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Burmese Ramayana Known as Yama Zatdaw

The Ramayana is one of the most popular and influential stories in Southeast Asia). The Burmese Ramayana Known as Yama Zatdaw, has a long and rich history that reflects the cultural and religious diversity of the country.


the origins of the Burmese version of the Ramayana are not clear, but it is believed by some scholars that the Ramayana story was known to the early Pyu and Mon people of Burma from the early part of the first century and that the story was later introduced by oral tradition during the reign of King Anawrahta (1044-1077 AD), the founder of the first Burmese empire at Pagan. Anawrahta was a devout Buddhist who promoted Theravada Buddhism as the state religion and was possibly influenced by the Mon and the Pyu and from visiting Hindu pilgrims and priests who brought the story of the Ramayana with them.

The Ramayana story was also incorporated into the Buddhist Jataka tales, which recount the previous lives of the Buddha. One of these Jatakas, known as Dasaratha Jataka, narrates the story of King Rama and the main events of the Ramayana from a Buddhist perspective.

The earliest pictorial evidence of the Ramayana in Burma is from the early Bagan period (11th-13th centuries) where some temples and pagodas feature sculptures and terracotta plaques depicting scenes from the Ramayana. For example, the Nathlaung Temple has two brick sculptures of Rama and Parashurama, while the Hpetleik Pagoda have terracotta plaques showing Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman and Ravana.

The first written version of the Ramayana in Burmese is Rama Thagyin (Songs from the Ramayana, compiled by U Aung Phyo in 1775. This version follows the Sanskrit epic of Valmiki and consists of six chapters (kandas) that cover the main events from Rama’s birth to his return to Ayodhya. However, there are some differences and additions that reflect the Burmese culture and context. For example, Ravana is called Dathagiri, Lanka is called Thiho, Hanuman is called Mahatheinga, and Sita is called Thida.

The Yama Zatdaw was also influenced by other versions of the Ramayana from neighbouring countries, especially Thailand. During the Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885), several Burmese kings invaded Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam (now Thailand), and brought back spoils of war, including elements of Ramakien, the Thai version of Ramayana. Some of these elements were incorporated into the Yama Zatdaw, such as the names of some characters for example Thotsakan for Ravana and some episodes for example Rama’s coronation ceremony.

Adaptations and Performances in Burma’s Yama Zatdaw

One of the most popular forms of expression in Burma is theatre, which can be divided into two types: zat pwe (stage drama) and yoke thay (marionette theatre). Both types use music, dance, costumes, masks and props to create a spectacular show that attracts large audiences. Both Zat pwe and Yoke Thay were popular among both royalty and commoners in Burma. They have also been used as a means of education, propaganda and resistance. For example, during the colonial period (1885-1948), some Zat pwe and Yoke Thay performances used the Yama Zatdaw as a metaphor for the struggle against British rule. Rama was seen as a symbol of Burmese nationalism, while Ravana was seen as a symbol of British imperialism.

In Burma scenes from the Ramayana are also found in old and modern paintings, wood carvings and sculptures.


Zat pwe is a form of stage drama that originated in the 18th century as a court entertainment. It involves actors who recite verses, sing songs and perform gestures to enact scenes from the Yama Zatdaw. The actors are accompanied by a live orchestra that plays traditional instruments such as drums, gongs, flutes and xylophones. The zat pwe usually lasts for several hours or even days, depending on the number of scenes performed.  Both dance and play are always represented by a male stage performer, recognized as a mintha, and is accompanied by his female counterpart, referred to as a minthamee, along with a group of clowns. The hsaing waing, a traditional ensemble in Myanmar consisting of percussion, gongs, and oboe, provides the musical accompaniment for their performances.

The zat pwe performance art form skillfully combines cultural and historical aspects derived from diverse origins. It draws inspiration from the rich heritage of dance in the ancient royal courts, the traditional art of marionette theatre, the profound teachings of the jataka tales in Buddhism, and contemporary plays that tackle pressing social issues like drug addiction, family conflicts, corruption, and even clowns who cleverly employ humour to address sensitive local politics and gossip. This living tradition has effortlessly assimilated these elements, seamlessly blending the old and the new, encompassing the entirety of Myanmar’s culture and incorporating traditional values and religious beliefs into the fabric of modern-day realities.


Yoke thay is a form of marionette theatre that also emerged in the 18th century as court entertainment although it has a much longer history in Myanmar. It involves puppeteers who manipulate wooden puppets that represent characters from the Yama Zatdaw. The puppets are attached to strings that are controlled by rods or wires. The puppeteers also recite verses, sing songs and provide sound effects for the puppets. Yoke thay also uses a live orchestra that plays traditional instruments similar to those used in Zat pwe.

The Yama Zatdaw is a fascinating example of how the Ramayana story has been transmitted, transformed and adapted in different cultures and contexts. The Burmese version of the Ramayana reflects the diversity and dynamism of Burmese history, religion, literature and art. It also shows how the Ramayana story can be used as a source of inspiration, entertainment and empowerment for different audiences and purposes.

Burmese Ramayana Known as Yama Zatdaw
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