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10 posts categorized "Ramayana"

21 March 2014

Mewar Ramayana Digitally Reunited

The Mewar Ramayana is one of the most beautiful manuscripts in the world and has been digitally reunited after being split between organisations in the UK and India for over 150 years. The Indian epic Ramayana is one of the world's greatest and most enduring stories, telling the stirring tale of Prince Rama who was exiled for fourteen years through the plotting of his stepmother. In exile, his wife Sita is abducted by the ten-headed demon king Ravana; with the assistance of an army of monkeys and bears, Rama searches and rescues Sita.

Sahib Din, Rama is driven into exile as Dasaratha and the queens bid farewell, c. 1650. British Library, Add.15296(1), f. 56r
Sahib Din, Rama is driven into exile as Dasaratha and the queens bid farewell, c. 1650. British Library, Add.15296(1), f. 56r  noc

Through a major partnership between the British Library and CSMVS Museum in Mumbai, hundreds of folios, including 377 vividly illustrated paintings, of the Mewar Ramayana can now be viewed online. You can see the manuscript at

For the first time, people around the world will be able to digitally explore the pages of the Mewar Ramayana manuscript, which was commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh I of Mewar in 1649 and produced in his court studio at Udaipur. The project, which has been three years in the making, is sponsored by the Jamsetji Tata Trust, the World Collections Programme, and the Friends of the British Library.

The Ramayana – “Rama’s journey” is attributed to the sage Valmiki and was composed some two and a half thousand years ago. Through oral tradition 20,000 verses continued to circulate from generation to generation, in the various languages of India and beyond. The story embodies the Hindu idea of dharma – duty, behaving correctly according to one’s position and role in society.

The Mewar Ramayana manuscript is divided into seven books, the text prepared by a Jain scribe Mahatma Hirananda and the paintings by various artists including studio master Sahib Din. Production of the manuscript started in 1649 and was completed after Rana Jagat Singh's death in October 1652. This lavish manuscript features intricate paintings of Hindu gods and their battles and the paintings in the Mewar Ramayana are among the finest examples of Indian art.

Hanuman observes Ravana's interview with Sita, c. 1653. British Library, IO San 3621, f.3
Hanuman observes Ravana's interview with Sita,
c. 1653. British Library, IO San 3621, f.3  noc

After more than 150 years after production, four volumes from this series were presented by Jagat Singh's descendant Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar (1778-1828) to Lt. Col. James Tod (1782-1835), the first British Political Agent to the Western Rajput Courts in the early 19th century. In 1823, following his return to Britain, Tod presented the volumes to the royal bibliophile the Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) in 1823. Following the Duke's death, the content of his library went on sale in 1844, the four volumes were purchased by the British Museum, now the British Library. The remaining volumes became dispersed over time.

The digital Mewar Ramayana will enable users to ‘turn the pages' online in the unbound style reflecting the traditional Indian loose-leaf format, and interpretive text and audio will allow the broadest possible audience to study and enjoy this text in a whole new way. It will also transform access to the manuscript for researchers, who will have the text and paintings side by side in one place for the first time. The project has been led by British Library curator Marina Chellini with assistance from Leena Mitford, J.P. Losty and Pasquale Manzo.

Technical note:

This new version of 'Turning the Pages' is built in HTML5. It is not reliant on 'plugins' you need to install first, as with previous versions. It will work with the following browsers:

Internet Explorer 9 +
Google Chrome 14+
Firefox 11+

As it is a very large file, it may take a few minutes to download (depending on your broadband speed).

For the press release and additional images, please visit the British Library's Press and Policy page.

17 December 2013

Lakshman cuts off the nose of Shurpanakha

The Visual Arts department has recently added to its collection a folio from the dispersed ‘Impey’ Ramayana. The Ramayana manuscript is named for its patron Sir Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Calcutta in the late 18th century. Sir Elijah and Lady Mary Impey were well-established patrons of art and often commissioned illustrations to manuscripts or sets of paintings by local artists in Bengal. The provenance of this folio, as well as the rest of the series, is authenticated by the seal of Sir Elijah Impey stamped on the verso. Impey's manuscript (or possibly even a portfolio), which consisted of 44 single sided folios with no text pages, was later acquired by Sir Thomas Phillipps Bt (1792-1872). In 1968, the 44 folios were dispersed at auction.

The British Library is currently the only national collection to have in its collection a folio from this dispersed series. The only other folio, showing Rama kills Vali, in a public collection is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  

Lakshman cuts of the nose of Shurpanakha by a Murshidabad artist, c. 1780. Opaque watercolour on paper. British Library, Add.Or.5725
Lakshman cuts of the nose of Shurpanakha by a Murshidabad artist, c. 1780. Opaque watercolour on paper. British Library, Add.Or.5725  noc

The Ramayana is one of the great Sanskrit epics narrating the story of Rama, prince of Ayodhya, who lived in exile for 14 years. The story is attributed to the sage Valmiki, a contemporary of Rama.  Accompanied by his wife Sita and brother Lakshman, the Ramayama recounts their adventures and misfortunes including the kidnapping of Sita by the demon Ravana. The epic tale is composed of 24,000 verses that were divided into seven books. The episode depicted here, featuring Lakshman cutting off the nose of Shurpanakha, is reported in the Aranyakanda (‘Book of the Forest’).

Shurpanakha, the sister of Ravana (the 10-headed demon king of Lanka) encountered the handsome Rama at his hermitage. Awestruck by his beauty, she instantly transformed herself from a hideous demon with matted red hair into a vision of beauty. Initally rebuffed by Rama, she approached Lakshman and proclaimed: ‘My beauty renders me a worthy wife for thee; therefore come and we will range the Dandaka Forest and mountains happily together’ (Shastri 1952-59). Lakshman replied in jest: ‘how canst thou wish to become the wife of a slave, such as I? I am wholly dependent on my noble brother. Thou whose complexion resembles the lotus, who art pleasing to look upon and chaste? Lady of large eyes, though art a paragon, do thou become the consort of that matchless hero. Renouncing that ugly, evil and peevish old woman, whose limbs are deformed, he will certainly devote himself to thee! Lady of ravishing complexion and lovely limbs, what sensible man would sacrifice that unrivalled beauty of thine for an ordinary woman?’ (Shastri 1952-59).

Grasping the reality of his prose, Shurapanka unfurled her wrath on Rama’s beautiful wife Sita. Lakshman immediately pulled his sword and cut off the nose and ears of Shurpanakha!

Detail showing Lakshman mutilating Shurpanakha
Detail showing Lakshman mutilating Shurpanakha  noc

Shrieking in pain and her face streaming with blood, she fled to her brother Ravana. The 10-headed demon sent his army to retaliate. In the lower half of the page, Rama and Lakshman are featured in combat with the demon army.

Detail showing Rama fighting the demons
Detail showing Rama fighting the demons  noc

This folio from the Impey Ramayana provides art historians the opportunity to further explore the regional style of painting at Murshidabad in Bengal in the 18th century. Impey’s commissions, including a set of ragamala paintings (British Library, Add.Or.4-8 and Add.Or.27-31) and the illustrations to a Razmnama manuscript (British Library, Add.5638-5640), are typically painted in a more refined and imperial style of painting. The artist who depicted Lakshman brutally mutilating the demon appears to have rapidly executed his paintings with the figures modeled with thick outlines and stylised features. There is little attention to the fine details. With further research on the illustrations to the Impey Ramayana and other commissions, it might be possible to ascertain the extent of Sir Elijah’s personal influence on the artistic style of this manuscript and regional artists. Through additional research on the illustrations to this series, it might be possible to create a detailed timeline of the artistic practices in Murshidabad.

Material held in the Visual Arts department can be viewed by appointment in the Print Room. The Print Room located in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room and is open Monday-Friday afternoons. Please email [email protected] for an appointment.

Material held in the Visual Arts department at the British Library can be viewed by appointment in the Print Room. Please email [email protected] for an appointment.

Further reading:

T. Falk and M. Archer, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, Sotheby Parke Barnet, 1981

J.P. Losty, The Art of the Book in India, British Library, 1982

J.P. Losty, The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's great epic, British Library, 2008

H.P. Shastri (trans.), The Ramayana of Valmiki, Shanti Shadan, 1952-59


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator  ccownwork



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