Ibonia: The Ramayana of Madagascar

-Abhay K.

Ibonia is an epic poem of Madagascar dating back centuries which tells the tale of conception, birth, betrothal, struggle and death of its hero Ibonia (Iboniamasiboniamanoro or “he of the clear and captivating glance”).

The tale begins with the conception of Ibonia by his mother with the help of divine intervention. Ibonia starts talking while still in his mother’s womb and wishes to be betrothed to the Joy-Giving girl  (Rampelasbamananbro), which is done.  When they grow up and can get married to each other,  the Joy-Giving girl is abducted by the Trouble-Stone man (Ravatovblovoay).  Ibonia prepares for a fight with the Trouble-Stone man and seeks advice from the Great Echo and others.  Ibonia’s parents are worried about their son and try to dissuade him offering him many suitable candidates for him to choose as a wife, however Ibonia rejects them all.  Then they ask him to show his strength fighting various creatures before letting him go to fight the Trouble-Stone man.

Ibonia disguises himself as an old man to gain the trust of the Trouble-Stone man.  He entertains him playing the valiha (a traditional bamboo tube zither) and fanorona (a traditional game played with stones on a board)  and as soon as he gets an opportunity, Ibonia escapes with Joy-Giving Girl from the Trouble-Stone man.  They are chased by the Trouble-Stone man and his men. Ibonia fights and kills them. Ibonia and the Joy-Giving girl get married and live happily until Ibonia’s peaceful death.

Ibonia is an epic poem transmitted orally from generation to generation in Madagascar through the centuries. It occupies a notable place in Malagasy cultural recitations and oral tradition. There are different versions according to ethnic groups and regions.

Several written transcripts have been made since the 17th century, the first in 1657, the following from the 19th century, first around 1830 then around 1870 and several in the 1880s. The 1870 version is widely distributed.

Other versions have been collected and analyzed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the latest unpublished version was discovered on the island of Mayotte in 2008.

Among the texts transmitted by oral tradition, the text of this tale is one of the longest and one of the most important.  It is also one of the most interesting and significant, both for its literary beauty and the interest of its content.  

The painting by the Indonesian (Balenese) artist, Ida Bagus Made Togog depicts the episode from the Ramayana about the Monkey Kings of Sugriva and Vali; The Killing of Vali. Rama depicted as a crowned figure with a bow and arrow.

The Malagasy epic of Ibonia resembles the Indian epic of Ramayana in its grand plot i.e. abduction of Ibonia’s betrothed wife the Joy-Giving girl, Rampela, by the Trouble-Stone man.  Ravato, like the abduction of Sita, wife of Rama, by Ravana and the fight of Ibonia and Rama to get their respective wives back from the abductors.  Since Ramayana is popular in South East Asian countries, particularly in Indonesia, where it is still played and performed, I had a hunch that Madagascar should have its own version of Ramayana as the origin of the Merina people of Madagascar is traced to Indonesia.  When I found the similarities in the grand plot structure of Ibonia and Ramayana, I was immensely delighted.

During the same time, I also found that there are over 300 words in Malagasy language from Sanskrit. This study has been documented in a book by Malagasy priest Dma Ntsoha, titled The Etymological Dictionary of the Malagasy Language (Dictionnaire Etymologique De La Langue Malagache) First Part : Words derived from the Sanskrit, published in 1951 by Librarire Mixte. The finding further raised my curiosity to explore age-old cultural and literary connections between India and Madagascar. More research is needed to find further similarities between these two great epics of Ibonia and Ramayana.

An English translation of Ibonia is available at the University of Virginia.

#MadagascarLitMonth is curated by poet-diplomat, Abhay K.:

Abhay K. is the author of nine poetry collections including The Magic of Madagascar (L’Harmattan Paris, 2021), The Alphabets of Latin America (Bloomsbury India, 2020), and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins, 2022), The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian PoemsCAPITALS, New Brazilian Poems and The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems. His poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines including Poetry Salzburg Review, Asia Literary Review among others. His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into over 140 languages. He received SAARC Literary Award 2013 and was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress, Washington DC in 2018.  His forthcoming book length poem is titled Monsoon. His translations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta  (Bloomsbury India, 2021) and Ritusamhara  (Bloomsbury India, 2021) from Sanskrit, have won KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award 2020-21.

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