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Picture Post: The British Library reveals a collection of 17th-century manuscripts of a Sanskrit epic

One of the world's most enduring stories, The Ramayana has been told and retold throughout India and South East Asia for more than 2,000 years. Today, a collection of lavishly illustrated 17th-century manuscripts of the Sanskrit epic, hidden away in the archives of the British Library since 1844, goes on public display for the first time.

The Ramayana follows the quest of Prince Rama, exiled from his kingdom of Ayodha, to rescue his beautiful wife Sita from the demon king Ravana, with the help of an army of monkeys. Dating to somewhere between 500 and 100BC, and traditionally attributed to the sage Valmiki, the story originated in northern India, but quickly spread throughout the whole subcontinent, crossing religious as well as geographical boundaries.

Plate 122 (the main image on the right) depicts the reunion of Rama with his brothers Bharata and Shatrughna, who have safeguarded Ayodha for him during his 14 years of exile. Having defeated Ravana and rescued Sita, Rama and his followers have returned to Ayodha in the Puspaka, an aerial car borne by four birds, which was stolen by the demon king, and is shown in the top left hand corner of the plate flying back to Kubera, the god of wealth, and its original master.

The manuscripts were commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh, who ruled over Mewar in north India from 1628 to 1652, and who claimed direct descent from Rama. It took several years for the artists, including Sahib Din, the greatest of 17th century Mewar artists, to produce seven volumes containing over 400 paintings. It is the most heavily illustrated edition of the Ramayana and the only one to survive from Rajasthan from this period.

The four volumes of The Ramayana now owned by the British Library were given by Rana Bhim Singh of Mewar to Col James Tod, the historian of the Rajputs (Hindu clans descended from ancient royal warrior dynasties) who brought them back to London in 1823. In 1844, they were acquired by the British Museum.

Ever since, the manuscripts have been stored in bound volumes, accessible only to scholars. When the volumes started to deteriorate, the British Library, which inherited them from the museum, decided to frame the paintings individually and put them on show to the public.

Curator Jerry Losty said: "The magnificent Mewar Ramayana manuscript; one of the finest manuscripts of the Ramayana epic ever produced, vividly illustrates this great story. The cumulative effect of seeing picture after picture packed with detail is truly remarkable and offers visitors a unique experience that has previously only been available to a very few scholars."

Today, The Ramayana is as popular as ever. Every autumn, the Ramlila, or "Rama play", is performed at the festival of Dassehra, during which time a giant effigy of Ravana is set alight in order to symbolise the triumph of light over darkness.

One of the centrepieces of the library's exhibition is a five-metre-high papier-mâché model of Ravana, created by the London-based theatre company Tara Arts.

In the late 1980s, the Indian television series Ramayan, a retelling of the story, was watched by more than 100 million viewers. It brought the entire country to a standstill whenever it was on, with people treating their television sets like little shrines, handing out sweets before the programme and saying prayers afterwards. The subcontinent's hunger for this heroic tale hasn't waned; since January, a new big-budget prime-time series of The Ramayana has been drawing massive audiences once again.