Column | The mystery of Kerala’s Sri Lankan Ramayana manuscripts

Ramayana
Rmayana is recited regularly in the month of Karkidakam.
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For many believers, modern-day Sri Lanka is the Lanka of Ramayana. Since there are many versions of the great Indian epic, it’s incredibly difficult to prove that the island nation is the exact place that Valmiki wrote about centuries ago. However, some in Sri Lanka want to promote Ramayana tourism on the island. Others have proudly claimed the legacy of ‘polymath’ Ravana, and the country’s first locally designed satellite was named after Rama’s adversary.

Despite the eagerness in some quarters in Sri Lanka to claim Ravana, and the belief among some Buddhists that the Buddha was a reincarnation of Rama, the Ramayana was not a big part of the Sinhalese community’s cultural ethos for hundreds of years. Buddhist monks, wary of followers being attracted to Hindu beliefs, discouraged the Sinhalese from reading the Ramayana, according to Wijaya Dissanayake, author of a well-researched book titled Ramayana as Shadows of South Asia’s Proto-History.

One Sinhalese scholar, however, is believed to have written the island’s first version of the Ramayana in the 6th century. This mahakavya (epic poem) titled Janakiharana was composed by Kumaradasa, who Dissanayake describes as “allegedly a friend (probably a devotee) of the great Indian poet Kalidasa.” The Sanskrit work was largely forgotten but was rediscovered in Kerala in 1920.

Kumaradasa

Sri Lankan historians are divided over who Kumaradasa actually was. Some believe he was actually King Kumaradhatusena, whose nine-year reign was in the 6th century. In an autobiographical note at the end of the poem, Kumaradasa wrote that his father was a commander of the Sinhalese King Kumaramani. In Janakiharana of Kumaradasa: A Study, C.R. Swaminathan traces this king to the 6th century.

Other scholars believe that Kumaradasa’s inspiration for Janakiharana was Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa.

The Sinhalese poet lived in Kanchipuram, which was a hub for Dharmic scholastic research.

Little else is known of this mysterious man who was responsible for one of Sri Lanka’s greatest literary contributions.

Kerala manuscripts

In 1920, the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library in what was then called Madras came across a complete manuscript of the Janakiharana, which was in the possession of a Nambudhiri family in northern Travancore.

While conducting research for his book, C.R. Swaminathan accessed the transcript that was in the possession of the Chennai library, but wanted to compare it with the palm-leaf original. “Accordingly effort was taken to trace the original and it proved successful,” Swaminathan wrote.

The Sanskrit manuscript in Malayalam script was preserved well and in the possession of Thuppan Nambudiripad of Ponnurkotumana, near Alwaye. “The manuscript is eight inches long and one inch wide,” Swaminthan wrote. “Each side of a leaf contains about seven lines. The letters are fairly legible and the whole work extends over 52 leaves.” The manuscript was in good condition, except for the fact that some parts of the 10th canto were missing.

Swaminathan estimated the age of the manuscript to be around 100 years. He added, “it contains all the 20 cantos and has a definite ending in the coronation of Rama and the colophon verses dealing with the life of the author.”

English Orientalist Lionel Barnett also had possession of a Malayalam palm-leaf manuscript of the Janakiharana in the 1940s. The original owner of the manuscript, which contained 118 leaves, was Gartavana Sankara from Kalady. Swaminathan estimated the manuscript to date back to the 16th century. Barnett believed it was translated from Sinhalese. The 1946-7 edition of the Bulletin of the London School of Oriental Studies published a part of the 16th canto of the Janakiharana from Barnett’s manuscript. The manuscript in the English Orientalist’s possession actually had more verses than the version found in 1920, but did not have the autobiographical details of Kumaradasa, according to Swaminathnan.

It’s difficult to ascertain how these and other manuscripts of the Janakiharana ended up in Kerala. The state’s links with Sri Lanka go back centuries, and offhand, one can assume that there was a massive exchange of culture, customs and cuisine between these places. Online searches on this topic result in nothing but same vague references to the tradition of Devi worship or articles about the Dutch and Portuguese colonization. A far greater study is required to completely understand how closely Sri Lanka and Kerala are linked.

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