The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 8 (February 1, 1933)
This pageant is one, not only of bizarre Oriental pomp, but it is also an historical epic of intense religious import. All day long the many thousands have been flocking, from far and near, to witness this drama. Finally the scene becomes a sething, billowing mass of anticipatory humanity. As the time of enactment approaches a hush pervades the multitude; then, as the Play proceeds, actors and onlookers alike become worked up to religious and fanatical frenzy.
The continuous thud of the “dholaks” (drums), the clang of cymbals, the blare of conch-shells, the whine of the professional beggars, the exhortations of the priests, and the cry of “Räm, Räm, Sitä, Räm” mingle and combine in producing a maddening medley of sound that permeates, overwhelms with an intoxicating excitement till the senses begin to reel. It is almost beyond adequate description, one must have been present to understand fully the cataclysmic and semi-mesmeric influence radiating, gripping, holding the whole being in thrall.
The civilization of India, according to Sanskrit and Vedic writings, is claimed at 200,000 B.C. There is much diversity of opinion as to the exact chronology; Sir Edward Jones—a recognized authority upon this subject—admits at is 20,000 B.C. The epic may be briefly given as follows.
Räm, one of the Brahmin gods, visited Earth in the guise of man; and, whilst in mortal form, took as wife Sita the most beautiful woman of India. At this period Länkä—ancient name of Ceylon—was inhabited by a race of Cyclopean giants with Räwän as their King. The fame of Sita's great beauty and wifely chastity was rapidly spread through Hindustan; it filtered across to Länkä and finally reached the ears of Räwän. Making up his mind to verify this rumour, Räwän crossed over to India and contrived to obtain a glimpse of Sita's beauty, and, as a result, became obsessed with the desire of possession.
Too weak to achieve this desire by a resort to arms, he retired into ambush, leaving spies to keep watch on the movements of Räm, till such time as the opportunity for abduction offered. At last news was brought him that Räm, accompanied by his main army, had set out on a punitive expedition. Considing this a fortuitous moment to accomplish his desires, Räwän swooped down; and, after sanguinary fighting, succeeded in carrying away Sita as captive. News of the ravishment was conveyed speedily as possible, to Räm by a survivor of the late battle. At once abandoning the campaign on hand Räm set forth in rapid pursuit of the ravisher. Swift as was this pursuit it was doomed to failure. Räwän had obtained too great a start to be overtaken. By the time Räm reached Comorin, Räwän had crossed Palk Strait and entered into his stronghold of Länkä.
Determined upon rescuing Sita and inflicting summary vengeance upon her abductor, Räm collected a fleet of boats and proceeded to cross the straits. Again success was against him; the giants, taking up positions of vantage on the high foreshores, sank or drove away every boat that approached by casting huge stones down. Discomfited Räm returned to the mainland whence he summoned his brother gods to come to his assistance. Rapidly the gods assembled, only one being absent—Hänumän, the merry and irresponsible Monkey god. No definite means of invasion of Länkä was arrived at, matters were at a standstill. Then, page 63 Hänumän put in his late and tardy appearance. The position being explained to him, he forthwith ordered the monkey hordes to assemble. At his command millions of these animals, great and small, arrived in haste. They brought down rocks and boulders from the nearer mountains, and soon built a bridge1 across to Länkä.
Across this bridge Räm led his avenging army and gained a decisive victory, rescuing Sita and exterminating the treacherous giants. During a phase of the battle, when victory was trembling in the balance, a small brown monkey2 succeeded in clambering up Räwän's limbs, putting out his single eye, then killing him. The fall and death of their leader so discomfited his followers, that, losing heart, they abandoned the fight and sought safety in flight.
A large enclosure is walled in and screened completely off for the performance in commemoration of this episode. The Play really begins about two hours before sun-down and is wonderfully realistic. The rival forces are assembled and marched into the arena; Räm's followers robed in yellow, their adversaries in black. A mimic battle, preceded by a clever display of swordmanship, is carried out with extreme punctillio. Excitement rises to highest pitch; the war-cries of the actors become almost drowned in the throbbing plaudits of the audience mingled with the vociferation of “Maro” (kill) and “Shahbash” (well done). Mimic duels, between specially chosen swordsmen, are arranged; advances, retreats, onslaughts dramatically carried out with almost the scenic realism of actual battle. Casualties—if any—of any serious nature cannot occur as the swords used are wooden and blunt-edged; nevertheless the whole display is compellingly fascinating.
In an open space, at the western end of the enclosure, stands a huge effigy to represent the giant Räwän. The figure is constructed of a bamboo framework covered over with tissue paper. Then, as the sun sinks below the horizon (there is little or no twilight in the tropics), and night comes racing out of the far east to cast her mantle of dark swiftly upon the earth, at a given signal, the shape of a small brown monkey—also of bamboo and tissue paper—bearing a lighted brand, is hauled up an invisible cord. This torch strikes Räwän in the forehead and starts going one of the most brilliant pyrotechnic displays conceivable, which continues from fifteen to twenty minutes, and concludes the day's ceremonies.