A Thousand Flowers Bloom

The many Muslim versions of the Ramayana

Azeez Tharuvana Illustration By Osheen Siva
31 October, 2021

As King Dasharatha’s dear son Lama desired,
He had married the lotus-honeyed Sita.
But one day the ruler of Lanka, ten-nosed King Lavana,
Shamelessly intoned of Sita, that jewel of womanhood,
“You pearl of damsels, since we brought you to Lanka,
So many days have passed, my pearl, my radiant flower garland!
By my two eyes, I swear to you, my golden one,
That I have had such desire to see you and tell you what I should … 
But when such a woman should have entered the bower of bliss with me—
Why, Allah! Why did you come with that pig Lama?

THESE LINES, translated from Malayalam, are part of what is known as the Mappila Ramayana. As countless other places and communities have done, the Mappilas—Muslims who live in the Malabar region of Kerala—have adapted the story of Ram and Ravan, whom they refer to as Lama and Lavana, in the mould of their own culture. Their references to Allah point to their Islamic belief system. The Mappila Ramayana is merely one part of a large body of literature that comprises various Islamicised versions of the Ramayana in South and Southeast Asia.

As the scholar AK Ramanujan wrote in his essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” the countless textual and oral versions of the tale of Ram are like little streams that flow towards the mighty river that is Ramayana literature. While Valmiki’s Ramayana often occupies the mainstream imagination, the notion that one single version is higher or more authentic than others has been rejected by modern scholars, given the lack of information on dating for each of them. 

The polyphony of the Ramayana should not be seen as a limitation, but rather as a realm of endless possibility. The countless castes of India, and the religions that were born in or have spread to India, have all been influenced by the Ramayana to varying extents. The Ram story has taken on different forms in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, Dalit and Adivasi versions. 

Azeez Tharuvana is an assistant professor and head of the department of Malayalam at Farook College in Kozhikode. He has served as editor at the Kerala Bhasha Institute and assistant director at the Institute of Tribal Studies and Research, and is the author of several books. He received the Ambedkar National Excellence Award for his book Wayanadam Ramayanam.

Osheen Siva is a multidisciplinary artist from Tamil Nadu, currently based in Goa. Through the lens of surrealism, speculative fiction and science fiction and rooted in mythologies and her Dalit and Tamilian heritage, she imagines new words of decolonised dreamscapes, futuristic oasis with mutants and monsters and narratives of feminine power.