Indo-Islamic Love Stories and the Story of Rama and Sita

We also have excellent evidence of how well-known the story of Rama and Sita was in South Asia from numerous references to it in Sufi Muslim sources too. (It is very important to remember that the modern South Asian nation-states of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have the second, third and fourth highest populations of Muslims in the world, after Indonesia in Southeast Asia.)

Here are some examples from four wonderful love stories written from the 14th to the 16th centuries in Avadhi, the language in which Tulsidas chose also to write his famous Hindu devotional Ramcharitmanas.  Avadhi had become the language of romantic poetry enjoyed in the courts in this area of north India and had also been used more widely to express Sufi devotional ideas.

The oldest of this genre that we know about is Maulana Daud’s Chandayan, the story of the lovers, Lorik (Laur) and Chanda.  The couple were already known from local folk stories, and their stories continue to circulate in performance traditions among pastoral groups in Uttar Pradesh and Chattisgarh today.  There is  a beautifully illustrated manuscript of Maulana Daud’s Chandayan  dating from the mid 16th century, which is held in the Rylands Library in Manchester (Hindu MS 1).

Chanda see Laur on his victory parade

Chanda see Laur on his victory parade

Lorik is being paraded as a victor through the streets of the city ruled by Chanda’s father, after he defeated an aggressor.  As he rides past Chanda’s balcony on an elephant, Chanda’s nurse and companion, Brihaspat, points him out to her. 

Laur climbs up to Chanda

Laur climbs up to Chanda

Chanda falls in love immediately.  Brihaspat arranges a night assignment for Lorik, showing him how he can use a rope to ascend to Chanda’s room.

After several attempts, Chanda allows him to come up, her maidservants all being asleep. 

Lorik looks round at the wonders of her bedchamber, including her beautiful wall-hangings:

The wallhangings in Chanda's bedchamber

The wallhangings in Chanda’s bedchamber

Look carefully in the top centre of the gold background (a clearer image can be found at Hindi MS1) and you will be able to pick out a ten-headed figure – none other than Ravana!  Chanda’s chambers are hung with pictures reflecting the culture of which she is a part.

In Qutban Suhravardi’s Magic Doe (Mirigavati), the hero, Rajkunvar, is on a quest in search of his beloved, who has shown herself to him as the magic doe of the title, only to disappear.  On his journeys, he comes across a herdsman who invites him into his cave.  Grateful for the hospitality, he enters, only to find out he has been tricked.  Within are previous travellers, too fat to move, who have been fed up by the herdsman as his own next meals!  Lamenting that here he has met the god of death, Rajkunvar continues:

 He’s shut the door and sits on top of it, stopping the path.  There is no way out.  Where do I go?  This is a troublesome spot, as difficult as the one Rama and Lakshmana were in when Ravana carried off fair Sita!  I am now in a similar situation.  Ravana had set up the shears of death, but he has put a boulder on the door.  They were freed by Hanuman’s strength.  I have only myself, and I’m tired! 

(Mirigavati 172, tr Behl)

He also makes reference to the Pandavas, the brothers in the other great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, who were rescued by another brother Bhima, when they were trapped by a demon.  And there are multiple references through the text to other parts of the Ramayana story.  The same is true of Manjhan’s Madhumalati, another Indo-Islamic romance which comes from the Shattari Sufi tradition.

The five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi.  Rock frieze, Deogarh

The five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi. Rock frieze, Deogarh


Perhaps the greatest of these romances, Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat, was written around 1540CE, just three decades or so before Tulsidas started composing his great Ramcharitmanas (‘Lake of the Doings of Ram’) in 1574CE.  Thomas de Bruijn goes so far as to say that Jayasi makes Padmavat almost into a palimpsest of the Rama story, the references to it are so frequent and multi-levelled.  As in all these Indo-Islamic romances, the story can be read at different levels.  Along with a courtly love story is a reading in which the hero represents the Sufi seeker looking for the Divine, the heroine. 

In the Padmavat, Ratansen, the Rajput king of Chitor in modern day Rajasthan, seeks out Padmavati, daughter of the king of Singhala, an island equated with Ravana’s Lanka by the poet.  Ratansen and Padmavati are compared with Rama and Sita throughout, as well as standing for the Sufi seeker and the reflected Divine.  But alongside the Sufi seeker, in this narrative, is the Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin, referred to in the extract from the end of the poem as the padhshah, or ruler.  Representing orthodoxy or the external side of Islam, he too desires Padmavati, and seeks, unsuccessfully, to win her by subterfuge and force.  He is finally thwarted when Padmavati throws herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre, along with his first wife, Nagmati.  In death, the annihilation of the lover into the Divine beloved, the union of seeker and Divine, is powerfully shown.  Chitor becomes Islam but it is a pyrrhic victory – the Sufi search for union with the divine superior to outward conquests which cannot grasp the truth.

At the moment Padmavati and Nagmati had departed (in the funeral pyre) with Ratansen, the padshah encircled the fortress.  But then the opportunity had passed, Ram and Sita had vanished. The shah came but the whole court was empty; [he said:] ‘That which I tried to prevent by working night and day has happened.’  He picked up a handful of dust and threw it in the air, saying, ‘This earth is vain.  As long as earth does not fall on [a man], his desire will not die down.’  His entire army raised a mount; they made bridges to all the passes of the fortress.  There was an attack and an unimaginable battle: Badal came to the gate but he was vanquished.  There was a jauhar of all the women; the men went in battle. The padshah destroyed the fortress; Chitor had become Islam.

(Padmavat 651, tr. dr Bruijn 2012: 133)

You might like to compare the way the ending is portrayed in Albert Roussel’s early 20th c ballet, inspired by a French poem based on Jayasi’s story, and still being performed now, with the way Jayasi portrays it in his text.  What questions do the differences raise? And when you have looked at the section on Sita’s testing, what other intertextual references can you find here?

Roussel’s ballet, Padmavati, (composed in 1923), performed at Spoleto, in Italy, in 2008.  Clip shows behind the scenes and then an extract from the end of the ballet.

 Two key episodes in Sita’s story


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