Rama in early Tibet

The British Library exhibition on the Rāmāyaṇa has reminded me of one of the most surprising finds from the Dunhuang library cave: a group of manuscripts telling this classic Indian story in Tibetan. Most people know something of story of the Rāmāyaṇa, which tells of how King Rāma’s wife Sītā was abducted by the demon Ravāṇa and rescued with the help of the monkey king Hanumān and his army. The first Rāmāyaṇa is attributed to the poet-sage Vālmīki and is thought to date back to the middle of the first millenium BC. Since then, many other versions of the story have appeared in India and beyond, most recently in that hugely popular television series of the 1980s. Rāma was accepted into the Buddhist world as well, in a jātaka story which tells of Rāma’s banishment from the kingdom by his father.

Anyway, the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa is found in several manuscripts from Dunhuang, which suggests that it enjoyed some popularity this area, far from India but connected to it by the trading routes we call the Silk Road. This version is a retelling of the Indian tale, though it differs in several ways from the Indian versions. It is a condensed retelling of the original story in which many episodes are drastically shortened, making it short enough, perhaps, for a travelling storyteller to relate at one sitting.

Although it is a shortened version, some parts of the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa are not found in any of the Indian versions (at least as far as I know). An slightly odd addition to the original is the theme of letter-writing. For example, when Hanumān travels to find Sītā, he takes a love letter written by Rāma, and Sītā sends back a love letter in reply. In another episode, Rāma chides Hanumān for forgetting to correspond regularly. A crestfallen Hanumān apologizes: “I should have continually enquired by letter after your health.”

Now, I am not sure that letter-writing was a feature of ancient or medieval Indian culture (perhaps someone more knowledgeable will contest or confirm this). On the other hand, polite enquiries about the health of the addressee are indeed common among the Tibetan letters found at Dunhuang. High ranking Tibetans sent letters back and forth, sometimes containing no more than polite enquiries after the health of the recipient. This social practice explains why Hanumān committed a faux pas when he neglected to send a continual steam of letters to Rāma.

So, if it’s not Indian, where does this version of the Rāmāyaṇa story come from? Some have suggested Khotan, a great little Silk Road kingdom. It’s true that there are a couple of Khotanese manuscripts containing fragments of the stary of Rāma. However, while this Khotanese Rāmāyaṇa contains some of the same elements as the Tibetan story, it also differs from the Tibetan in many ways. There is no letter-writing in the Khotanese version, and the whole story is given a Buddhist moral at the end. The narrative of the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa, on the other hand, shows no interest in Buddhism at all.

In fact, the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa seems generally less moralistic than the classic version, in which Rāma and Sītā are ultimately estranged due to Rāma’s suspicion of Sītā’s infidelity. The Tibetan version has a happy ending, in which Rāma’s apology is accepted by Sītā: “They were happier than before. King Rāma, Queen Sītā, husband and wife and the sons together with a large retinue lived happily in the palace Old Earth.” In the end, one can’t help feeling that the reason for the popularity of this version of the Rāmāyaṇa was simply that it’s a great story.

*  *  *

The manuscripts of the Rāmāyaṇa are: IOL Tib J 737.1 (A), IOL Tib J 737.2 (B & C), IOL Tib J 737.3 (D), Pelliot tibétain 981 (E), Pelliot tibétain 983 (F). In de Jong’s works, these manuscripts are referred to only by the letters A to F, which I have given in brackets after the shelfmarks.

1. Bailey, H.W. 1940. ‘Rāma’, (I) BSOAS 10.2 (1940): 365–376; (II) BSOAS 10.3: 559–598.
2. de Jong, J.W. 1971. ‘Un fragment de l’histoire de Rāma en tibétain’ in Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou. Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient.
3. de Jong, J.W. 1977. The Tun-huang Manuscripts of the Tibetan Ramayana Story’, Indo-Iranian Journal 19.
4. Kapstein, Matthew. 2003. ‘The Indian Literary Identity in Tibet’, in Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by Sheldon Pollock. Berkeley: University of California Press.
5. Thomas, F.W. 1929. ‘A Rāmāyaṇa Story in Tibetan from Chinese Turkestan’ in Indian Studies in Honor of Charles Rockwell Lanman: 193–212. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

1. British Library manuscript Add. MS 15296(1), from the Rāmāyaṇa exhibition at the British Library. See this site for images of the manuscript.
2. The manuscript IOL Tib J 737.2, containing part of one version of the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa.

2 thoughts on “Rama in early Tibet

  1. Letter writing is actually a very common plot device in Sanskrit literature. It is also considered to be of sociological significance that literacy was quite widespread (e.g. in Kālidāsa’s Śakuntalā, for instance the young hermit girls scratch with their nails a love letter on to a lotus leaf). There seem to be also quite a few interesting letter writing manuals, see for example:

    Die Lekhapaddhati-Lekhapancasika: Briefe und Urkunden im mittelalterlichen Gujarat; Text, Ubersetzung, Kommentar: Glossar (Sanskrit-Deutsch-Englisch). By INGO STRAUCH. Monographien zur indischen Archaologie, Kunst und Philologie, vol. 16. Berlin: DIETRICH REIMER VERLAG, 2002. Pp. 526.

    There is a more recent English study of this by Pushpa Prasad, though I have not seen this yet (http://www.amazon.com/Lekhapaddhati-Documents-Everyday-Ancient-Medieval/dp/0195684478)

  2. Dear Somadeva,

    Thank you for clarifying the letter-writing issue. Just the kind of expert and informed opinion I was hoping to elicit, even if it contradicts my idea that the letter-writing (or shall we go for the technical term again again and say ‘epistolary’?) episodes in the Tibetan Ramayana are non-Indian. Kālidāsa certainly predates Tibetan literature — well, written Tibetan literature anyway.

    So, that leaves me wondering if an exchange of love-letters between Rama and Sita does feature in any of the Indic versions of the Ramayana…

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