In a time when unveiled bloodlust is often seen seething on those strained lines that separate religions in many parts of the world, what more can one ask for in the name of its happy coexistence other than an interpretation of one’s holy text by the other? This is about the Muslim retelling of the Hindu epic Ramayana! Ever heard of it? I was quite delighted when for the first time I got wind of this groundbreaking move made by mankind towards that highly volatile concept called religious harmony. In fact this is not a newfound version composed by some ‘peace-loving’ radical, but has been around for quite some time in the oral traditions of the folk ballads in Kerala. It’s actually called the Mappila Lamayanam and roots from the vernacular culture of the Mappilas of Northern Malabar, and is assumed to have taken shape sometime in the early 20th century.
Mappilas are the largest community of indigenous Muslims in Kerala, which formed as a result of Arab trade that found way to the Malabar Coast as early as 7th century AD. Over time the rich Arab traditions with their Islamic principles blend with the ethnic Malayali ways, and that gave rise to an interesting upshot shaping the Mappila culture, very distinctive and rather elaborate in its practices, cuisine, clothing, literature, song, music and dance. Even the local language Malayalam mutated with an idiosyncratic vocabulary into its Mappila variant. Having lived harmoniously under a string of non-Muslim rulers over centuries, Mappilas evolved plentifully exposed to the indigenous customs, one of which happens to be the tradition of the month-long Ramayana recital in every Hindu-Malayalee household during the Karkidakam month of the Malayalam calendar. It has to be assumed that the main plotline of the epic was picked from here about a century ago by the allegedly demented Mappila hobo called Hassankutty- ‘the mad’ who went around reciting his own interpretation of the epic far and wide in the form of Mappilapattu, a kind of folk ballad of the Mappilas, known for its simplistic rendition and intelligent humor. This version of the Ramayana supposedly created by the wandering Mappila, Hassankutty- the ‘mad’ is what is known as the Mappila Lamayanam where the renowned Hindu epic is set inside a Muslim world! Apart from these facts that we know through word of mouth, there are no written records about the exact origin of this fascinating addition to the hundreds of different versions of Ramayana known today.
In the Mappila Lamayanam, the principle storyline remains intact while placed within the social fabric of the Mappila community, but a few syllabic alterations to the names of some central characters can be seen. Like for instance, Rama and Ravana becomes Lama and Lavana respectively, and Hanuman becomes Anuman to cite a few. Acting out the events in the established Ramyana plotline, the characters are integrally Mappila in culture. Various terms of Mappila kinship are used all through the narrative. Here Rama (Lama) is a sultan from the kingdom of Kosala, and while evading sexual advances from Lavana’s sister Shurpanakha, he invokes the Muslim law of Shari’at. Apart from the underlying irony of placing a Hindu epic in a Muslim world, as some scholars have pointed out, the work at times also seem to subtly take digs at ‘the alternate religion of people coexisting with them’.
Be it sarcasm or puns or ironies, humor is omnipresent throughout the work from Hanuman’s intrusion to Lanka while “Ravana gets his ten beards shaved” to the details of Shurpanakha dressing up to meet Rama “dying her scattered grey hairs with charcoal and honey”, and “greedily decking up with her late great aunt’s gold”. The description of scenes involving Ravan’s advances to a captive SIta and the spoiling of Lanka by Hanuman are all laced with clever humor.
However what is most amusing about the subsistence of this interesting version of Ramayana is not its unlikely wit, but rather the way it was received by the Hindus and Muslims at the time in good humor. Maybe it was fairly clear back then that it meant no disrespect to either of the parties. Or maybe it was just the way things were grasped back then. The tolerance level for each other’s faith must have been evaluated with more regard and insight than there is today. Our ancestors with open hands accepted a topic that to today’s touchy communal sensibilities sounds far more inflammatory than what lead to the Godhra train burning or the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Fortunately it’s that ‘live-and-let-live’ communal approach of our forefathers that popularized this spirited version of the epic poem that’s an absolute sketch of religious harmony.
Sadly except a one fifth part, the major body of the Mappila Lamayanam is lost. Even so, what has survived the test of time remains one of the finest examples of one’s respect and tolerance for a fellow human being and his faith. Not a big fan of moral stories, but here there’s certainly something to take home!