How Ramayana fired the imagination of Urdu poets

A vast amount of Urdu poetry exists on the various incidents mentioned in the epic.

Updated Oct 23, 2019 11:13am
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:

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.


Author Image

Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator, literary historian and founder of Hindustani Awaaz.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (66) Closed

Masarrat Husain
Oct 22, 2019 06:28pm
Great article
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Masarrat Husain
Oct 22, 2019 06:29pm
This is a beautifully written article. Masarrat
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Oct 22, 2019 06:43pm
Narrative lacking substance!
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Oct 22, 2019 07:16pm
Very nice article. Thank you so much for doing this great work.
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Oct 22, 2019 07:33pm
Very informative, thank you.
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Oct 22, 2019 07:35pm
This is our ancestors heritage and we must respect Ramayana.
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Sayyar Khan
Oct 22, 2019 08:46pm
Same people I guess same background
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Oct 22, 2019 09:47pm
Beautiful article. Sharing culture has positive impact on society. Expecting few more articles from India and Pakistan media as well.
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Oct 22, 2019 10:06pm
Ram is the cultural icon of the Indian subcontinent.
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Oct 22, 2019 10:08pm
@Faran, I am very happy to positive comments from Pakistanis on Hindu religious stories. Thank you. lets be nice to each other more and more.
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Kishor Kumar
Oct 22, 2019 10:33pm
Beautifully written. It is reminiscent of days when Indian culture was our culture and everything was not seen from prism of religion.
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Oct 22, 2019 10:52pm
Thus is a marvelous article. I have shared this to my friends here in India too. Thanks for bringing out such an informative article
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Ghani K
Oct 22, 2019 11:04pm
@Faran, ' This is our ancestors heritage and we must respect Ramayana.' Totally agree, we must respect Holy Scriptures of every religion, but ancestors heritage I do question. My ancestors came from lands far beyond even Afghanistan.
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Vijaya L. Buddhiraju
Oct 22, 2019 11:05pm
Beautiful article. Thanks "DAWN"
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Oct 22, 2019 11:27pm
@Ghani K, how far do you want to go back? Africa?
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Oct 22, 2019 11:41pm
Superb ...little known about ramayana got urdu version works by poets, cud have been many more if research was carried out extensively.
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Oct 22, 2019 11:55pm
Good article. Ram belong to as much to Ayodhya and same to Lahore but due to conversion due to sword edge, current people have forgotten about him.
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Oct 23, 2019 12:03am
This is purely "Puranic" culture for, the Ganga basin, it has little to do with lands coterminous to Pakistan (Indus).
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Dr. Khan
Oct 23, 2019 12:15am
@Ghani K, very well said
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Aziz Ahmad
Oct 23, 2019 01:04am
@Kishor Kumar, What is actually Indian culture? Do a Muslim man from Lahore and a Muslim man from Dhaka or Chennai has the same culture? Or, a Hindu in Delhi and a Hindu in Calcutta belong to the same culture?
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Oct 23, 2019 01:11am
Ramayana is not a religious text. Yoga Vasistha is. There is no Lakshman Rekha in Valmiki Ramayana. Ram is not a perfect man but perfect King. It is a book on Dharma.
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Oct 23, 2019 01:24am
Actually Ram's ancestors....... long long back those people who were even very long gone ancestors of Ram.... came from far far beyond Afghanistan ...or even Prussia.....or even beyond the Jerusalem.... Anyway I am happy I found some good Urdu couplets about Ramayana. Thanks.
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Fareed N (Peshawar)
Oct 23, 2019 02:04am
Laying claim to Ram ! He grew up on the banks of River Ganges (Ganga)., pretty far from Khyber Pass. Excellent Comment by Mr Rizwan,"This is purely "Puranic" culture for, the Ganga basin, it has little to do with lands coterminous to Pakistan (Indus)."
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Oct 23, 2019 04:18am
Then why Pakistan & India go to war when so many aspects are common to both Nations. Humanity need to prevail.
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Oct 23, 2019 04:24am
can we say Christianity,Islamic culture belongs to middle East so the religion too,all the religions are for the mankind don't confine to one particular place.
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Hemant K
Oct 23, 2019 05:35am
The name 'Lahore' came from the word "Luvapur" or "Lohpur". Luv/Loh and Kush are believed to be sons of Rama. "kasur" comes from the word "Kushpur". Both are in present-day Pakistan.
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Sam Rodrigues
Oct 23, 2019 05:42am
@rizwan, please look up the etymology of the names of cities such as Lahore before you make that claim.
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Oct 23, 2019 06:36am
The painting given under the title resembles more Inca characters of South America than Indians.
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Akil Akhtar
Oct 23, 2019 07:01am
@Ash20, No Islam did not spread in india through sword but through the sufis.....Also we are grateful that our forefathers left idol worship and turned towards the truth.....
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Oct 23, 2019 07:21am
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Dr. V C Pandey
Oct 23, 2019 08:55am
@Aziz Ahmad, Indian culture is the blend of all the cultures you mentioned and many more. Indian culture respect all kind of traditions, ceremonies and rituals irrespective of religion, sect, caste and creed. Exceptions may always be there. But majority Indians believe in the culture what I narrated.
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anil sahu
Oct 23, 2019 09:26am
@Akil Akhtar, why thankful respect all religions. you are not superior then others
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Oct 23, 2019 09:30am
@Akil Akhtar, you have no idea about idol worship. Ancestors suggested for idols so that common people like us can concentrate as we cannot think beyond our 5 senses. Once you attain a level of spirituality you don't need any idol to worship, just close your eyes and pray.
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Riddled With Questions
Oct 23, 2019 09:58am
@Ghani K, then go and claim your heritage where you believe it to have originated from.
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Oct 23, 2019 10:16am
Very happy to see a positive comments on article of Hinduism
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Oct 23, 2019 10:51am
@Akil Akhtar, There is no compulsion of doing idol worship in Hinduism.If somebody doesn't want nobody forces him or her.
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Oct 23, 2019 10:54am
@rizwan, Indo-Gangatic plain is all one continous land.India and Pakistan is not divided by Mountains and seas.
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Oct 23, 2019 10:58am
@Aziz Ahmad, Respecting Indian heritage is Indian culture.
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Oct 23, 2019 11:00am
@Fareed N (Peshawar),if you come from Khyber to Ayodhya you will not face any mountains,the passage is one continous land.
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Wake up to Truth
Oct 23, 2019 11:44am
@Aziz Ahmad, Yes. And you realize that only when you meet in a totally alien country/culture, such as USA, Europe, Arab etc.
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Oct 23, 2019 11:59am
Read complete Ramayana if you want to know Ram. The Perfect. The Maryada purshottam!
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Oct 23, 2019 12:10pm
@rizwan, Lahore and Kasur were established by Ram's sons Lav and Kush.
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Oct 23, 2019 01:00pm
Well done, nicely written, great job
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Oct 23, 2019 01:09pm
@rizwan, Indus comes from sindu/hindu.
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Oct 23, 2019 01:09pm
great research & beautifully narrated in poetic way. kudos to writer
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Oct 23, 2019 01:09pm
@Aziz Ahmad, Lahore is named after Ram’s son Luv.
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Oct 23, 2019 01:12pm
@Fareed N (Peshawar), No such thing called Puranic culture. Lahore is named after Ram’s son Luv. So its same civilization.
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Oct 23, 2019 01:12pm
dawn has wonderful writers having command in their respective fields.
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Rani Sharma
Oct 23, 2019 01:15pm
The mythology of India is also the mythology of Pakistan. Lahore was named after Luv, Lord Ram's son. The Ramayan and Mahabharat are full of references to places in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the children in Pakistan have been robbed of the myths that their ancestors brilliantly invented. Instead their heroes are in distant Arabia, Iraq and Iran, lands that they cannot relate to.
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Rani Sharma
Oct 23, 2019 01:17pm
@Aziz Ahmad, , does a Muslim from Pakistan have the same culture as a Muslim from Arabia?
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Daddy Cool
Oct 23, 2019 01:20pm
How many Pakistan is read Ramayana ???
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Oct 23, 2019 01:44pm
Excellent article and outstanding work by author. Many thanks for depiction of this master piece epic Ramayana.
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Shiv Gaur
Oct 23, 2019 01:55pm
Very well written article!
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MP Singh
Oct 23, 2019 02:15pm
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Oct 23, 2019 02:57pm
@Akil Akhtar, have you found it?
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Oct 23, 2019 03:05pm
Our joint Heritage .
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Oct 23, 2019 03:14pm
outstanding piece !
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Bryan Joseph
Oct 23, 2019 04:11pm
@Aziz Ahmad, Absolutely I agree. The civilization of the subcontinent is the civilization of the great river Sindhu a.k.a Indus. We have embraced different faiths but we are people of this land. Thankfully genetics and our common race has remained the same inspite of drawing boundary lines. Even our own people cannot differentiate us if do not tell who we are.
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Oct 23, 2019 04:38pm
Very nicely collated and articulated. Didn't know about this angle of Urdu poetry - who could have thought that Urdu poets have written such amazing things about Ramayana. Loved reading every bit of it - Doosra Banbas was my favorite. Thanks for sharing!
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Oct 23, 2019 04:42pm
What Rahbar Jaunpuri wrote, applies to their current leadership's school of thought.
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Oct 23, 2019 06:05pm
Didn't knew until now. Thanks for enlightening, Dawn!
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Oct 23, 2019 08:07pm
@Aziz Ahmad, It is a culture that represents the best of Humanity. No wonder you cann't understand much of it.
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Oct 23, 2019 08:08pm
@rizwan, then please research where the word Indus came from?
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Oct 23, 2019 10:38pm
Extremely well written article!
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Oct 23, 2019 10:44pm
@Akil Akhtar, we are glad we didn’t left Hinduism . Our religion teaches love , harmony and compassion.
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Syed Nazim
Oct 23, 2019 10:45pm
Beautifully written.
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