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Epic India

Exhibition objects

Epic India

Scenes from the Ramayana

March 31–October 3, 2010

The story of Rama—the Ramayana—one of the great epics of South Asia literature, has captured the imagination of Indian artists for centuries. Scenes from the Ramayana first appear at Deogarh, in north India, in the mid-fifth century. These temple sculptures are the earliest depictions of the avatars, or divine appearances, of Vishnu, among whom the most popular proved to be Rama.

The Ramayana is an endearing tale of love, human frailty, and righteousness. It recounts the adventures of Rama; his wife, Sita; his brother Lakshmana; and his staunch ally and devotee Hanuman, who are pitted against the forces of Ravana, the evil king of Lanka. The elderly king Dasharatha, ruler of Ayodhya, his mind corrupted by one of his jealous wives, makes the fateful decision to banish his son Rama, forbidding the prince to enter a city for fourteen years. Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana embark on their forest exile, but their melancholy yet peaceful existence is thrown into chaos by the abduction of Sita by the demon Ravana. Much of the story involves Rama's search for Sita and the ensuing conflict with the forces of Lanka, which ends in Ravana's death, the rescuing of Sita, and the triumphant return of the virtuous couple to the throne. The narrative provides a philosophical platform for examining the nature of morality, kingship, and divinity in Indian society to this day.

This classic tale of the triumph of good over evil is ascribed to the father of Sanskrit poetry, Valmiki (ca. 400 B.C.), and has existed in roughly its present form since about the first century B.C., which makes it almost contemporaneous with the other great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The Ramayana came to consist of twenty-four thousand verses in five principal books, later expanded to seven, each rich in imagery upon which Indian artists could draw. It found its fullest expression in the lavishly illustrated manuscripts commissioned in the court ateliers of Rajasthan, western India, and the Punjab Hills in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.