The famous Hindu epic poem, the Ramayana, addresses the moral themes of good versus evil, duty, suffering and karma through the story of Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu (see Hinduism’s historical role). A popular theme in Cambodian art and culture, its many episodes are depicted in temple carvings, pagoda art, classical dance and shadow puppetry. A simplified Cambodian version, the Reamker, also exists, more often portrayed in dance than in visual art.

At the outset of the story, ten-headed, twenty-armed Ravana, king of the rakasa demons, is terrorizing the world. As only a human can kill him, Vishnu agrees to appear on earth in human form to re-establish peace, and is duly born as Rama, one of the sons of Emperor Dasaratha. In due course, a sage teaches Rama mystical skills which come in handy in defeating the demons that crop up in the tale and in stringing Shiva’s bow, by which feat Rama wins the hand of a princess, Sita.

The emperor plans to name Rama as his heir, but the mother of one of Rama’s half-brothers tricks her husband into banishing Rama to the forest; he is accompanied there by Sita and another of his half-brothers, the loyal Lakshmana. After Rama cuts off the ears and nose of a witch who attacks Sita, Ravana gets his revenge by luring Rama away using a demon disguised as a golden deer; Lakshmana is despatched to find Rama, whereupon Ravana abducts Sita and takes her to his island kingdom of Lanka. While Rama enlists the help of Sugriva, the monkey king, Sita’s whereabouts are discovered by Hanuman, son of the wind god. Rama and the monkey army rush to Lanka, where a mighty battle ensues; ultimately Rama looses the golden arrow of Brahma at Ravana who, pierced in the heart, dies ignominiously.

Although the tale as told in Cambodia often ends here, there are two standard denouements. In one, Sita steps into fire and emerges unscathed, proving she has not been defiled by Ravana, after which the couple return home to a joyous welcome and Rama is crowned king. In the alternative, sad, ending, Sita is exiled back to the forest, where she gives birth to twins. When they are 12, the twins are taken to court and Rama is persuaded that he is really their father. He begs forgiveness from Sita and she calls on Mother Earth to bear witness to her good faith. In a moment she is swallowed up by the earth, leaving Rama to mourn on earth for 11,000 years, until he is recalled by death to Brahma.

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