O pundit, your hairsplitting’s
So much bullshit. I’m surprised
You still get away with it.
If parroting the name
Of Rama brought salvation,
Then saying sugarcane
Should sweeten the mouth
– Kabir, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
In mid-July 2020, an obscure Nepali village called Thori, west of Birgunj, joined the ranks of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, Banawali in Haryana, Herat in western Afghanistan, and Rehman Dheri of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, all of which are claimed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. The evidence may come later; there may not even be any to begin with. But that does not matter for Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, who has claimed Ram as Nepal’s own, and accused India of cultural appropriation for calling the modern-day city of Ayodhya Ram’s birthplace. Now, Nepali archaeologists will start excavations near Thori looking for signs of Ram, while the prime minister has instructed local officials to erect ‘massive’ statues of Ram, Sita and Lakshman by next Ram Nawami, the god’s festival in March.
The tradition of Ram has been at the heart of India’s Hindutva movement, what historian Romila Thapar has called “syndicated Hinduism”.
Oli’s claims on Ram’s birthplace are another salvo in the current imbroglio between India and Nepal, which began as a territorial dispute in May 2020. The dispute took on different avatars as time went by. Indian TV media, perhaps the worst ambassadors of India’s foreign policy in the Southasian neighbourhood, assumed China had ‘used’ and ‘honey-trapped’ Nepal through its ambassador in Kathmandu. Nepali cable operators, in turn, decided to ban India’s news channels. In mid-July, Oli fired the ‘Ram’ astra, and Indian sadhus, as expected, decried his take. A Hindu militant group in Varanasi even went as far as to ‘fake’ a man’s tonsure, paying him INR 1000 to play a Nepali and shout ‘Jai Shree Ram’.
Amid this, on 5 August, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a new Ram temple on the supposed site of Ram’s birth in Ayodhya. The grand bhoomi pooja ceremony was a jarring reminder of the three-decade-long Janmabhoomi movement that brought India’s Hindu nationalists to political power through a violent reshaping of its historical past.
The tradition of Ram has been at the heart of India’s Hindutva movement, what historian Romila Thapar has called “syndicated Hinduism”, where a singular variant of the religion stands in direct opposition to the multi-traditional approach of Hindu sects in the past. “The great strength of Vaishnavism in the past was precisely its ahistoricity, where the historical fact of the existence of Rama or Krishna was irrelevant to the beliefs and practices of the devotee,” she argues. Meanwhile, there exist other regional variations of the Ramayana – there is the Dasaratha Jataka, a Buddhist retelling of the epic, that also inspired Tibetan and Chinese versions; in Southeast Asia, the epic remains part of their corpus, with Thai kings identifying themselves with Ram himself.
From this perspective, Oli’s claims over Ram’s birthplace is just another variant of the Ram tradition (even if few have made this particular claim so far). Opposition to it on the grounds of Ayodhya being the real birthplace is thus rooted in that syndicated religion which proselytises one version of the faith, and only one. But as literary scholar A K Ramanujan asks in his famous essay, “How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand?”
To understand the tradition of the Ramayana in Nepal, one must first go back to the tradition of Ram within the boundaries of the modern Nepali state.
Those who have studied Nepal also know of the other connotations of the Ramayana in the country. The aadi kavya – ‘the first poem’, another name for the epic – is considered by many to be at the very origins of modern Nepali literature: Bhanubhakta Acharya, Nepal’s aadi kavi (‘the first poet’), is best known for translating the Ramayana into Nepali. Cultural historian Pratyoush Onta has written of the strong links between the figure of Bhanubhakta and modern Nepali nationalism: “As Nepali nationalists love to point out, Bhanubhakta is said to have effected the emotional unification of all Nepalis, that is, those brought together inside territorial Nepal by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, through his rendering of Ramayana into colloquial Nepali.” It is a different matter altogether that it was in British India’s Benares and Darjeeling that Nepali language activists first co-opted Bhanubhakta as a Nepali icon.
Nonetheless, to understand the tradition of the Ramayana in Nepal, one must first go back to the tradition of Ram within the boundaries of the modern Nepali state. Given the adulation that Vishnu has received in Nepali religious traditions, it is surprising that the historical worship of Ram, and in many ways the Ramayana tradition itself, is less widespread than Vishnu’s other mortal form, Krishna. This, despite the Nepali town Janakpur’s claims to be King Janak’s capital, and, thus, Sita’s maitighar (parental home).
The discovery of Janakpur
The worship of Ram in Nepal can be traced as far back as 608 CE through a Licchavi inscription in Hadigaon, one of Kathmandu Valley’s oldest settlements. An 11th-century manuscript in a Nepalbhasa script, written for an official named Anandadeva by a Tirhuti Kayastha, is considered to be one of the oldest versions of the epic. The image of Hanuman, Ram’s most famous devotee, at the Hanuman Dhoka was erected in 1672 CE by Pratap Malla, and several friezes in the 17th-century Krishna Temple in Patan show scenes from the Ramayana. Another manuscript in a Nepalbhasa script from the 17th-century, like the older one, is part of the critical edition of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Themes from Ram’s life were also featured in a 15th-century manuscript cover.
The Malla kings, however, many of whom leaned towards Vaishnavism, showed a preference for the Krishna avatar, and even his Narasimha form, over Ram. The Shah kings, too, with their martial backgrounds, did not seem to valourise the story of Ram, even as they incorporated the epic in their architectures, such as in the Nautale Durbar in Kathmandu, built under Prithvi Narayan Shah himself, albeit following the prevailing Malla pagoda style (and now renovated with Chinese aid after the 2015 earthquake).
The assertion that modern-day Janakpur is indeed the ancient mythical capital of Mithila also needs to be discussed against the city’s recorded history.
In fact, none of the other regional Ramayana variations – such as Tulsi Das’s Ramcharitmanas, the key source of the epic in the Ganga plains – appear to have been popular in the hills of Nepal even until the 19th century. This is made evident by Bhanubhakta’s translation of Valmiki’s Sanskrit version of the epic. As N R Banerjee writes, “even the cult image of Rama as an avatara of Vishnu is not much to be met with in the early, or medieval, art of Nepal, on the basis of the evidence that is presently available, despite the fact of the capital of Rajarshi Janaka Siradhvaja, father of Sita, being located at Janakpur”.
The key site of Ram worship in modern Nepal is Janakpur. But Banerjee’s assertion that modern-day Janakpur is indeed the ancient mythical capital of Mithila as mentioned in the epic also needs to be discussed against the city’s recorded history. which only dates back to the 18th century. Here, a distinction is made between historical evidence and faith: people may believe Janakpur to be the site mentioned in the epic, but belief does not guarantee the truth. What is of interest, however, are the traditions of the epics as they evolve over time, reflecting both a culture’s desires as well as mirroring the culture itself. “History can never be used to justify faith,” said Thapar, who rightwing Hindu nationalists love to hate. As she argues, the Hindu epics are, unlike Homer’s epics, not frozen in time; “[p]rofessional reciters, kathakaras, recited the written versions with their own commentary and frequently adjusted the story to contemporary norms.”
In his 1978 essay ‘The disappearance and reappearance of Janakpur’, anthropologist Richard Burghart writes of how modern-day Janakpur came to be identified with the epic:
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the present age, as the worship of Ram and the discipline of devotion spread throughout the Ganges basin, Hindu ascetics of the Ramanandi sect began to search for the places which during the Treta Yuga had been purified by the lotus feet of their Lord and Saviour, Ram Candra [sic]… Until the end of the seventeenth century, however, the site of Janakpur had not been discovered. For the Vaisnavite devotees Janakpur existed in their minds as an object of devotion and meditation, but janakpur dham, or the “site of Janakpur”, remained unknown.
The mythical Janakpur, Mithila’s capital, is said to have disappeared during the Kurukshetra war, and the Vaidehi dynasty went extinct. Burghart records oral traditions where Hindu ascetics Caturbhuj Giri of the Dasnami sect and Sur Kisor of the Ramanandi sect dreamt of Ram and Sita respectively, telling them where the modern site of Janakpur was. To Sur Kisor is attributed the verse that ‘discovered’ Shiva’s bow in Dhanusa – “[t]welve miles north of Janakpur, where lies a forest”. Subsequently, other Ramanandi ascetics built upon these lores, and ‘discovered’ Sitamarhi, the birthplace of Sita, and other modern-day shrines associated with the epic.
Burghart also records land grants made by the Makwanpur Sen kings in the name of Janaki, another name for Sita, in 1727 CE, which was later confirmed by the Gorkhali king Girvan Yuddha between 1810-1812 CE. This suggests the two ascetics arrived at the site of modern-day Janakpur no earlier than the first decades of the 18th century, and hints at the interplay between the political and the religious, which legitimised each other against the background of popular beliefs. In the lack of any prior archaeological evidence, Burghart suggests, “Rather than actually discovering the site of ancient Janakpur, Caturbhuj Giri and Sur Kisor might have only confirmed a local tradition associating the site with Janakpur and then spread the renown of this sacred place to other pilgrimage centres in the Ganges basin.”
Ram in the Valley
While there is little doubt among the believers today that modern-day Janakpur is indeed the mythical city of the epic, another prominent Ramayana tradition belonged to the ancient Tirhuti kingdom of Simraungadh and was associated with the Taleju, ‘Bhaktapur’s political goddess’, as Robert Levy described her. The Simraungadh kingdom, located around the present-day district of Bara in southern Nepal, is said to have been established in the 11th century CE by Nanyadeva, an army chief under the Chalukyas, who ruled southwestern India between the 6th and 12th centuries CE. The Chalukyas had extended their military campaigns up to the Mithila region in present-day Bihar and southern Nepal. The worship of Taleju, regarded as the clan deity of the Simraungadh kings, itself has roots in the southwestern region of India, where a Tulja Bhavani shrine exists even today. The Mallas of Nepal Valley, who escaped to the hills after the Islamic invasions in the 13th and 14th centuries CE, traced their lineage to the Simraungadh kings, and also established the goddess in the valley.
Is the study of history and culture to be limited by modern political boundaries?
What’s intriguing is the sudden insertion of Ram in the story of Taleju, and subsequently, in Bhaktapur. As Levy recounts, the Bhaktapur myth about Taleju suggests Ram had captured the Taleju yantra, a mystical device that represents the goddess, from Lanka, and brought it back to Ayodhya. But when his time in the mortal realm was over, the goddess demanded the yantra be thrown into the Sarayu river “because no one would worship and sacrifice properly to her after his approaching death”. Eons later, the defeated Suryavanshi king Nanyadeva discovered the yantra in the river during his wanderings after a girl instructed him in his dreams: “Oh, King Nanyadeva, your lineage god is in the Sarayu river. You must find her in order to worship her. I am she, your lineage goddess. Black insects will be flying around the surface of the river where I am hidden.” The same Nanyadeva subsequently went on to found Simraungadh, and after the Islamic invasions, his successor Harisimhadeva is said to have brought the goddess to Bhaktapur. Taleju thereon became the cult-goddess for Nepal Valley’s three city-states.
Beyond the evolution of history and myth over time, what we see here is a complex transfusion of cultures across geographies. But rarely has this sort of crossborder connection been studied, even by historians. Is the study of history and culture, therefore, to be limited by modern political boundaries?
There is, of course, the nativist view of history that lends itself to exceptionalism; Nepal is a site for several who hold such views, and believe the various civilisations within its borders are exceptional to it. In the Upanishadic tradition of neti, neti (“not this, not this”) Nepali nationalism seems to believe it is distinct from the civilisations of both the Ganga plains and the high Himalaya. But such nativism has also been true of Indian scholars, who rarely study such connections, and when they do, frame it as a case of Indian cultures ‘influencing’ others, best seen in its cultural diplomacy in Southeast Asia. This leads to grave errors, such as that seen in a recent book by Sanjoy Chakravorty, who argues that caste was essentially a British colonial invention, even as a cursory glance at Nepal’s history of caste-based laws would have seriously undermined his thesis.
Today, Ramayana traditions of Nepal are best seen, beyond the Vivaha Panchami and the Ram Nawami celebrations, during the Gai Jatra festival, a day when the dead are remembered, and children from families with recently deceased members dress up as various mythological figures, including the quartet of Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman. A wider study is needed to analyse whether the Ramayana became popular during the Gai Jatra after Ramanand Sagar’s televised version was broadcast. A 1971 book on Nepali festivals by Mary M Anderson does not mention children dressing up as characters from the Ramayana during the festival (in fact, Anderson does not note anybody dressing up as deities). However, by the late 1980s, the practice seems to have been popular in Bhaktapur, as Levy writes in Mesocosm.
The histories of Janakpur and Taleju, and that of Ayodhya, have given way to faith – and how does one counter faith in an environment like ours, when faith stands above all, without reason, without evidence? As Kabir says, “Can’t you see that / Rama is the only truth, says Kabir / Everything else a monstrous lie?”