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Influences and the Ethos

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 Kautilya’s 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 Bangkok’s 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 city’s 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 Ramayana.

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 Ravana.

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.