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Ramayana Parampara in Tripura

July 1, 2022 Authored by: Dr. Ankita Dutta

This is the third part in the series of articles on the Ramayana tradition in North-East India. Earlier, we had covered the different traditions of the Ramayana prevalent in Meghalaya among the Khasis, Garos, and Jaintias. The next state that has been taken up in this series is Tripura, nestled along the borders of Assam, Bangladesh, and Mizoram. The article shall first briefly cover the Hindu cultural history and heritage of Tripura, before moving on to the tradition of the Ramayana that is prevalent among different communities of the state. Being one of the oldest princely states in the country until recent history, Tripura is home to several vanavasi communities such as Jamatiyas, Chakmas, Hajongs, Reangs, etc. who account for a significant percentage of its total population.

The word Tripura is a combination of two words – tri, meaning three; and, pura that means city in Sanskrit; hence Tri-pura or three cities. It is believed that the word tri represents Shiva who is said to have destroyed three cities of Asuras who ruled in this region. In the local Kokborok language of Tripura which is the main language of the Debbarma community of the state, it is also known as Tuipra – Tui implies a water-body and Pra means mouth. Thus, Tuipra means the mouth of a river. The geographical location of the state with its close proximity to the vast water resources of Eastern Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) coupled with the identity of the state’s original inhabitants as Tipra or Twipra, apparently justifies this explanation of the name of the state.

In a few historical texts, the name of this region has also been mentioned as Kirata Desa. Both the Yajurveda and the AtharvaVeda mention about the Kiratas as a group/community of people who live in the hilly and mountainous areas, are quite well-aware of various herbal remedies for treating diseases, and are endowed with unique fighting skills. In the Sabha Parva of the Mahabharata (Gita Press Gorakhpur version), there are several references of mountains where the sun first rises in the morning, the Lohitya river and hills surrounding Pragjyotispur, i.e. present-day Guwahati or the region around the Ma Kamakhya Saktipeeth. The Vishnu Purana also talks about the Kiratas who resided in the North-Eastern part of Bharat surrounded by mighty rivers, forests, hills and mountains.

Besides the Vishnu Purana, other texts such as the Markandeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Kalika Purana, Yogini Tantra, Hargauri-Samvada or Hara-Gauri Vivaha, etc. have mentioned in detail about the North-Eastern region of the country, its geographical location and the people residing there. There are many stories around the origins of Tripura, but all of them confirm its intrinsic cultural association with Bharatvarsha since the Vedic period. The Mahabharata mentions a kingdom in the extreme North-East of Bharat which was ruled by a king named Tripur. It was Tripur who eventually decided to collectively rule the state named Tripura along with King Yudhisthira. It is believed that this is how the present-day state of Tripura state got its name.

At the peak of its glory, the geographical realm of the princely state of Tripura extended till modern-day Myanmar in the east, the Sunderbans near the Bay of Bengal in the south, and the Brahmaputra basin in the north-west. There have been two very significant periods in the history of Tripura, both of which have been extensively written about in the ancient Bengali poem titled Rajamala. It narrates in detail the extensive lineage of the 144 Maharajas of Tripura in carefully crafted verses that were put together by learned Brahmins in the court of the famous king Dharma Manikya who was also known among the local people as Dangar Fa. This unbroken lineage was established by its founder, a chief named Maha Manikya, in the early 1400s. Maha Manikya took over control of Tripura and its neighbouring communities before assuming the title Manikya to celebrate his victory over Bengal.

What followed was a genealogy of 185 rulers who had achieved remarkable success through their military conquests and overall expansion of the kingdom. Just like the history of Pragjyotispur that would remain incomplete without any reference to the Kamakhya Saktipeeth, similarly, the history of Tripura too, would be incomplete without a mention of Ma Tripura Sundari’s Abode in Udaipur, around 55 kms from the capital city of Agartala. Devi Tripurasundari is one of the deities belonging to the Dásá Máhávidyas. She is also worshipped as the most potent incarnation of the Devi, or simply the ságuna-roopa of Adi Parasákti who represents the Supreme Being in Sáktitva, and also the feminine aspect of Param Brahman. Devi Tripurasundari is hailed as a great unifier among the followers of the Sakta-Tantric panth of Sanatan Dharma.

Devi Tripurasundari at Her Abode in Udaipur, Tripura

Along with Sada-Siva (or Tripuratanka), Devi Tripurasundari is responsible for the Pancha-Krityas – sristi or creation, sthithi or protection, samhara or destruction, thirodhana or concealment of the world in maya, and anugraha or final liberation. Devi Tripurasundari is worshipped in many temples across India, but the most noteworthy place of Her worship is the Tripura Sundari Mandir of Tripura. For those who might not be aware, the Tripura Sundari Mandir is one among the 52 Sakti Peethas of Bharat; and, according to the popular story of Sati’s death by self-immolation, it was Her right leg that had fallen in the spot where this temple is located at present. Ma Tripura Sundari is worshipped by all people of Tripura, from the Twipras (Debbarmas, Reangs, Jamatias, Murasings) who are the original inhabitants of Tripura, the Hindu Bengalis, and as well as the Tripura royal family.

According to the Brahmanda Purana, Visnu became the elder brother of Parvati in her swaroop as Ma Tripura Sundari, and helped her to be the consort of Siva. Hence, perhaps because of this reason, along with Ma Tripura Sundari/Tripuresvári at the Tripura Sundari temple, Visnu is also worshipped in the form of a saligrama. The location of the Tripura Sundari temple is also an interesting one for that matter. It is built atop a hillock, which is in the shape of the back of a tortoise (understood as kurma avatar in Sanatan Dharma). In the Sákta parampara of Sanatan Dharma, this is believed to be one of the most sacred sites for a Saktipeeth to be located.

According to a story associated with the temple and as written in the Rajamala, king Dhanya Manikya who ruled over Tripura in the closing years of the 15th century, had a revelation one night in a dream in which Ma Tripura Sundari instructed him to shift her murti from Chittagong (in present-day Bangladesh) and initiate her worship on the hillock near Udaipur, the then capital of the kingdom. The king found out that a temple on the hillock was already dedicated to Visnu. He was in a dilemma, unable to decide how a temple dedicated to Visnu could have a murti of Sakti. The following night, the divine vision was repeated again, with Ma Tripura Sundari coming along with Brahma, Visnu and Máheswara. It was then that the king finally understood that Visnu and Sákti were different swaroops of the same Brahman.

Thus, the temple of Ma Tripura Sundari in present-day Agartala came into being. It is the place of convergence of Vaisnava and Sakta followers of Tripura. There is another temple – the Chaturadasa temple (Chaturadasa literally meaning ‘the temple of 14 deities’) – which is a popular Hindu religious place of worship in Tripura, where 14 Kokborok deities (important deities of the Tripura royal family) are worshipped. These deities include – Brahma, Visnu, Siva, Durga, Laksmi, Kartikeya, Saraswati, Ganesa Samudra, Prithvi, Agni, Ganga, Himadri, and Kamadeva. They are known by the local names of Burasa, Lampra, Bikhatra, Akhatra, Thumnairok, Sángroma, Bonirok, Twima, Songram, Mwtaikotor, Mailuma, Noksumwtai, Swkalmwtai, and Khuluma respectively.

The historical belief is that the mother of Raja Trilochan who was the king of Tripura, had saved these 14 deities from being killed by a wild buffalo when she had gone to take a bath in the nearby Maharani river. The deities eventually killed the beast with her help. Happy with the efforts of the king’s mother, the 14 Kokborok deities visited King Trilochan’s palace in Udaipur. The royal family offered Puja to the fourteen deities and also sacrificed wild buffaloes. Kharchi Puja is a century-old, important Hindu religious festival celebrated at this temple. A beautiful amalgamation of Sanatan Hindu and local Kokborok customs, Kharchi Puja is celebrated annually during the month of Aashad (June-July). It takes place 15 days after the end of the Ambubachi celebrations at the Ma Kámákhya Saktipeeth, and is believed to be a way of purifying Bhúdevi or Mother Earth after Ambubachi.

This immensely rich cultural history and heritage of Tripura certainly brings forth the point that both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata had always been an integral and inseparable part of this heritage. It was Prof. Prabhas Chandra Dhar who had first translated the original Valmiki Ramayana into the Kokborok language in the 20th century. Prof. Dhar’s rendition of the Valmiki Ramayana in the Kokborok language was deeply influenced by the Krittivasi Ramayana that was composed in the 16th century by the famous Bengali poet Krittivas Ojha. As mentioned in a few of the earlier articles in this series, the story of Shri Ram has played a profound role in the life, thought and culture of the people of the North-East. Since the first elaborate rendition of the character of Ram by Madhav Kandali in his Assamese version of the original Valmiki Ramayana, the epic has been retold in countless ways through literature and other visual and performing arts, adapting to the values and ethos of the diverse vanavasi cultures that make up the North-East.

In the process, many of these renditions have assumed diverse forms and appearances. Yet, they are all connected to one another by their adherence to the basic theme and eternal spiritual and philosophical values enshrined in the story of the Ramayana. The diverse manifestations of the story of Ram in the many different versions of the Ramayana prevalent in the North-East are a beautiful reflection of the quintessential spirit of the cultural unity that runs throughout the length and breadth of Bharatvarsha. An elaborate study of the Ramkatha tradition in the North-East is essential for comprehending and appreciating the cultures and religious belief systems of the different vanavasis residing here in their entirety, and also for understanding the inalienable cultural link of the North-East with Bharat.

Unfortunately, many aspects of the Ramkatha tradition in the North-East, particularly the oral traditions of smaller communities such as Hmars, Chakmas, Reangs, and Hajongs, have remained a largely neglected area of research. We must understand that because of the strategic and geographical location of the North-East at the major immigration routes from South-East Asia, the South-East Asian versions of the story of the Ramayana have been deeply influenced by the different narratives of Shri Ram that were or are still popular in a few regions of the North-East. Thus, the distinctive cultural values and ethos of the North-Eastern region of the country and its contact with different cultures of South-East Asia throws significant light on the Sanatan Vedic history and the society and culture of this region, specifically with respect to the varied expressions of the Ramayana that are prevalent here.

In Tripura, the Ramayana and the story of Shri Ram, Lakshman, Sita, Hanuman, and Ravana exerts a tremendous influence on the life and culture of the people. The region shows acquaintance with the Ramkatha tradition since the ancient times. In the Rajaratnakara – an important historical text of Tripura composed in the 15th century – we come across several references of Puru Sen, an early king of Tripura, as a contemporary of Raja Dasharatha of Ayodhya. It is also mentioned that Puru Sen had gone to Ayodhya for attending an agni homa ceremony performed by Raja Dasharatha. This is mentioned in Part I 9th Sargha of the Sri Sri Rajaratnakara. Leaving aside the veracity of these historical claims as they have been questioned by a few historians of the later period, the fact of the matter here is that it certainly indicates a fair-enough acquaintance of the people of present-day Tripura with the story of the Ramayana.

It was in the first half of the 19th century that author Shivendra Dwija, under the patronage of Raja Ramaganga Manikya of Tripura, composed a version of the Adhyatma Ramayana in Sanskrit. At the initiative of Raja Ramaganga, who was an ardent devotee of Sri Ram, the text was published and preached among the subjects of his kingdom. This is mentioned in an article titled ‘The Tradition of the Ramayana and Tripura: The Ramayana in North-East India’ written by Sitanath Dey. It may also be mentioned here that the Bengali rendition of the Ramayana by Krittivas is immensely popular among the people from the interior hills to the plains of Tripura. It is from the Ramayana that various works of literature including poems, plays, songs and paintings, and dramatic traditions based on the story of Ram and Sita have emerged in the cultural and literary heritage of the state.

A performing art form of Tripura called Ram Panchali is based on different stories from the Ramayana, the most common ones being Ram’s exile, the separation of Ram and Sita, Sita’s abduction by Ravan, and the eventual victory of Dharma (signified by Ram) over Adharma (signified by Ravan). Ram Panchali is a very raw and simple form of local poetical tradition based on the Ramayana. It is performed on different occasions, particularly during Shradh ceremonies, and this tradition still exists in a few remote villages of Tripura. Besides Ram Panchali, Ramayan Pala Kirtan is another Ramkatha-based performing art tradition prevalent in Tripura that comprises of song, dance and drama, with various elements of Vaishnavism, especially Naam-Kirtan being infused into it. It is generally performed at night during the winter season after the successful harvest of crops.

Presented in the form of a song by talented musicians and singers especially trained for the purpose, the Ramayana Pala Kirtan requires around 4-5 nights to complete the entire story. There is a rich tradition of dance and drama based on the story of the Ramayana among several tea garden communities of Tripura too, such as the Santhals, Mundas, Tantis, Nunisa, and Gauds, which is especially performed during festivals like Holi and Tusu Puja. Another important dance drama tradition of Tripura based on different themes from the Ramkatha is known as Kathamos. It is staged by professional musical and dance troupes during the annual festival of Charak Puja that is held in honour of Shiva. Kathamos is characterized by traditional songs and music, beautiful foot works, and elaborate limb movements, besides the usage of masks and specific costumes based on the enactment of the different characters.

Episodes from the Ramayana that are usually selected for the performance of Kathamos include the marriage ceremony of Ram and Sita, Ram’s vanavas, Sita’s abduction by Ravana, the war between Ram and Ravan, the birth of Luv and Kush, etc. The story of Shri Ram has had aprofound influence on the oral traditional heritage of Tripura as well. The different episodes, themes and characters of Ramkatha are a part and parcel of the daily lives of the people of Tripura. They have found a way into many of their proverbs, riddles, music and art forms, marriage songs, religious beliefs and practices, festivals, etc. E.g. the famous Dhamail and Saotali songs of Tripura are inspired by different themes and stories from the Ramayana. The overwhelming influence of the story of Ram in the life and culture of the people of Tripura is also evident from the association of the names of people, places, hills and mountains, flora and fauna etc. with different characters from the Ramayana.

Its influence is also aptly evident in different traditional games and sports of Tripura. E.g. in a few southern districts of Tripura, there is a local game prevalent among a few vanavasi communities, comprising of a short song along with a few physical demonstrations. These demonstrations depict martial warfare based on the story of Ram, Lakshman, and Hanuman on the eve of their war with Ravan in Lanka. Jagadish Gyan Choudhury has written elaborately on this and several other important aspects of the Tripuri Ramayana. It is also believed that the famous Ashokastami festival celebrated in Tripura annually during March-April is closely connected with the Ramayana. The belief is that Shri Ram, before embarking on his journey to defeat Ravan, had performed the Ashokastami Puja at the same spot in Tripura where the pilgrims gather today.

Some of the main rituals of the festival are the worship of Shiva and Shakti and taking a dip at the sacred reservoir known as the Ashtamikunda or Sitakunda. It is considered to be extremely pious, as it brings good fortune, success, and all-round prosperity for families. The Ashtamikunda or Sitakunda is a natural body of water in Tripura that remains at the heart of all Hindu religious traditions of the state. The story of the Ramayana has also found expression in several architectural and archaeological marvels of the state such as the ruins at Unakoti and as well as those at Pilak. Unakoti is famous for massive rock-cut carvings dedicated to Shiva.Apart from its religious significance, Unakoti is an important archaeological site too. With intricate carvings on stone and various other sculptures associated with Sanatan Dharma, this is a very important place, both from the historical-archaeological and religious points of view.

Rock Carvings at Unakoti

There is another place in Tripura called Pilak, which is a well‐known Buddhist site famous for archaeological representations of terracotta architecture and well-moulded terracotta plaques (dated roughly to the 9th-10th centuries A.D.) of Buddhist divinities and Hindu Devis and Devatas. There are several images from the Puranas and the Ramayana that have been depicted in the outer walls of the Shyamsundar Tilla temple situated at Pilak. In the terracotta plaques of Pilak, there are numerous images of Shri Ram, Laxman, Hanuman, Varaha, Ganesha, Kartikeya, Ram holding the bow for killing Bali, Ram killing Marichi (the deer), images of Mata Shakti in different forms, the head of Shiva, Nandi, Narasimha, Buddha, Vajra, Tara, and many more. The figures of Brahma, Vishnu, Kamadev, Ram, Laxman, Narasimha and Hanuman have been depicted in their usual religious forms.

Depiction of Varaha and Hanuman at Pilak, Tripura

In these plaques, the figures of both Ram and Laxman in a seated posture are the most prominent among all. Ram can be seen holding the bow in his left arm in the Abhaya mudra pose. Interestingly, the figures are in different sizes and Ram appears larger than Laxman. The famous golden deer as described in the Ramayana has also been beautifully depicted in one of the plaques where the deer is shown to be running and being targeted by Ram with his bow. Hanuman has been depicted in the position of crossing the ocean. At the bottom, fishes and crocodiles have been depicted with the effect of waves in a zig‐ zag fashion. Popular animal images like buffalo, deer, lion, rhino, tiger, pigs and milking calves have also been depicted in these plaques. All these are proof enough of the fact that the Ramkatha tradition is widely prevalent in the literary, performing arts, and oral cultural heritage of Tripura.

Depiction of Ram and Laxman in one of the terracotta plaques at Pilak, Tripura.

Just like in any other part of Bharat where the religious and spiritual dimensions of the Ramkatha find a foremost place in the collective consciousness of the people, this holds true for North-East India too, where the people have identified themselves with the story of Shri Ram not only at the religious and spiritual levels, but also at the cultural level, bringing out the ethical and ideological implications of the story in myriad different ways. The character of Ram as an epitome of ultimate human virtues, values and ideals as embedded in the story is a part of the collective cultural consciousness of the people in the North-East. The devotional aspect of this story is something which is clearly visible in the region through various musical and art forms, dance and drama traditions.

In fact, it was during the Vaishnavite movement in the North-East at the peak of the Islamic invasions that the religious and spiritual aspects of the story of Shri Ram came to be fervently explored at multiple levels. As avataras of Visnu, both Ram and Krisna were identified as one philosophical and spiritual entity. The characters and episodes of the different stories, while retaining their essential qualities as per the original text of Valmiki, can be seen to have assumed new features and traits which have been carefully moulded according to the values, ethos, local ambience, culture and food habits of the region. Unfortunately, Ramkatha in the North-Eastern region of India is a largely unexplored area of study. Most of these traditions are completely unknown to people from outside the region and even within the region.

These stories continue to survive in the form of various oral traditions and traditional performing arts such as Bhaona or Oja Pali in Assam, Kathamos in Tripura, Bhari Gan among the Rabhas and the Garos, etc. In today’s date, many of these art forms with their roots in Sanatan Vedic Dharma are either in a decadent state or on the verge of near-complete extinction. The saddest part is that many of them have been lost forever without even being written down or documented. In many states such as Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram, Ramakatha traditions gradually lost their prominence and relevance after the spread and consolidation of Christianity. These were further put into oblivion by the continuous neglect and deprivation of the North-East by the successive Congress Governments at the Centre, which opened the floodgates for so many of the major problems that the North-East is today grappling with, whether it be religious conversions, drugs and arms trafficking from across the border with China and Myanmar, etc.

References:

  1. Sri Rajaratnakara, Part I, 9th Sargh, pp.86-90.
  2. Bhattacharjee, P. (2012). Temple Architecture of Princely Tripura. Agartala: Nabachandana Prakashani.
  3. Choudhury, Jagadish Gyan. (1998). Tripuri Ramayana, Ramayana in North-East India. Gauhati University.
  4. Das, R. (1987). Art and Architecture of Tripura. Agartala: Tribal Research Institute, Govt. of Tripura.
  5. Dey, Sitanath. (2005). A Reflection To Our Cultural Heritage Through Sanskrit Studies. Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar.
  6. Ghosh, Sujit K. (ed.) Ramayana in the North-East India, B.R. Publishing Corporation. New Delhi, 2002.
  7. Poddar, Satyadeo. (ed.) History of Tripura: As Reflected in the Manuscripts. National Mission for Manuscripts, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2016.

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