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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Rama in Early Tibet

August 12, 2008

Sam van Schaik
August 7, 2008

The current British Library exhibition on the Ra-ma-yana 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 readers will know something of story of the
Ra-ma-yan.a, which tells of how King Ra-ma's wife Si-ta- was abducted
by the demon Rava-n.a and rescued with the help of the monkey king
Hanuma-n and his army. The first Ra-ma-yan.a is attributed to the
poet-sage Va-lmi-ki 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
Indian television series of the 1980s. Ra-ma was accepted into the
Buddhist world as well, in a ja-taka story which tells of Ra-ma's
banishment from the kingdom by his father.

Anyway, the Tibetan Ra-ma-yana is found in several manuscripts from
Dunhuang, which suggests that it enjoyed some popularity this area,
far from India, but connected 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
Ra-ma-yana 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 Hanuma-n travels to find Si-ta-,
he takes a love letter written by Ra-ma, and Si-ta- sends back a love
letter in reply. In another episode, Ra-ma chides Hanuma-n for
forgetting to correspond regularly. A crestfallen Hanuma-n
apologizes: "I should have continually enquired by letter after your health."

Now, I am not at all sure that letter-writing was a feature of
ancient or medieval Indian culture. 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 practice - though
not I think Indian - explains why Hanuma-n committed a faux pas when
he neglected to send a continual steam of letters to Ra-ma.

The sources of the Tibetan Ra-ma-yan.a are a mystery. There are a
couple of Khotanese manuscripts containing fragments of the story,
which some have seen as possible sources for the Tibetan Ra-ma-yan.a.
However, while this Khotanese Ra-ma-yan.a contains some of the same
elements as the Tibetan story, it also differs from the Tibetan in
many respects. There is no letter-writing in the Khotanese version,
and the whole story is given a Buddhist gloss at the end. The Tibetan
Ra-ma-yana, on the other hand does not offer any kind of Buddhist moral at all.

In fact, the Tibetan Ra-ma-yan.a seems generally less moralistic than
the classic version, in which Ra-ma and Si-ta- are ultimately
estranged due to Ra-ma's suspicion of Si-ta-'s infidelity. The
Tibetan version has a happy ending, in which Ra-ma's apology is
accepted by Si-ta-: "They were happier than before. King Ra-ma, Queen
Si-ta-, 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
Ra-ma-yana in Dunhuang was simply that it is a great story.

* * *

Later in Tibet the Ra-ma-yana had a limited popularity among monks
and aristocratic lay people of a literary inclination. In the
fifteenth century Chöwang Dragpa, a disciple of Tsongkhapa, wrote a
version of the tale in the highly stylized ka-vya form. Compared to
the early Tibetan version, Chöwang Dragpa Ra-ma-yan.a is about
literary ornamentation, rather than narrative flow. Though it is a
fine example of Tibetan ka-vya poetics, it can't compete with the
Dunhuang version for sheer readability.

* * *

The manuscripts of the Ra-ma-yana are: IOL Tib J 737.1 (A and C), IOL
Tib J 737.2 (B), IOL Tib J 737.3 (D), Pelliot tibetain 981 (E),
Pelliot tibetain 983 (F). In de Jong's works, these manuscripts are
referred to only by the letters A to F, given in brackets after the
shelfmarks. Two other small fragments of the Ra-ma story are IOL Tib
J 1197 and IOL Tib J 1200.

1. Bailey, H.W. 1940. 'Ra-ma', (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 Ra-ma 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 Ra-ma-yan.a Story in Tibetan from Chinese
Turkestan' in Indian Studies in Honor of Charles Rockwell Lanman:
193–212. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
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