usefulness for kings. The Thai King Rama I rewrote the Ramayana and popularised its performances along with the traditional forms of Buddhist worship in Thailand. Like many other kings, he, too, legitimised his own rule by assimilating the “glory of Rama” into the Thai idea of royal power.

Throughout the history of the world, kings have tried to apportion the divine right to rule, and in the Indian, and, to some extent, south Asian context, the Ramayana enables just this. Furthermore, the epic with its presence of the “other” in the form of Ravan and his armies, perpetuates ideas of social stratification, and continues to be used to create “enemies” that must be eradicated at all cost.
A rare benign example of this was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2016 Dussehra speech in which he equated Ravan with social evils such as malnutrition.

The politicisation of Ramayanic tropes is not new but, of late, it has been transformed into the sordid weaponisation of Ram’s name. In looking towards the text for an ideal in disillusioned times, we must also bear true allegiance to the values of benevolence and social harmony that are the essence of the epic.

Valay Singh is the author of Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord (Aleph Book Company)

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