Don't outrage at the headline. This is no attempt at sensationalism. This is merely letting you know that in a society just a little different from yours, the Ramayana exists differently.

India's famous epic is not necessarily the one Valmiki composed. Nor is it the Amar Chitra Katha version we read, or the one we watched on television in the 1980s.

Ramanand Sagar's televised version, which was adapted from Tulsidas's Ramacharitamanas is the one we are most familiar with. It is the story of a virtuous Sita being abducted by the evil Ravana, and her valiant husband Ram rescuing her with the help of his devoted brother Lakshmana and the monkey army after an epic battle. It is the story of familiar moral stereotypes, that is deeply entrenched in mainstream society.

However, different social needs call for different kinds of heroes and the Ramayana has been adapted in varied ways through centuries. These versions were not created to be sacrilegious. While some versions challenged Brahmanical authority, most were the result of adapting a universal heroic figure to fit their social-cultural context. In his famous essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, A K Ramanujan talks about hundreds of versions of the epic which exist in folk, poetic and dramatic traditions. Here are five of the versions that deviate the most from the plot and characters we are familiar with.

Sita as Kali in the Adbhut Ramayana
Let's start with Sage Valmiki himself. Not satisfied with composing just one Ramayana, the great poet sage is said to have composed other versions and extensions, such as the Yoga Vashistha and the Adbhut Ramayana. The former is more of a philosophical treatise using the context of the epic, while the latter is an adbhut or deviant composition.

Much shorter than the original maha kavya, the Adbhut Ramayana is especially notable for its characterisation of Sita. She is not the demure, helpless victim waiting for her husband to rescue her. In fact, when Rama falls wounded and unconscious on the battle field, she assumes the fierce form of Kali and wreaks havoc upon earth.

Sita is eventually pacified by the gods, Rama's consciousness is restored and the story moves on. If you find feminists who decry Sita's submissive role in the traditional Ramayana, point them in this direction.

(Available in an English translation by Shantilal Nagar, BR Publications)

Rama and Sita as siblings in Dasaratha Jataka
The Dasaratha Jataka is one of the earliest, Buddhist, versions of the epic. In what might seem like a shocking twist, Rama and Sita are depicted as brother and sister in this version. The duo is not banished but sent away to the Himalayas by king Dasaratha in order to protect them from their jealous stepmother.

The stepmother is the only antagonist, for there is no Ravana in this story. When things have cooled down, Rama and Sita return to Benaras ­– and not Ayodhya – and get married. As much as your morals are jarred by this incestuous turn of things, bear in mind that some communities make this provision to maintain purity of caste when there are no eligible matches.

(Available in an English translation by V Fausboll, Kessinger Publishing)

Lakshman as the Ravana slayer in Paumachariya
One of the Jain versions of the Ramayana is titled Paumachariya, authored by Vimalsuri. The Jain Ramayana strips all elements of fantasy from Valmiki's version and presents a very rational view of the epic.

For example, it rejects the idea of a monkey army and suggests that they were actually a tribe of warrior people with the monkey as their totem or symbol. However, the most important deviation in this version is that Lakshman is depicted as the slayer of Ravana. That's because Rama, being a perfect Jain, is avowed to nonviolence and cannot be a killer.

Here, too, Rama is a hero for he embodies the highest ethic of the Jain religion. His valiance is reflected in his pacifism.

Lakshman's agni pareeksha in the Gond Ramayani
This is a series of seven tales told in the folk tradition of the Gond tribe. This tale really begins where the traditional Ramayana ends – i.e., after Sita is rescued. Lakshman, and not Rama, is the protagonist.

In the first tale, Indra's daughter Indrakamani is so besotted by Lakshman that she flies to earth as an eagle to see him. However, she is unable to wake up or woo a sleeping Lakshman, and in frustration tears off her clothes and jewellery.

When Sita sees these remnants, she tells Rama that she suspects Lakshman of licentious behaviour. It is then that Lakshman has to go through the fire ordeal to prove his chastity.

(Not available in English translation, but can be experienced through folk dance performances and paintings such as the ones made under the Ramkatha project of the Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts.)

Hanuman as a ladies' man in Ramakirti and Ramakien
In Thai versions of the Ramayana, Hanuman’s character takes on quite a central role. He is not a celibate but quite a Casanova with amorous interests. When he visits Lanka, he has no qualms peeping into people's bedrooms.

Even Ravan is conceived very differently in the Thai version of the Ramayana; he is seen as an erudite scholar and a powerful king worthy of respect. His quest for Sita is seen as true romantic love, albeit fatalistic. In Thailand, rhe Ramakirti and Ramakien are considered great entertainers rather than the guides to social and moral conduct that they have become in India.

(Ramakien is available in an English translation by J M Cadet, Kodansha America Inc.)