Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: “Battle of Lanka, between Rama and Ravana, King of the Rakshasas” from the Ramayana
The Ramayana, composed by the ancient poet Valmiki, is one of two great Sanskrit epics, the other being the Mahabharata.
While the Mahabbharata concerns rival cousins battling for control of their ancestral kingdom, the Ramayana recounts the life and exploits of Rama, the king of Ayodha and the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu. Like the Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, these two Indian works offer accounts of a mythological past in which supernatural forces were alive in the world and gods populated the realm of mortals. Rather than a history to be taken at face value, the Ramayana tells a tale that is both a religious allegory and an instructive guide to moral and ethical conduct.
The passion, turmoil, and adventure that enliven the Ramayanahave inspired its retelling not only orally and in text over the centuries, but also in art. The scene depicted here comes from an early nineteenth-century manuscript. Its subject matter derives from the sixth book of the Ramayana, in which Rama battles the evil ruler Ravana, the abductor of his wife Sita. Events from the Battle of Lanka are pared down to their essentials in this image. To the left, we see Rama, followed by three soldiers, representing the legions of the monkey king Sugriva, who fought on his behalf. To the right, Ravana rides atop a chariot steered by demons. Between the two armies is evidence of their violent and protracted fight—the bloody and dismembered bodies of members on both sides of the conflict.
This image is an example of a painting style that flourished in the Rajput kingdoms of western India between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like other works of this school, it is characterized by solid areas of vivid color, sharp linear outlines, and formally arranged figures set in profile against a shallow backdrop. Another common feature of Rajasthani works, continuous narrative (i.e., multiple episodes from the same narrative contained within a single frame) is employed here as well. According to the text of the Ramayana, advantage in the Battle of Lanka passed back and forth between opposing sides many times. In the scene here, the entirety of the battle seems to play out simultaneously. Several clues in the image suggest that we are looking at a moment when Ravana has the upper hand. For instance, there seem to be more monkeys than demons among the dead, Rama himself is covered in wounds, and Ravana occupies the foreground. However, in the lower right hand corner, there is evidence of Rama’s ultimate triumph over his enemy. Ravana’s body is, in fact, depicted twice—sitting upright in a position of power and falling from that seat. The body of the demon king is shown toppling over, with his crowned but severed head lying on the ground.
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