Once we reckon with the word communication
in perspective, it is not hard to perceive that it is not limited to
news or information. Then it becomes meaningful to see that the word
dharma finds a place in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as also the
word Veda. To appreciate how this has come about will lead us through
the adventures of the mind long before media began to surface.
The search must lead back
to the time when knowledge blossomed in many ways and lifestyle was
exciting; travel was a part of life. Ancient treatises like
Kautilyas Arthsastra provide ample information on
methods of trade along the national routes, the Uttarapada and
the Dakshinapatha. Soon enough, our ancients extended travel
for coastal trade in neighbouring countries by sea, across the Bay of
Bengal. Such phenomena might well be viewed as the backdrop for the
Asian drama of communication in ancient times.
An Indian who goes on a
visit to Thailand for instance, would be intrigued to hear of a town
called Ayutthaya (Ayodhya), about 70 km north of Bangkok. (Ayodhya
was the kingdom which was ruled by Rama) It was here that the ruler
established his capital in 1350. He was named Ramadhibhodhi. The
present ruler of Thailand is Rama IX. Rama I was instrumental for the
evolution of Ramayana as a classic in Thailand, known as Rama
kien. The city of Bangkok itself contains the temple of the
Emerald Buddha, where the surrounding galleries depict, in 178
expansive murals, the story of Rama. In addition, the Rama kien
may be found depicted on the walls of a number of buildings ranging
from temple liberaries to consecrated congregational halls. Large and
fierce looking figures of demon kings from the Rama kien stand
guard at the doorways of Bangkoks major temples, like the
Temple of Emerald Buddha, the Temple of Dawn and Wat Pho. The
universe of performing arts often presents episodes of Rama kien
through the medium of mask dance known as Khon: colourful,
stylized and absorbing.
There are many sites
which are associated with the Rama kien story like Kao Sappaya
in Chainat Province and Tale Chub Sorn in Lopburi province.
If one leaves Bangkok and
moves further south, one lands in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.
The citys names is derived from Ayodhya karta. Central
Java cherishes temples of Shiva and Vishnu reminiscent of Indian
architecture in the city of Kancheepuram in South India. And what is
breathtaking is the gallery of bas-relief sculptures depicting scenes
from the Ramayana. The ancient city of Prambanan is also the venue
that attracts artists in dance-drama style to present tales from the
Before we take note of
the significant phenomena elsewhere in Asia, it is time to ponder on
how such things came to be. This take us back to ancient India. Trade
was not the only motive force for a person to travel. One can recall
those who were guided by nobler things such as means to elevate the
human mind. In his own lifetime the Buddha established the practice
of sending out disciples who showed an ability to spread knowledge.
Similar was the practice of the Jains. But such persons did not
travel by themselves; they travelled with those who went for trade,
in caravans across the country and in small boats beyond the shores.
Minstrels and story tellers would often join the groups. Monumental
evidence of such noble missions is the monolithic statue that stands
58 feet aloft at Sravanabelagola commemorating Bahubali (later known
as Gommata) who led a group southwards in the 2nd century
AD. This historic monument stands 144 kilometers from Bangalore in
the state of Karnataka (India). Such were the inspired individuals
who deserve to be viewed as our earliest cultural ambassadors. Some
would spread the stories that lend meaning to life while others on
the meaning of life itself.
Thus the tale of Rama
gained currency abroad and the gospels of Buddha took fine roots in
Thailand and neighbouring countries. Rama and Buddha stand on par as
principled beings embodied in the human form. Medieval India soon
found the emergence of Buddha as Avatar (incarnate). Ideas to
not travel one way alone!
To give just an idea of
the extent to which the story of Rama has travelled: In the 18th
century AD, it went to Thailand where it was written as Rammer
Ken, by the first king of Thailand. Ramayana went to Indonesia as
Ramayana Kakawin written by Yogeswara, as early back as the
9th century. In the 15th century the epic was a
familiar one in Cambodia in the name of Rama Keyarti bhasa khmer.
In Laos the same epic came to be known as Phra Lak phra Lam.
In Sri Lanka, the Ramayana is written in Sanskrit under the name of
Janaki harana. In Malaysia,Japan and Philippines, the epic is
known as Hakayat Seri Rama, Samboekotoba and Maharaja
Names of course do not
really remain the same. The undergo minor variations. In the Laos
version of the Ramayana for example, Rama is known as Lam and in the
Thai version, Ravana or the Dasakantha (ten headed) is known as
Tosakan. Similarly the story may not follow an identical course,
regional variations add that touch of personalization.
Theatre arts ranging from
Khon in Thailand to puppet plays such as Wayang Kulit
in Malaysia have looked upon the Rama story as part of their own
national heritage. So have visual arts (murals and sculptures). The
effect that the epic has on the psyche of people across South Asia is
illustrated in what I heard from a theatre artist in Prambanan
(Java). He told me, Allah is our God, Rama is our hero.
Angkor Vat in Cambodia
depicts on the western gallery some battle scenes from the Ramayana,
considered a marvel of workmanship. Like other areas in
South-East Asia, Cambodia encountered waves of India influence
beginning in the early centuries of this millennium. The land was
occupied by a variety of independent kingdoms, which, over time, were
welded together into larger communities by powerful kings. By the
early ninth century the Khmers (Cambodians) had started building an
empire that by the 12th and 13th centuries
dominated mainland South-East Asia. This empire has come to be known
by the modern name of its capital, Angkor. The Angkorian civilization
is famous for its massive and breathtakingly elegant stone temples
dedicated to Hindu and Buddhist gods.
Angkor Vat belonging to
the 12th century, the Bayon, Angkor Thom also belonging to
the 12th-13th century, Towers of the Bayon,
Angkor Thom and the bridge showing the churning of the sea of milk
are some of the sites worth visiting.
As a way of life, the
dominant influence has been the teachings of Buddhadhamma (Dharma).
As a concept it is widely recognized in South-East Asia. In Bangkok
one finds a Thammasaat university, the main faculty being dharma
sastra. Functions at the Royal Palace are marked by revered
utterances in Sanskrit. In Sri Lanka, the Buddha images at
Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are exquisite. Thai sculpture is
dominated by images of the Buddha. Thai Buddhist images of the
Dvaravati period (6th-10th century AD) reveal
an unquestioning dependence on the Indian Gupta style. The Dvaravati
empire came to an end in the 10th century AD when the
Khmers invaded and established themselves as rulers. The Seated
Buddha (14th century) and the Walking Buddha (14th
century) are worth seeing.
One of the great
monuments of Buddhist art in South-East Asia is the architectural
mandala (Buddhist pattern which is symbolic of the Buddhist
universe) at the 8th century temple of Borobudur in the
central part of Java. Built in the eighth century, Borobudur was
intended as a mini-representation of the universe. Worshippers would
enter the structure and perform the rite of circumambulation, their
physical climb through the architecture symbolizing the path from the
material world to enlightenment.