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Ramavataram, popularly referred to as Kamba Ramayanam, is a Tamil epic that was written by the Tamil poet Kambar during the 12th century. Based on Valmiki's Ramayana (which is in Sanskrit), the story describes the life of King Rama of Ayodhya. However, Ramavatharam is different from the Sanskrit original in many aspects - both in spiritual concepts and in the specifics of the storyline. This historic work is considered by both Tamil scholars and the general public as one of the greatest literary works in Tamil literature.
Even before Kambar wrote the Ramavataram in Tamil in the 12 Century AD, there are many ancient references to the story of Ramayana, implying that the story was familiar in the Tamil lands even before the Common Era. References to the story can be found in the Sangam literature of Akanaṉūṟu,(dated 400BC) and Purananuru (dated 300 BC), the twin epics of Silappatikaram (dated 2nd Century CE) and Manimekalai, and the Alvar literature of Kulasekhara Alvar, Thirumangai Alvar, Andal and Nammalvar (dated between 5th and 10th Centuries CE).
The book is divided into six chapters, called Kandam in Tamil. The Kandams are further divided into 123 sections called Padalam (படலம்) in Tamil. These 123 sections contain approximately 12,000 verses of the epic.
As with many historic compilations, it was very difficult to discard the interpolations and addendum which have been added over a period of time to the original. This task was taken up a committee of scholars headed by T P Meenakshi Sundaram called the Kamban Kazhagam (Kamban Academy). The compilation published by this committee in 1976 is what is used as the standard today.
Kamban's use of Virutham (Sanskrit: vṛttam) and Santham (Sanskrit: chandas) in various verses is effective in bringing out the emotion and mood for storytelling. He achieves the Virutham and Santham by effective choice of words.
This epic is read by many Hindus during prayers. In some households, the entire epic is read once during the Tamil calendar's month of Aadi (mid-July to mid-August). It is also read in Hindu Temples and other religious associations. On many occasions, Kambar talks about surrendering to Rama, who is a manifestation of Vishnu himself.
The chapter Sundara Kandam is considered very auspicious and is the most popular. The chapter talks about the hardships faced by the main characters in the epic, their practice of restraint, and their hopes for a better tomorrow.