Siam silver

Some vintage jewellery contains lead – is it safe?

A reader raised an important question recently, asking whether their vintage Siam niello jewelry was safe, as the niello ‘enamel’ of it contained an alloy which included lead metal.

As far as I’m aware, lead absorption generally occurs via the mouth, ie, breathing in lead dust/ particles, handling of lead and then eating food without washing hands, or actually ingesting lead (eg a small child eating a clasp which contains lead, which may be potentially fatal). In my limited lay-person research, there seems to be a bit of a grey area regarding the absorption of lead via the skin itself. There was a study on niello artisans in Thailand, and in my limited understanding of interpreting research papers, the main issues seemed to be caused by a lack of basic health and safety in the workplace which led to workers accidentally ingesting lead via the mouth (ie, not washing hands after handling lead then eating food/smoking, no dust masks to prevent lead dust particle inhalation when sawing/filing niello etc) rather than touching/ absorption via the skin.

An example of a standard Siam silver nielloware brooch, in the popular design of Mekkelah Goddess of Lightning. Jewellery safety, lead advice etc.

An example of a standard Siam silver nielloware brooch, in the popular design of Mekkelah Goddess of Lightning. Niello enamel (the black part of the brooch) contains an alloy of sulphur, copper, silver, and lead.

If I know or suspect a piece of old jewellery contains lead, I personally choose not to wear it.  Anyone deciding to wear any type of vintage jewellery which contains lead can should take some precautions: immediately wash hands after handling it, wash the area it has touched on the skin when you take the piece off, don’t put it near your mouth, strictly keep it out of reach of children, never wear it around toddlers – they might grab / handle it and then put it or their fingers in their mouth.

Also, I’d advice against using nielloware (eg a Siam bowl) anywhere around food, or to contain food, or use nielloware cigarette cases to hold cigarettes. Like I say, my understanding of lead is that the issue of poisoning lies around the ingestion of it via mouth or inhalation to the lungs, rather than solely via the skin. So for example, occasionally wearing a niello necklace for a couple of hours to a special occasion may not be too much of an issue – but if you have a habit of playing with your necklace a lot and then smoke/ touch you mouth/ eat without washing your hands, then that’s when lead ingestion may occur.

I welcome further help, advice and discussion from readers regarding the safety issues surrounding vintage jewellery which contains lead, as I’m not a scientist and some of the research papers I looked at were beyond my full understanding. If you think your jewellery may contain lead, please keep it locked away from children.

An unusual Siam silver nielloware charm bracelet, with ringing bell charms

An unusual Siam silver nielloware charm bracelet, with ringing bell charms. A charm bracelet like this is not suitable to wear around toddlers and young children – they’ll be fascinated by the ringing, and may try to put the charms in their mouth.

 

Quick tips to identify lead in vintage costume jewellery:

  • Vintage jewellery containing lead is often unusually heavy for its size, or compared to similar non-lead jewels
  • Gold or silver plating wears off, to reveal dull matte dark silver underneath
  • The jewellery metal feels soft – lead is a soft and malleable metal.
  • The metal is movable/ easily breakable, even though it looks thick and solid to the eye.
  • The metal is soft and can be scratched easily.
  • Personally I would view any type of nielloware from around the world as suspect for containing lead. Ditto any type of metal – new or old – from countries which have poor health and safety laws or metal regulations.
  • Sometimes the back of the jewellery isn’t as ‘sharp’ or well defined appearance wise as other jewellery; some lead jewellery is quite thick and ‘blobby’ in appearance and texture (see photos below)
  • I once tried to solder a broken vintage rhinestone brooch, only for the lead levels to be so high that the metal immediately melted on touch!

Please note  that these tips used individually are not conclusive of lead containment, and should be used in conjunction with other the tips and advice. For example, if the gold plating has worn off to reveal dull silver-colour metal underneath, this on its own is not conclusive of lead indication – however, if it also feels soft and is easily malleable as well, then this points to potential lead alloys.

I strongly suspect this vintage 1960s pink enamel and thermoplastic brooch contained high levels of lead; the worn off gold plating revealed dull dark silver-colour metal underneath, and the metal was so soft and malleable it would have broken with the slightest of pressure.

I strongly suspected this vintage 1960s pink enamel and thermoplastic brooch contained high levels of lead; the worn off gold plating revealed dull dark silver-colour metal underneath, and the metal was so soft and malleable it would have broken with the slightest of pressure.

 

The back of a vintage 1960s lead-free brooch. Because it doesn't contain lead, the back of it is clear, well defined and 'sharp' in appearance.

The back of a vintage 1960s lead-free brooch. Because it doesn’t contain lead, the back of it is strong, clear, well defined and ‘sharp’ in appearance….

 

... Compare the above brooch back, to the back of this vintage necklace, and the vintage brooch in the photo below. I suspect both contained some lead due to them both being extremely soft and malleable, along with being heavy for their size & design. Note how blobby and undefined the back is, especially compared to the crisp metal work lead-free brooch above

… Compare the above brooch back, to the back of this gold-colour vintage necklace, and the vintage brooch in the photo below. I suspect each one contained some lead due to them both being extremely soft and malleable, along with being heavy for their size & design. Note how blobby and undefined the back is, especially compared to the crisp metal work lead-free brooch above

The blobby undefined bulky appearance of the back of this vintage brooch suggests it may have a high lead content. On it's own this isn't conclusive - plenty of lead-free jewellery is undefined and blobby - but coupled with the fact is was very heavy for its small size, and the metal was soft and malleable, led me to conclude it contained lead.

The thick blobby undefined bulky appearance of the back of this vintage brooch may indicate it potentially could contain lead in its alloy. On it’s own this isn’t conclusive – plenty of lead-free jewellery is undefined and blobby – but coupled with the fact that this particular old brooch was very heavy for its small size, and the metal was soft and malleable, led me to conclude it probably contained lead.

 

Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist nor qualified health and safety professional, and this info is only based my limited research as a jewelry enthusiast. I encourage all readers to do their own research and make their own decisions. Keep all lead or potential lead items away from children. If anyone can add help, advice to lead metal safety in vintage jewellery, or has further information from a professional standpoint, please do leave a comment or get in touch 🙂

 

 

References and further reading:

An Examination of Blood Lead Levels in Thai Nielloware Workers:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3443697/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2093791112330072

Survey of Siam Silver: http://www.siamman.com/ebookstores.html

Antique Jewellery University: http://www.langantiques.com/university/index.php/Niello

Lead Toxicity – What Are Routes of Exposure to Lead?
https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=34&po=6

How Lead Exposures Can Happen:
https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/lead/exposure.html

Learn about lead:

https://www.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead

Lead hazards and vintage items:

http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/lead/vintage/

Frequently Asked Questions about Lead in Jewelry (California legislation)

https://www.dtsc.ca.gov/HazardousWaste/Jewelry/leadinjewelry_faqs.cfm

Toxic Levels of Lead in Many Thrift, Antique, and Resale Items:

https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2010/12/toxic-levels-of-lead-in-many-thrift-antique-and-resale-items.html

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Favourite coloured enamel Siam silver jewellery

Adding an earlier post on vintage Siam Silver jewellery from Thailand, here are my favourite coloured enamel pieces that I’ve been lucky enough to own ..

Vintage orange, blue, green, black and turquoise enamel Siam silver bracelet jewelry

Vintage multi-coloured orange, blue, green, black and turquoise enamel Siam silver bracelet. While black niellowork seems to be the most sought after type of Siam silver, there is a growing niche market for more colourful pieces too, which (judging by the clasp settings and signatures on the jewellery) are generally from a later period.

Vintage red enamel Siam Silver fan and heart brooch jewelry

Vintage red enamel Siam Silver fan and heart brooch

Vintage turquoise blue Siam silver large leaf brooch jewelry

Vintage turquoise blue enamel Siam silver large leaf brooch. While the more common black niellowork enamel is smooth and flat, by contrast a lot of the colourful enamel has a textured background, to give more depth to the piece.

Vintage turquoise blue Siam silver enamel panel bracelet jewelry

Vintage turquoise blue Siam silver enamel panel bracelet. Again, note the hand carved textured background.

Vintage turquoise blue Siam silver enamel flower brooch jewellery

Vintage turquoise blue Siam silver enamel flower brooch. Not long after this photo was taken the enamel work cracked and began to fall out, which is sadly something which Siam coloured enamel work occasionally suffers from (especially this tone of turquoise-blue for some reason!). If you plan on starting a collection, make sure you can see the enamel work clearly before buying – missing or damaged areas are not desirable, and can render your piece almost worthless.

Unusual red and royal blue vintage Siam silver enamel brooch jewerly

A rare two tone red and royal blue vintage Siam silver enamel brooch

Vintage white enamel Siam silver brooch jewelry, showing a beautifully detailed Mekkalah, Goddess of Lightening.

Vintage white enamel Siam silver brooch, showing a beautifully detailed depiction of the South Asian Goddess of Lightening, Mekkalah.

Vintage white enamel Siam silver brooch, showing Hanuman and Matcha from the Ramakien (Thai Ramayana)

Vintage white enamel Siam silver brooch, which depicts Hanuman and Matcha from the Ramakien (the Thailand version of the great Hindu epic the Ramayana)

Vintage white enamel ship Siam silver brooch jewellery

Vintage white enamel ship Siam silver brooch. White enamel is the most durable of the coloured enamels (in my opinion even more so than black niello work), and never seems to crack or even scratch.

Info guide to vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Info about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

An introduction to Siam Silver jewellery – what exactly is it?

If you’ve ever come across big black enameled jewellery depicting dancing figures, then it might be a piece of Siam Silver jewellery. These stunning creations were hand made in Siam (now called Thailand), and the figures, buildings or animals created in the jewellery usually depict characters and scenes from Buddhist and Hindu tales and religious text. The country of Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939, changing it back to Siam in 1945, and then was finally renamed Thailand in 1949. The above photo shows a typical “Mekkalah, Goddess of Lightening” Siam Silver vintage niello brooch. Jewellery is usually stamped ‘Made in Siam‘ on the back, though later pieces were could be stamped either ‘Siam’ and ‘Thailand’.

Most Siam jewellery you find is made from some grade of silver (often 925 sterling), with black ‘enamel ‘ style detail. The black and silver jewellery is called Siam Silver nielloware, after the black enamel style technique called niello used in its creation. Occasionally you may see fabulous coloured Siam Silver, with green, blue, red and white enameling instead of black niellowork.

 

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Most vintage Siam Silver is made from a mix of black niello and silver

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

Occasionally you’ll find coloured enamel Siam jewellery, like this rare yellow enamel Siam Silver bracelet.

It’s generally believed that Siam Silver jewellery became fashionable in the Western Hemisphere between the 1930s -1970s. One popular theory is that people visiting Thailand brought home this beautiful jewellery as gifts for loved ones, and collections grew from there.  I’ve also heard from a couple of other people that they remember Thailand-made jewellery being sold in the China Towns in larger USA cities during the 1960s. It’s important to note that Thailand has a rich history in metal work, niello and enameling techniques; Thailand niellowork has been collected in aristocratic and royal circles for centuries.

 

What do we mean by Niellowork?

This is a special type of black colouring technique dating back over 3000 years. No one knows for sure who invented it, though Egypt, Cyprus, Syria and Thailand all lay claim to its discovery. Types of niello technique have been used in other countries too, including Great Britain.

Niello is more like an amalgam/ metal alloy than a true enamel, usually being a mixture of silver, copper, lead and sulfur. The term ‘niello’ has Latin origins (developing from the words nigellus, Latin for black).

(Safety precaution: Due niello containing lead,  do not use it around or to contain food, nor to hold cigarettes. Keep it away from children – lead ingestion can be fatal. Wash hands after handling niello. Repair of nielloware should only be taken by an expert who follows professional industry health and safety precautions for handling lead/ lead dust).

To make niello jewellery, a highly trained artisan carves out the metal so the it has a raised border and raised character, picture or pattern. The hollow area (ie the bit they have just carved out) is then filled with the niello compound, and baked in an oven until hard and set. The jewellery is given a final buff and polish and any final details to the characters are added by engraving techniques. Though basic in theory, this technique can produce some truly spectacular results. Actual recipes for the niello used in Siam Silver were a guarded secret of the artisans, which may explain the difference in quality and lustre of the jewellery.

 

What is the story behind Siam Silver jewellery?

The main characters you will see in Siam Silver jewellery are Mekkala, The Goddess of Lightening, and Ramasoon, the Thunder God. I read on a Thailand forum a few years ago, that they are from a mythological tale told to many Thailand children about the origins of thunder and lightening (and not from the Ramayana, as is sometimes suggested):

Ramasoon fell in love with the beautiful Mekkala, but she didn’t love him back. In a jealous rage, he threw his axe at her so he could injure and capture her, but Mekkala was able to defend herself with her famous magical crystal ball. As the axe struck this ball, it created a massive flash of light. This was the first ever lightening. Defeated, Ramasoon created darkness and rain so he could retreat undercover. He still waits for Mekkala to this day. When he sees her, Ramasoon once again throws his axe to injure and capture her, though is always thwarted by the crystal ball that defends Mekkala and flashes brightly as the axe hits it.

This story is so well known in this region of the world that in 2002 and 2008 two major tropical storms were named after Ramasoon.

 

guide to history vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

A red enamel Siam Silver brooch, showing Ramasoon on the left (with axe), and Mekkala on the right (with lightening coming from her hand).

Many other images depicted are based on characters from Ramayana legend (aka the Ramakien, which is the Thai version of this massive and complex epic). It is ancient Indian/ Hindu in origin, and tells the story of Rama, who is a reincarnation on earth, of the Hindu God Vishnu. Though Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, the Ramayana is one of the most important works of literature in the country, telling moral tales about conflicts of duty, the concept of dharma and obligations in life.

 

Characters in Siam Silver Jewellery. Characters marked

1. Mekkala(h), the Goddess of Lightening – shown with lightning bolts coming from her hand. A well known figure in Thai culture. This is by far the most common character depicted in Siam jewellery, and is the theme you normally see in Siam jewellery.

2. Ramasoon, the God of Thunder
– shown with an axe in his hand. Often shown with Mekkala. Common.

3. Nang Fa, the Fairy of Happiness – looks like she’s dropping stardust from her hand to the floor. Uncommon

4. Matcha, the Mermaid Queen – has a fish/mermaid tail instead of legs. Sometimes shown with Hanuman, she appears with him in the Ramakien. Common.

5. Hanuman, King of Monkeys – a clothed revered monkey-diety holding a sword. Sometimes shown with Matcha. This is due to a Ramakien tale of Hanuman being sent by Prince Rama to build a bridge over Queen Matcha’s Sea Kingdom, but the Monkey King falls in love with her instead. Common.

6. Thepanom, a Thailand Guardian Angel deity – sits devoutly with hands in prayer position, with a flame like motif behind the head. Common.

7. Erawan (aka Airavata), Three Headed Elephant: a multi-headed elephant king, well known in Hinduism. Erawan carries Indra (the Hindu God of rain and thunderstorms) on its back. Mentioned in the Ramayana. Uncommon.

8. Phra Samut Chedi (a.k.a Phra Chedi Klang Nam), The Floating Pagoda, a world famous temple pagoda building in Thailand (located in the Phra Samut Chedi District) which floats on water. Common.

9. Suphanahongse, The Royal Barges; a collection of ornate boats now housed in the Royal Barge National Museum on Bangkok Noi Canal. Common.

10. Lord Rama, (Prince/ Lord) – revered Hindu God who is central to the Ramayana epic; depicted with a bow and arrow. Rare.

11. Dancing Angel – depicted with a long curved garland (looks like rope) held behind the back. Were possibly warriors who were magically turned into angels (Ramayana). Common.

12. Garuda (Garunda) – a winged mythical creature – a cross between human and eagle and is found in both Hindu and Buddhism. Can be depicted on own, or carrying the Hindi God Vishnu as his mount. It forms part of the national symbol of Thailand and is an emblem of the King of Thailand. Uncommon.

13. Sword dancer – figure holding up two swords. Using a sword in both hands is a method commonly used some Thai martial arts and in many traditional dances. Uncommon.

14. Kinnara (Kinnaris) – a celestial half-woman, half- swan like bird creature. Her upper body is that of a woman, her lower body and legs are that of a bird. Rare.

(please note that the some names have different spellings – I’m told that Ramasoon is more known as Ramasura, and Mekkala is more known as Manimekhala, in parts of South Asia).

 

Siam Silver can occasionally show subjects such as animals (mainly elephants), signs of the zodiac, dancers (male and female), and symbols (often special commissions).

White enamel Siam silver brooch shows Hanuman (the Monkey King) and Matcha (Queen of the Mermaids).

White enamel Siam silver brooch shows Hanuman and Matcha.

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

Vintage black niello Siam shield brooch which depicts a Thailand Sword Dancer.

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

Vintage black niello brooch depicting the God Indra riding Erawen, the elephant king.

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Siam Silver niello cufflink which depict the Dancing Angels.

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

Siam nielloware brooch shows Garunda (a.k.a Garuda), carrying the Hindu God Vishnu. Garuda is the emblem of Thailand Royalty.

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Chedi Klang Nam/ Phra Samut Chedi, The Floating Pagoda

 

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

Vintage Siam Silver tie pin which shows Thepanom

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Some Siam silver depicts signs of the zodiac, such as this tie pin which shows the crab of Cancer.

A rare vintage Siam silver ring example of Garuda (Garunda) on his own, without the Hindu God Vishnu.

A rare vintage Siam silver ring example of Garuda (Garunda) on his own, without the Hindu God Vishnu.

 

vintage siam silver kinnera niello brooch (3)

The rare Kinnara, a mythical half woman half swan creature, who represents the feminine aspects of love, strength and courage.

 

Types of Siam Silver jewellery – beginning a collection.

One of the wonderful things about Siam Silver is the sheer variety of jewellery. No two pieces are exactly the same – each is unique. Even the most common types that depict Mekkala the Goddess of Lightening show her in an almost infinite variety of settings and surrounding filigree metal work.

When collecting you will mostly see brooches, pendants, earrings, cufflinks, tie-pins, and bracelets. More rare are bangles, rings and necklaces. Black nielloware is usually seen, though coloured enamels are sought after by collectors too.

 

vintage siam silver orange red brooch enamel (2)

A beautiful orange – red colour enamel brooch showing Mekkala, Goddess of Lightening.

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Vintage blue enamel Siam silver brooch

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Unusual multi-coloured Siam silver panel bracelet

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Rare yellow vintage Siam silver panel bracelet

 

 

Price depends on many things, including the jewellery size, shape, colour, characters depicted, or jewellery type – each collector is as different as the jewellery itself! Mekkala, Goddess of Lightening niello brooches are a great starting point for budding collectors as they can still be purchased for a reasonable price, and there are a huge variety of styles to discover. Expect to pay slightly more for the pendants, earrings and bracelets. Fancy necklaces, bangles and Siam Silver accessories such as cigarette cases usually fetch the highest prices.

 

The Future of Siam Silver Jewellery

The sheer beauty and variety of designs are what makes Siam Silver jewellery popular to wear and collect.. However, many people love it because of its cultural, religious and spiritual significance too. Whatever your reason for buying Siam Silver, one thing is for sure – you’ll treasure this amazing story-telling jewellery for years to come.

No Siam nielloware article is complete without a reference to vintage niello researcher and Siam silver expert Charles Dittell and his website www.siamman.com, with thanks for sharing with the world his ground-breaking research into the genre. Please do check his wonderful website out. I also recommend Charles Dittell’s eBook about Siam Silver called Survey of Siam Sterling Nielloware (which is available for download via his shop or Amazon) . His eBook is packed with so much info I’d never come across before / info that’s not found online – it’s a must read for Siam lovers and collectors.

 

Further reading/ references:

Info about Mekkhala Goddess of Lightening:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manimekhala

 

Info about Kinnara:

http://www.harekrsna.com/philosophy/associates/demons/classes/singers.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinnara

Info about the Royal Barge:

http://www.thaiwave.com/benjarong/variety/royalbarges.htm

Info about the Floating Pagoda:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phra_Samut_Chedi_District

http://www.paknam.com/tourist-attractions/phra-samut-chedi.html

Info about Garuda:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garuda

Lots of info on nielloware in Thailand:

http://www.rubenvasquez.com/niello/history.htm

Info about the Ramayana:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana

Info on Matcha and Hanuman:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suvannamaccha

Favourite vintage Siam Silver niello jewellery…

I’ve been a huge fan of vintage Siam Silver niello jewellery made in Thailand for years. Here are some of the favourite pieces I’ve had …

vintage mens tie clip siam silver niello enamel nang fa jewelry

Vintage Siam Silver men’s tie clip, depicting Nang Fa, the fairy of happiness; she is one of the more unusual characters depicted in Siam jewellery.

siam silver niello rare figures bracelet jewellery

Vintage Siam Silver bracelet. I bought this because it the characters were very detailed, and the niello work seemed a bit different than normal. It wasn’t stamped or signed in any way. It also has two very rare characters on it – Lord Rama (with the bow and arrow) and Kinnara (a mythical half woman half swan creature).

siam silver st christopher charm pendant (4)

This tiny Siam Silver charm depicts a man holding a child.

siam silver erewan elephant 3d brooch nielloware jewellery

This magnificent Siam Silver brooch depicts Erewan, a mythological 3 headed elephant. I believe Erewan is the Thailand name for Airavata, the white elephant who carries the Hindu God Indra. This is the only piece of Siam silver I’ve ever  come across that has a raised 3-D effect to it.

vintage siam silver nang fa collar pendant necklace niello (1)

A vintage Siam Silver collar necklace depicting Nang Fa, the fairy of happiness.

vintage niello siam silver enamel black bangle jewellery

Vintage niello Siam Silver enamel hinged bangle, depicting Hanuman (the king of the monkeys) and Matcha (the mermaid queen), both from Hinduism and the Hindu religious epic the Ramayana.

vintage siam silver niello opening locket pendant necklace jewelry

Gorgeous vintage Siam silver pendant locket, which opens. The front depicts Mekkala (the goddess of lightening in some South Asian mythology), and her nemesis Ramasoon (the god of thunder) is on the back. Mekkala is the most common character found on Siam silver jewellery.

vintage siam silver niello tie clip crab taurus (2)

Many Siam pieces depict signs of the horoscope, like in this vintage Siam silver niello tie clip which shows the cancer crab.

Vintage Siam Silver niello earrings jewelry

Wonderful vintage Siam Silver niello screw back earrings

Vintage Siam Silver niello bell charm bracelet jewellery

Vintage Siam Silver niello charms bracelet. All the bells worked, and tinkled gently when moved!

Vintage Siam Silver niello tie clip pin jewelry (2)

Vintage Siam Silver tie pin depicting The Thailand Royal Barge; Suphanahongse

Vintage Siam Silver sterling niello brooch jewellery

Vintage Siam Silver niello brooch, possibly depicting the Hindu God Indra riding upon Erawan?

Vintage Siam Silver brooch, showing Garunda, qa winged mythical creature and the emblam of the Thai Royal family

Vintage Siam Silver brooch, which I believe shows the Hindu God Vishnu upon Garunda (aka Garuda), a winged mythical creature, and the emblem of the Thailand Royal family

Vintage Siam Silver niello tie clip pin, depicting Thepanom, a Thai guardian angel diety

Vintage Siam Silver niello tie clip pin, depicting Thepanom, a Thailand guardian angel.

Vintage Siam Silver niello brooch, depicting Hanuman & Matcha

Vintage Siam Silver niello brooch, depicting Hanuman and Matcha from the Hindu Ramayana epic