Manuscript of Ramcharitmanas of Tulsi Das made for the Maharaja of Jaipur, Produced in Varanasi between years 1857 - 1864
THE RAMCHARITMANAS OF TULSI DAS
Title: A lavishly illustrated manuscript of the Ramcharitmanas, the greatest work of the 16th-century Hindi devotional poet Tulsi Das.
Particulars of this manuscript: This copy was commissioned by a royal patron, Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II (1835-1880) of Jaipur. The rulers of Jaipur are Kachwaha Suryavanshi Rajputs i.e. claiming descent from the Hindu sun god Surya through Kusha, one of the twin sons of Rama and Sita. It is particularly appropriate therefore that Ram Singh II should have commissioned this lavish manuscript of Tulsi Das’s Hindi version of the life of Rama. It was copied in Varanasi over some seven years between the Balkand dated Vikram Samvat 1914 (1857) and the Uttarkand dated Vikram Samvat 1921 (1864). This long period was no doubt due to the time required to complete the paintings rather than the actual copying of the text itself.
Technical description: Paper manuscript in Avadhi or Eastern Hindi comprising over 500 pages – this copy is paginated (showing the influence of the printed book) rather than foliated as is usually found in manuscripts. Each page has 23 lines of text in Devanagari script in black ink, with the names of the various metres used (shloka, doha, caupai and soratha) and the colophons to each kanda picked out in red. Each page of text is contained within red, black and yellow rules. The red marbled paper covered binding is not contemporary but later, and in good condition. Page size: 29 x 22.5 cm; text panel 23 x 18.4 cm.
Content: It tells the story of Ram, the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu the Preserver: his birth and childhood in Ayodhya as the eldest of King Dasharatha’s four sons; his marriage to Sita; his exile to the forest with his wife and brother Lakshman due to the scheming of Kaikeyi, the mother of another brother; his wife Sita’s abduction in the forest by Ravana, the demon king, who carries her off to the island of Lanka; Ram helping the monkey king Sugriva recover the throne of Kishkindha; the search for Sita led by the monkey Hanuman; the battle against Ravana’s demon army to rescue her; the death of Ravana and Ram’s restoration to the throne of Ayodhya together with Sita.
Significance of the work: This is the best-known and most loved of all stories in Hindu literature – a tale of exile, struggle, loss and redemption. Tulsi portrays Ram as the ideal virtuous ruler and husband, and Sita as the ideal chaste wife proven by her undergoing ordeal by fire after her rescue. Such has been the Ramcaritmanas’ enduring popularity that in the 19th century Christian missionaries dubbed it “the Bible of Northern India”, and Mahatma Gandhi regarded it as “the greatest book of all devotional literature”.
Structure: The work is divided into seven books or kandas, which are arranged in 1074 stanzas, comprising a total of about 12,800 lines. It is based on the Sanskrit epic poem, the Ramayana, composed by Valmiki, but is less than a third of its length. It follows Valmiki’s seven-book structure, but Tulsi changed the name of Valmiki’s 6th book, the Yuddhakand (“The war book”) to the Lankakand. The first book, the Balkand is by far the longest of the seven, making up about one-third of the whole, as Tulsi introduced a lot of material not directly related to the story of Rama. The title literally means “The lake (manas) of the acts (carit) of Ram”, as the poet compares the seven books of the work to seven steps leading into the waters of a lake that will purify the body and soul of the reader.
The author: Little detail is known about Tulsi’s life, but he was born about 1532, somewhere in either modern Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. He received a traditional Sanskrit education, probably at Varanasi, and then returned home and married. Due to some
personal crisis, he abandoned the life of a householder and became a wandering Vaishnava ascetic (sadhu). He lived for some years in Ayodhya, Ram’s birthplace, where he began composing the Ramcaritmanas in 1574. Eventually he settled at Varanasi where he completed this and his other major works, and where he died about 1623.
The Illustrations: There are 134 original paintings illustrating the story, mostly half-page but with 35 full-page. The opening page shows the god Ganesha flanked by two female attendants as he is traditionally invoked at the beginning of any text. Paintings in the Balkand include scenes of Shiva’s marriage to Parvati, including his wedding procession accompanied by Vishnu, Brahma, Surya and all the company of heaven (p. 49); the sage Vishvamitra’s visit to King Dasharatha of Ayodhya and his fours sons (p. 108) and Ram defeating the demoness Taduka and her son Marica (pp. 109 & 110); the dhanush-yajna (“bow-sacrifice”) when Ram bent the bow of Shiva, answering the challenge made by King Janaka of the city of Videha for anyone wishing to wed his daughter Sita (p. 132); the marriage ceremony of Ram and Sita (pp. 158-159 & 176- 177). The Ayodhyakand contains a scene of King Dasharatha seated in his court (p. 154).
The Aranyakand includes the brothers battling against a demon army (p.p. 10-11), the artist depicting soldiers dressed in contemporary sepoy uniforms. The Kishkindha shows Ram with Hanuman and the monkey army (p. 19). The Sundar opens with a scene of Hanuman surveying King Ravana’s palace on the island of Lanka (p. 1).
The Lankakand includes Ravana trying to awaken his younger brother, the giant demon Kumbhakarna, to help him defeat Ram (p. 33) and several battle scenes involving Ravana against Ram and the monkey army (e.g. pp. 48, 57, 61 & 65). The Uttarkand shows Ram on the throne of Ayodhya being blessed with the tilak by the sage Vishvamitra (p. 9).
The final miniature is a depiction of Tulsi Das himself seated on a throne reading the work to a group of his fellow Vaishnava ascetics (p. 74).
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Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II (1835 - 1880). The founder of modern jaipur and the Former Owner and Patron of this Manuscript.
Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II ascended the throne in 1835. A minor at the time, the administration of the State was conducted by the Minority Council. In adulthood he was noted for his intelligence, his arduous application to State affairs and great grasp of details of administration. The modernization of Jaipur was first brought about by Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II. After Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, he is considered as the most enlightened of the Jaipur rulers.
Comparable manuscripts: Illustrated manuscripts of the Hindi Ramcaritmanas are relatively rare when compared with illustrated copies of Valmiki’s original Sanskrit Ramayana or with the equivalent text on the life of Krishna, the tenth book of the Bhagavatapurana. See Ratan Parimoo, ‘A rare set of Pahari paintings based on the Ramacharita Manasa in the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery, India’ in Gauri Parimoo Krishnan ed., Ramayana in focus: visual and performing arts of Asia (Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2010), pp. 92-101.
The two collections in the British Library (British Museum Library and the India Office Library) contain several complete manuscripts of the Ramcaritmanas but none of them are illustrated at all. The BML collection has two 18th-century copies and the IOL collection seven copies, three 18th-century and four 19th-century.
The Wellcome collection has four complete copies, one of which dated Vikram Samvat 1874 = 1817 is illustrated and may have been commissioned by the Maharaja of Benares (see Peter Friedlander, A descriptive catalogue of the Hindi manuscripts in the Library of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (London: WIHM, 1996), catalogue no. 395).