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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence