Hikayat Seri Rama

Hikayat Seri Rama is the Malay adaptation of the Hindu Epic Ramayan, a story of Sri Ram and the victory of good over evil. Hikayat Seri Rama is Malaysia's unofficial National Epic. In the literature, they have converted the story of Hindu Ramayan as per Malay's context. In the story, Lakshmana plays an important role. Sri Ram is portrayed as a righteous and virtuous prince, but he was rather perceived to be weaker and his character is often moved to the background while the younger Laksmana is admired for his courage and willingness to react in a decisive manner.

The Ramayana, holy revered text of Hindus, is a collection of Indian mythological stories concentrating on the work of the gods in the lives of men, and was first written down, as legend states, by the Sage Valmiki during the third century BC. Sri Ram actually seems to have existed, as there are several holy sites in India that point to the reality of Rama's existence, including his birthplace Ayodhya, his palace, and the route of his journey on exile to Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the Ramayana came to Southeast Asia by means of Tamils traders and scholars who traded with ancient kingdoms such as Funan, Angkor and Srivijaya with whom the Indians shared close economic and cultural ties. Folk versions of the Ramayana were told through dance dramas and by penglipurlara (professional storytellers). The wayang kulit (shadow theatre) adaptation, called Hikayat Maharaja Wana, was one of the most important shadow-plays. Puppeteers would pick the most exciting episodes for their shows, particularly the scenes relating to the marriage of Seri Rama, the abduction of Siti Dewi (Sita), the final battles in Langkapuri (Lanka), and the heroine's rescue by her husband.

The epic probably reached Malaysia by way of Javanese traders who brought their shadow play, Wayang Kulit. Many changes developed in the Malay version Ramayan and those changes depended upon the local traditions and politics. Religious beliefs also influenced these changes since the Malays were followers of Islam. There are literary and folktale versions of Ramayan in Malaysia. The Hikayat Seri Rama exists in both written and oral form, and the Wayang Kulit Siam is a shadow play from Kelantan on the border of Malaysia and Thailand (Siam). The Ramayan in Malaysia is used more for entertainment and social education rather than for spiritual or religious purposes. Kelantan is strongly Islamic, but it is also the main base for the Malay shadow puppet theatre.

All Kelantan dalangs (shadow puppet puppeteers) are Muslims. The wayang (shadow play) is disliked by the conservative Muslims. They criticize the rituals and practices associated with the art which appear to them to be outlawed by Islam. The religious conservatives are also concerned with the effect that the music has on the people and the dalang during the performance. They object to the trance-like effect which seems to be produced by the gamelan (gong orchestra). The dalang usually performs 200 - 300 shows a year and probably no more than two are held for purposes other than entertainment. The literary and folktale versions include variations, changes, omissions, and additions based upon the particular region. Another version entitled Wayang Kulit Gedek appears to have come from Southern Thailand.

In Malaysia, the Ramayan episodes are divided into two categories, those that concern the fundamental plot, pokok, (base,trunk) and those non-fundamental episodes, rantings (twigs), which consist of Rama's adventures and those of the other main characters. These extensive ranting stories are performed by local puppeteers (dalang) or performers.

Some wayang kulit Melayu dalang claim that there are well over 1,000 flat leather puppets in a complete set, encompassing all the character needed to tell the Panji and Pandawa stories. The puppets used to this day, retain a form, style, and design very similar to the Javanese leather puppets of the wayang kulit purwa. The stage itself, however, follows the traditional Malay shadow play roofed operating hut raised on stilts, with a white screen stretched over a frame to partition off the unwalled side of the hut for viewing by the audience. Like the Malay wayang kulit Siam folk village form of shadow puppet theatre, the wayang kulit Melayu orchestra players sit inside the hut behind the dalang. While the manipulation of the leather puppet movements as well as the pace at which the story progresses is much slower in the wayang kulit Melayu type when compared to the fast-paced, village folk style of the wayang kulit Siam.

The Malays do not look for the Hindu/Buddhist concepts of Dharma, Karma, and Moksha in the hero Rama. They only view him as a righteous and virtuous model for mankind. With these traits he was able to triumph over evil. When comparing the Sanskrit Ramayan and the Hikayat Seri Rama we find they share the basic universal theme that goodness, righteousness, and justice will prevail over evil. These values and ideals appealed to the people in all the countries of South East Asia influenced by India.

Malay storytellers however show the legacy of their particular civilization in their version of the epic. Malay writers and storytellers produce variations in which Lakhsmana, the younger brother, becomes more important than Rama the elder prince. Rama, although righteous and virtuous was perceived to be weak and his character is often moved to the background. The younger Lakhsmana's courage and willingness to react decisively appear to be traits which are more appreciated by the Malays.

Hikayat Seri Rama Characters

The characters of Hikayat Seri Rama share the same characteristics and features as in the original story of Indian Ramayan.

Sri Rama - Seri Rama
Sita - Siti Dewi
Lakshmana - Laksmana
Hanuman - Hanuman
Sugreev - Sugriwa
Ravana - Rawana
Angad - Seri Anggada
Shiva - Siwa