The story of Lachhaman Jati is representative of the diversity that we have in the tellings/versions of the epic Ramayana. It has been the focus of many academic studies simply for the stark contrast that it presents in the characterisation of the epic’s main characters. While Ram is the undoubted hero in nearly all the versions of the epic, it is only in this version that Lakshman or Lachhaman is the hero. Also Sita in this version bears no resemblance to her popular image.
There is also a strong influence of the other grand epic, Mahabharata, and the Pandavas keep making an appearance, although fleeting, all through the story. Also, Mahadeo, or Shiva is shown to be the guru of Lachhaman and it seems that Shiva was the common deity at that time in the region. Ram was not as well-known or commonly worshipped. We see how towards the end of the story, Lachhaman seeks the elevation of Ram’s status to that of Shiva and he appeals to the people to revere Ram and take his name before all the gods.
Another interesting departure from the popular narrative of the Ramayana is that it is Lachhaman who has to prove his innocence and not Sita. Her word is taken to be true and even when it is proven otherwise; there is no mention of any punishment being meted out to her. Also asking Lacchaman to prove his innocence by stepping into a vat of boiling oil is a common motif found in the folklore of the region. For Lacchaman it was an agni-pariksha with a difference!
In this story, there is an incident where, in the course of one of his adventures, Lachhaman is severely injured just as it happens in the popular narrative where Indrajeet (son of Ravana) incapacitates him in battle. He is saved by drops of nectar sent by Mahadeo. Birds carry the nectar and pour it into the mouth of the wounded Lachhaman while it is Hanuman who brings him the Sanjivani herb in the Valmiki Ramayana.
There is another episode where Hanuman and Bhima fight each other; this one has a parallel in the Mahabharat where Hanuman tries to teach a lesson in humility to Bhima. Over time, the story of Lachhaman Jati seems to have undergone some changes and has been incorporated into the larger literary narrative better known as the Gond Ramayani.
Amongst the notable differences between the Lacchaman Jati and the Gond Ramayani narratives is the way the episode where Sita is trying to tell Lachhaman of her love for him is handled. According to the Gond Ramayani, once Lachhaman heard a musical instrument and wanted to play it. He got one and hung it on his wall but went off to sleep for twelve years. The instrument was tired of waiting and so, it crept into his dreams and asked Lachhaman to play it. When Lachhaman obliged, its sweet music flowed out and was heard by Indrakamani (some versions say, she was the daughter of Indra, while some say, she was an apsara) in Indralok. She took the form of an eagle and flew down to Lachhaman’s room, only to find him fast asleep. She tried to wake him up, but to no avail. Disappointed she left the room, but not before tearing her clothes and throwing them along with her jewels all around the place in the room.
When Sita came in to the room she suspected Lachhaman of having an affair with a girl from the village. She raised a hue and cry, which led to his agni-pariksha. Also while the tale of Lachhaman Jati has no major role of Ravan, the Gond Ramayani does bring him in. The story is full of folk-motifs which bear the influences of the tribal life-style and conditions and their understanding of life. Lachhaman’s self-flagellation appeals to the tribals, as in his suffering they identify their own general plight. From the Puranic tales characters like Shiva, Parvati make an appearance while the Pandavas are part of some of the stories in the Gond version of the Ramayana.