A lot of people have heard about the Ramayana, one of India's (and the world's) great epics. In the spirit of introducing readers to less well-known (at least in Western education) works, I picked another version of the same story: Thailand's national epic, the Ramakien.
I first came into contact with this epic when I told a short portion of it for a MythOff event. For this challenge, I went back and re-read the full English prose translation, and I found it even better that I remembered. The version I read was based on an 18th century document; earlier written versions of the epic were destroyed and lost in 1767.
The Ramakien (sometimes also spelled Ramakian) tells the story of an epic war between demons and humans - the latter side led by reincarnated deities and supported by a great monkey army. It is also a story of rescuing a damsel in distress (war breaks out when the king of the demons, Totsakan, kidnaps the hero's wife), and re-arranging the cosmic Thai landscape with the involvement of Heaven, earthly kingdoms, and several countries of the Underworld.
The power couple of the epic is Pra Ram (the human reincarnation of the god Pra Narai) and his wife and love Nang Sida (the reincarnation of the goddess Laksamee). They are surrounded by a stellar supporting cast including Hanuman the monkey-deity-trickster hero, Pra Ram's brother Pra Lak, Pipek the demon seer who betrays his evil brother and joins the human side, and a whole line of distinguished monkey generals and warriors.
Interestingly enough, the demon side is just as diverse and full of intriguing characters. The main villain for most of the epic is the ten-headed, twenty-armed Totsakan, surrounded by terrifying demon warriors and supported by his wife and love Nang Monto. While Totsakan is definitely the bad guy, he is also surprisingly gentle and loving with his family, and at the moment of his death he goes out with dignity and humility. The demon side involves a lot of good characters such as Benjakai, Pipek's shapeshifter daughter who falls in love with Hanuman while working to deceive the monkey army, and ends up marrying him after the war is over.
The Highlights - 12+1 times the Ramakien is truly epic
1. Monkey. Army.
2. Magic in this story works in amazingly logical ways. Shapeshifters have to see the person they want to copy. Magic weapons have to be charged with a certain amount of power before they are used. People have to go through a rite to become immortal. When incantations are interrupted, rituals fail. The heroes (and villains) of the epic take advantage of these rules in multiple ways.
3. The main form of combat in the Ramakien is archery, performed with powerful magic arrows that have various effects such as a rain of snakes (or birds of prey to eat the snakes), rings of fire, diamond nets, lightning and thunder, and even bringing dead soldiers back to life. Heroes and villains pick their arrows to counter the effects created by their opponent. Magical combat archery.
4. When Nang Sida is accused of adultery and exiled by her husband, she gives him an epic run for his money. Once Pra Ram realizes he was wrong, he tries to make amends (with the wife who just lived ten years in exile because he didn't believe her word). Nang Sida is having none of that, and after giving him a piece of her mind multiple times, she goes as far as divorcing him. In the end, and entire committee of gods is needed to convince her to give him a second chance, and even then all she says is "I'll try."
5. Queen Kaiyakeese holds the chariot of her husband together with sheer force while they fight a demon.
6. The sweet moment when Nang Sida gets married and leaves the house of her parents. As they are left alone in the quiet, the old parents "pledge their love to each other."
7. Sadayu the magic bird sacrifices his life to stop Totsakan from kidnapping Nang Sida. He fails, but manages to stay alive long enough to bring the news to the husband.
8. Hanuman sleeps with mermaid, and the result is a tiny monkey with a fish tail. They keep him in a little lotus pond. At one point he tries to beat his father with a flower.
9. "Fighting a battle is like throwing water: Both sides get wet."
10. The time when Hanuman sneaks into the demon city and ties Totsakan and Nang Monto's hair together as they sleep. The magic knot can only be broken if Nang Monto punches her husband in the face three times.
11. The fact that even after Hanuman gets his own kingdom, he still spends his time climbing trees and scratching his head with his feet.
12. The time when Nang Sida gets a stern lesson in motherhood from a bunch of female monkeys for leaving her child alone in the forest with a meditating hermit for a babysitter.
+1. The time when Hanuman does the "I've got a jar of dirt!" routine with Totsakan's heart in a box.
Fun fact: According to an image published in Time Magazine, Barack Obama carries a small figurine of the Ramakien's Hanuman in his pocket for good luck. How cool is that.