The Ramayana in Laos
Few people know that in earliest times the land known today as Laos was called Muong Xieng Thong or Laem Thong.
Its Sanskrit name was Souvannaphoum Pathet (Suvarnabhumi Pradesha) meaning regions rich in gold. Souvannaphoum Pathet was a large peninsula situated between the Indian Ocean and the China Sea.
According to Maha sila Viravong (1905-1987) His History of Laos (‘Phongsawadan Lao’), tracing Lao history from its earliest time at Muang Lung and Muang Pa (before the year 843 BC) down to the end of the French occupation in the mid 20th century, is perhaps the best-known history of Laos written by a Laotian historian. He was the most reliable contemporary historian of Laos, this region included 2,500 years ago, parts of Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The entire landmass comprised by Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and some parts of Malaysia had strong cultural ties with India and represents the Indian part of the larger area formerly known as Indo-China. The culture of Laos, Thailand and Cambodia is made up of the earliest forms of Hinduism and Buddhism. Consequently it shows the deep meditative and philosophic aspect of the teachings of the Buddha coupled with the aesthetic imagination and literary aspects of the Hindu mind. This entire region is dotted with temples dedicated to Buddha, decorated with figures of Hindu gods and goddesses, united and protected as if within the mother-like embrace of long rows of gilded paintings on the wall depicting the story of the Ramayana.
Indian culture began to spread in Indo-China from the 1st century AD onwards. During the next 500 years the Ramayana had gained enough popularity for its author Valmiki to be considered as incarnation of Lord Vishnu and the temples were dedicated to him describing his compassion and creativity. A stone image of Valmiki and a Sanskrit inscription have been found in a temple in Champa (modern day Vietnam) belonging to the period of King Prakashadharma (6530678 A D). The inscription read:
Yasya sokar samutpananam Slokam Brahmabhipujati
Vishnuh pumsah puranasya manushasyatmarupinah
All of Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have their own versions of the Ramayana story, or the Chroniclers of Rama as versified by sage Valmiki. In Laos The Ramayana is present in five forms – Dance, Song, Painting and sculpture and Sacred texts to be recited on festive occasions and manuscripts, and enjoy popularity in that order. The Ramayana as dance-drama enjoys the pride of place, in the Royal Palace at Luang Prabang and the ‘Natyasala’ dance school at Vientiane. With the dance drama goes its appropriate music and song. The Ramayana in painting and sculpture is seen within the temples. In its richest forms it is found in the court-temples of Luang Prabang and Ramayana frescoes are preserved in Wat Oup Moung.
To quote Maha sila “the Khmer race is of ancient Indian descent. This race has given birth to various ethnic groups known as the Khmer, Mon, Meng, Kha, Khamu and Malay. The Khmer came to settle down in Souvannaphoum pathest even before the advent of the Buddha, 2, 500 years ago. But the largest migration took place in the reign of Ashoka Raja who ruled Pataribud (Pataliputra) from the year 218 to 228 BE. According to Mahasila Emperor Ashoka’s war in Kalinga was responsible for thousands of “Indians from the southern part of India to live in Indo-China.”
In Laos two versions of the Ramayana are known, the Luang Prabang version as found in the Royal Capital and the Vientiane version as found painted on the walls of the VAT PA KE temple.
Phonetic changes in the name of Ramayana characters:
The proper names of the classical Valmiki Ramayana have undergone great change owing to the phonetic peculiarities of the Lava language. Thus,
Rama became Lam or Lamma
Sita became Nang/ Sida
Laksmana became Lak
Hanuman became Hanumone or Hullaman
Sugriva became Sukrip
Ravana became Raphanasuane or Phommachak
Lanka became Langka.
There are 29 murals on the walls of the central hall of the Vat Oup Muong, describing the ‘Pha Lak Pha Lam’ (Beloved Lakshmana, Beloved Rama) story. Oup Muong means ‘underground hall’ or ‘tunnel.’
(source: The Ramayana Tradition in Asia – Edited by V Raghavan. The Ramayana in Laos – By Kamala Ratnam p. 257 – 281).