How Ramayana fired the imagination of Urdu poets

A vast amount of Urdu poetry exists on the various incidents mentioned in the epic.
Published October 22, 2019
A scene from the Ramayana. Paris, musée Guimet - musée national des Arts asiatiques. MA2765.  — Richard Lambert
A scene from the Ramayana. Paris, musée Guimet - musée national des Arts asiatiques. MA2765. — Richard Lambert

Epics allow themselves to be read at multiple levels; the many stories contained within an epic can be ‘broken down’ and interpreted in different ways, to suit a variety of purposes while maintaining the over-arching, all-embracing integrity of the larger poetic story.

In the case of the Ramayana, while it is primarily a religious text depicting the life of Ram, the Prince of the Kosalas, his 14-year exile, the various dramatis personae he meets during his stay in the jungles, his journey to distant Lanka in pursuit of his wife who has been abducted by Raavan, and his eventual, triumphant return to his home in Ayodhya, the story and the very persona of Ram are brimful with meanings and significance.

Laying claim to Ram

As much a religious figure as an icon of morality, the character of Maryada Purushottam Ram, the so-called ‘perfect’ man, the embodiment of goodness and ‘manliness’ and everything that symbolises honour, chivalry and kindness, has seized the imagination of the poet and creative writer from different Indian languages for millennia. His story has been told and retold in different ways, in multiple languages and dialects.

The Urdu poet and writer is no exception. While large numbers of the Ramayana itself have been written in Urdu, both in verse and prose, a vast amount of Urdu poetry exists on the various incidents mentioned in the epic, first said to have been written by Valmiki, the principal characters mentioned in the story as well as several that deal specifically with Shri Ram himself.

– Photos by the author
– Photos by the author

Of the many poems on the chief protagonist of the many Ram Kathas that have sprouted over the centuries, ‘Ram’ by Dr Muhammad Iqbal is remarkable. Brimming over with love and respect for ‘Ram-e Hind’, whose very name is a badge of honour for the people of Hind, it lays claim to Ram in unequivocal terms, as someone that every Indian is proud of:

Labrez hai sharaab-e haqiqat se jaam-e Hind
Sab falsafi hain khitta-e maghrib ke Ram-e Hind

(The goblet of Hind is brimful with the wine of reality
All the philosophers of the west are taken in by Ram of Hind)

Similarly, Saghar Nizami’s ‘Ram’ stakes his claim to honouring and loving the legacy of Ram, making no distinction between the followers of Hinduism and the people of Hind who have the same reasons to love and respect him:

Zindagi ki rooh thha roohaniyat ki sham thha
Woh mujassam roop mein insaan ke irfaan thha

(He was the spirit of Life and the candle of spirituality
In the form of a human he was Knowledge incarnate)

‘Culture’ of Hind is embodied in Sita, Lakshman & Ram

Then there’s ‘Sri Ram Chandar’ by Zafar Ali Khan, a prolific poet now lost in the veils of time, but in his age had his finger on the nation’s pulse, wrote on a range of subjects, and was an influential editor of an Urdu newspaper. Here, in waxing eloquent on the many sterling qualities of Shri Ram Chandar, and the message embodied in his life, he makes the telling point that the ‘culture’ of Hind is embodied in Sita, Lakshman and Ram:

Naqsh-e tehzeeb-e Hunood abhi numaya hai agar
To woh Sita se hai Lachman se hai aur Ram se hai

(If there are any signs of the culture of Hinduism
Then they are because of Sita, Lachman and Ram)

Ramayan ka eik Scene by Brij Narain Chakbast is one of the best-loved and oft-quoted pieces of Urdu poetry. This long poem depicts Raja Ram Chandar taking leave from his parents, especially the poignant moment of leaving his mother, Kaushalya.

Inspired as much by the soz and marsiya tradition that had flowered in the Awadh region as by the many retellings of the Ram Katha in the folk tradition, the poem is full of poetic imagery of a son — a much-loved ‘ideal’ son — taking leave of his mother as he embarks on a journey of honour and commitment, taking with him nothing from his princely home save his mother’s blessings and the assurance that as long as he has the grace and favour of the Almighty, even the wilderness can be as favourable as a mother’s presence.

Uska karam shareek hai to gham nahii
Daamaan-e dasht daaman-e maadar se kam nahii

(If one has His divine blessings one can know no sorrow
The hem of wilderness is no less than a mother’s hem)

A non-judgmental account of ‘Sita-Haran’

Certain incidents from the Ramayana fired the imagination of the poet and the creative writer more than others. Just as the exile and stay in the jungle or ban-bas (variously spelt as banwas) became a metaphor for all sorts of wanderings in strange lands and all manner of hardship, so too did Sita’s abduction by Raavan, her crossing of the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ and the notion of ‘a stain upon a woman’s honour’ that abduction has always meant for a woman.

In ‘Sita Haran’ by Munshi Banwari Lal Shola we see a fairly conventional narration of events:

  • of Sita spotting the golden deer
  • of becoming enamoured by its beauty (its magnificent horns and hooves) that is narrated in great detail
  • of the entrapment planned by the wily Raavan
  • of Lakshman first telling Sita that no harm can come to Ram, but eventually going off in pursuit of his brother after instructing Sita to stay safe within the confines of the marital home
  • of Raavan appearing in the guise of a hungry Brahman seeking alms
  • and the simple, kind-hearted Sita stepping out of the boundary drawn by Lakshman to feed the hungry fakir.

The poem is remarkable for its completely non-judgmental tone and a sequential, though poetic, narration of events.

Bahar jo kundli se chaliin dhoka khaa gayii
Raavan ke chhal mein hai maharani aa gayii

(The moment she stepped out of the circle she was entrapped
Hai, the queen was beguiled by the deception of Raavan)

We know about Sita. What about Urmila?

Yet another poem, entitled ‘Ram’ by Rahbar Jaunpuri, while enumerating the many good qualities including his love for peace, harmony and truth, tells us why the land of Hindustan is proud of him.

In walking the path of loyalty, Ram has become an enduring symbol of self-sacrifice just as Raavan has come to embody the ‘shar-pasand’, those who like evil.

Rasm-o-rivaaj-e Ram se aari hain shar-pasand
Raavan ki nitiyon ke pujari hain shar-pasand

(Those who like evil are bereft of the traditions of Ram
They are the worshippers of the practices of Raavan)

Occasionally, it’s the ‘smaller’ stories of the lesser-known characters that seize the poetic imagination. Sita, who accompanied her husband and brother-in-law in exile, forsaking the luxuries of the royal palace, is one of the principal dramatis personae, but what of Urmila — the wife of Lakshman and younger sister of Sita?

Like Sita, she too wanted to accompany her husband, but Lakshman asked her to stay back and look after his ageing parents. She agreed, but at what cost? ‘Urmila’ by a contemporary poet, Tripurari, tells this unsung story, and asks if Urmila’s sacrifice was any less?

Using a modern, everyday idiom, and a natural, unaffected, enquiring tone, he seems to be wondering how this flesh-and-blood young woman, prone to the body’s human urges, would have coped in those barren 14 years of enforced separation from her husband?

… Magar woh Urmila ko chhod kar bhai ke pichhe chal pade
Koi tadapti aarzu si
Urmila ke honth se gir kar
Kai tukdon mein niche farsh par bikhri hui thi …

An elegy for the ‘death’ of the India that was

That epics can be read at multiple levels, including the political, is evident in the sorrowful, poignant, yet profoundly political Doosra Banwas by Kaifi Azmi, as much an elegy for the death of an India that was — an India that always allowed differences to co-exist, but one that was dealt a body blow on 6 December 1992.

The nazm depicts Lord Ram, coming home from exile in the jungle, to find the raqs-e divangi (the dance of madness) in the courtyard of his home in Ayodhya, the stains of blood on the banks of the Sarju river and his reaction to the demolition of the masjid that would —according to the poet — have been unequivocal. He would have felt as though he had been banished for a second time, for such a city — filled with hate — could not have been his home.

Ram banbaas se jab lautke ghar men aaye
Yaad jangal bahut aaya jo nagar men aaye
Raqs-e-divangi aangan mein jo dekha hoga
Chhe December ko Shri Ram ne socha hoga
Itne divane kahan se mire ghar men aaye
Jagmagate thhe jahaan Ram ke qadmon ke nishan
Pyaar ki kahkashan leti thi angdaii jahaan
Morh nafrat ke usi rahguzar men aaye
Dharm kya un ka thaa, kya zaat thii, ye jaanta kaun
Ghar na jalta to unhein raat men pahchanta kaun
ghar jalane ko mira log jo ghar men aa.e
Shakahari thhe mere dost tumhare ḳhanjar
Tum ne Babar ki taraf phenke thhe saare patthar
Hai mire sar ki ḳhata, zaḳhm jo sar mein aaye
Paanv Sarju mein abhi Ram ne dhoye bhi naa thhe
Ki nazar aaye vahan ḳhuun ke gahre dhabbe
Paanv dhoye bina Sarju ke kinare se uthe
Ram ye kahte hue apne dvare se uthe
Rajdhani ki faza aaii nahin raas mujhe
Chhe December ko mila doosra banbas mujhe

The article was first published in The Quint and has been reproduced with permission.