Tribes have their own versions of Ramayana

Tribes have their own versions  of Ramayana

Ramayana is depicted in famous performing arts like Bharatnatyam, Manipuri, Kathak, Kathakali, Odissi . But little is known that there are hundreds of types of Ramayana dances, plays, puppetry shows and mask dances performed even today, as per tribal traditions of India.

Aboriginal tribes have their own distinct dance tradition and invariably all of them are interwoven with the life of the people who perform  it, so much so that it seems that some of their daily tasks are given to rhythmic pattern. In the background of mystery-shrouded nature, tribal celebrations of the Ramayana originate and the dances which work up are an intoxicating mixture of  tribal joy and grief, hope and fear.

One can witness a number of Ramayana versions among the tribes of Bhils, Mundas, Santhals, Gonds, Sauras, Korkus, Rabhas, Bodo-kacharis, Khasis, Mizos, Meiteis and so on. While retaining the structural and thematic unity of the text, communities weave their own plots and sub-plots into the texts.


In a Malayalam tribal version, Hanuman insists on sitting at Rama's feet, so that when Rama sneezes, Hanuman can wish him long life (as per tradition) – and the sneeze marks that even Rama is subject to the bodily needs of a human.

In Assam, where hill women have specialised in weaving, Sita is characterised as a fine weaver. In puppet shows among the tribals,  some are Ravana upasakas (worshippers). As such Ravana can never be killed. The legend states that Rama killed only the  chaya ( shadow) of Ravana and not the real demon king.

In fact, during the puppetry recital three curses are showered on Rama for killing Ravana-- Brahma Hatya (killing of a Brahmin), Bhakta Hatya (Sambuka, Ravana) and Chaya Hatya (killing of a singer – Ravana). Many tribal traditions believed in Ravana and not Rama. Ravana puppet does not have to endure manipulation and the puppet of Ravana is complex or beautiful. His satwa (good) character is created in puppetry, which must look like a hero.


Physical and socio-cultural landscape acquires a unique native character and defines the sacred geography of the region, tribals reside. Linking the Ramayana with local geography and rituals; by incorporating songs and narratives from the native repertoire; and by making the characters follow moral and ethical codes of the community, each tribal group renders its version of Ramayana.

Gonds from Madhya Pradesh have their own Ramayana, which reflects their local traditions and is closely linked with their oral narrative repertoire. They are also known for their distinct folk painting tradition. The entire Ramayana was transferred on to the canvas by the Gonds in the IGNCA exhibition at New Delhi in 2008. The Gond Ramayana has been translated in Hindi and 500 folk songs based on Rama theme have been documented in Madhya Pradesh with the support of Adivasi Kala Parishad, Bhopal.


Mizo tribals of the North East also have tales influenced by Rama legend. In Manipur, Ramayana is performed in Wari-leeba (traditional story-telling), Pena-sakpa (ballad singing), Khongjom parva (narrative singing accompanied by Dholak) and Jatra (folk-theatre) styles.


Again in the tribal versions, there are Buddhist and Jain variations. In the Tai-phake community in the North-East, Rama is a Boddhisattva. One of the most spectacular tribal dance forms used for Ramayana in Odisha is known under the generic name of Chau and it has three distinct styles: Mayurbhanj Chau of Odisha, Purulia Chau of Bengal and Seraikela Chau of Jharkhand. Purulia and Seraikela Chau dances are known for the use of elaborate masks and even today many dance troupes perform the complete Ramayana in 28-long sessions.

Again Rama may be a nayak or an avtar, a nomadic cultural hero, or a king. But his brother Lakshman becomes the main hero in many tribal tales. He is a jati, and, therefore, the most powerful character of the story. In some, he is a calm, cool and wise young man, devoid of any aggressive behaviour.

Among the Baiga tribe in Central India, there is an interesting episode in which Lakshman has to undergo a fire ordeal to prove his chastity. In many folk and tribal versions, Sita takes the avtar of Kali and kills Ravana and other demons. Again, Mankali tribal dancers  of  Kerala, the whole tribal troupe only depicts the episode of Sita getting enamoured of Mareecha the golden deer.

The greatest of  Ramayana narrators Valmiki was a Kirat tribal. But due to his wisdom and saintly personality he became a Brahmana who learned Sanskrit. Once a savage, he became “Adi kavi” in Sanskrit by writing the epic Ramayana.

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