Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

A seventeenth century painting depicting Hanuman worshiping Lord Rama and his wife Sita.

Ramayana: The Great Hindu Epic

The Ramayana is one of the two greatest Hindu epics of South Asia, the other being the Mahabharata. The Ramayana, authored by Sage Valmiki, tells the story of Lord Rama (the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, ‘The Preserver’). Rama is referred to as Maryada Purushottam (the most superior man who embodies both divinity and humanity). The central message of the Ramayana is to demonstrate to worldly individuals how to lead a virtuous life that does not violate any laws of nature.

Ramayana begins with the birth of Prince Ram and his three brothers, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Shatrughna to King Dasharatha in Ayodhya, India. Rama was the eldest, and his mother was Kaushalya. Bharata was the son of Dasharatha’s second and most favorite wife, Queen Kaikeyi. The other two siblings were twins, Lakshmana and Shatrughna.

Rama won the hand of Princess Sita, daughter of King Janaka of Janakpur, Nepal, in a ceremony where he not only strung the bow, gifted by Lord Shiva to Janaka, he broke it. A few years later, King Dasharatha, decided to concede his throne to his eldest son Rama, but Queen Kaikeyi requested that the king crown her biological son Bharata and banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years. Due to an oath Dasharatha made to her years before, he was helpless. Sita and Lakshmana also set out for the forest with Rama.

One day Rama and Lakshmana wounded a rakshasas princess, Suparnakha, who tried to seduce Rama. She returned to her brother Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka who then tricked Rama and Lakshmana to abduct Sita. Rama, with the help of the monkey king named Sugriva and his general Hanuman, was able to locate Sita and found an opportunity to then attack Lanka. Rama and Lakshmana killed several of Ravana’s brothers and sons. Rama then killed Ravana and rescued Sita. Following her rescue, Sita proved her purity by walking through fire, and then they returned to Ayodhya where Rama became king.

The spiritualistic and religious background of Ramayana gave birth to several elements of intangible cultural heritage. One is Vivah Panchami, a celebration of the divine couple Rama and Sita, on the fifth day of the light fortnight in the month of Agrahan (November to December), to remember the marriage between Rama and Sita in Nepal. Another well renowned and sacred festival is the birth anniversary of Rama, known as Rama Navami. It is a great Hindu festival, which falls on the ninth day of the bright fortnight of Chaitra (March to April) and has been performed since time immemorial. In this festival, devotees pay homage to Lord Rama with great reverence and respect. The festival of Rama Navami is regarded as one of the five Mahavratas (great festivals). It is a festival to celebrate the performance of righteous duties as well as a ritual for marking attributes of victory of virtue over vice. It is also a day to mark his divine achievements which are an eternal source of ideal attributes for all humanity.

Murals and miniature paintings are some other examples of folk cultures which originated from this epic. Hymns, narrating the deeds of Lord Rama, and folk dances are other examples of living culture that originated from Ramayana.