Searching for ram, the king of hearts

Ram asks Nala to build a bridge, reaches Lanka and kills Ravan.
Lord Ram (Photo | EPS)
Lord Ram (Photo | EPS)

Ram has finally found his home. A great king of ancient India was tossed around by 20th century politicians till justice was done to him in this century by the Supreme Court of India. Ram’s divinity is a matter of faith. His existence is a matter of fact. If Ram did not exist, neither did Buddha, Mahavir, Jesus Christ or Prophet Mohammed—none of whose lives can be proven by archaeology or inscriptions. So why are only Ram and Krishna put to the test? To doubt the existence of Ram is to doubt all literature. Ram was not a god.

The original story appears in Canto I of the epic. Valmiki asks Narad (a generic name) who was the greatest man who ever lived. In a few terse lines, Narad narrates the story of Ram, son of Kausalya, of Ikshvaku lineage, and dutiful son of Dasharath of Ayodhya. There is nothing about Sita’s birth, the swayamvara or Shiva’s bow. The third wife Sumitra, Shatrughna, and the hunchback Manthara are not mentioned.

Kaikeyi wants the throne for her son Bharat, and Dasharath, bound by his oath, exiles Ram, who leaves for the forest with his brother Lakshman and his newly-wedded spouse Sita, daughter of Janak of Mithila. The Nishada chief Guha takes them across the Ganga and the three reach Chitrakoot. Bharat refuses to accept the throne, implores Ram and returns with his sandals. Ram kills several marauding Rakshasas in the forest and disfigures Shoorpanakha. Nothing about Lakshman chopping off Shoorpanakha’s nose.

Ravan causes the two princes to be removed by a fellow Rakshasa named Marich, not a golden deer, and steals Ram’s spouse. Ram meets Sabari and the Vanar chief Hanuman, and kills Vali on the battlefield, as an ally of Sugriva, not hiding behind a tree. Then Hanuman crosses a “brackish sea”, meets Sita, sets Lanka on fire and returns to Ram.

Ram asks Nala to build a bridge, reaches Lanka and kills Ravan. Ram speaks harshly to Sita, who enters the fire, but Agni vouches that she is sinless—apparently, the fire did not burn her. Ram returns to rule over his kingdom. There is nothing about banishing Sita, a part of the Uttara kanda, which is a known later interpolation.

Valmiki says that the three wandered through Dandakaranya, a land of Rakshasas, hunter-gatherers inimical to the expansion of food producers and their religion of fire-worship. Tribals still inhabit these forests. The trio reached Nashik and Panchavati, where Ravan abducted Sita. Kishkinda, where Ram met Sugriva and Hanuman, is a major Ramayan site, where every rock and river is associated with the the epic: Anjanadri, the birthplace of Hanuman (Anjaneya) and Rishyamukha, Sugriva’s capital. Valmiki made the Vanars into monkeys, but the word means forest-dwellers, vana-nara, and is confirmed by the Jaina Ramayan. Monkey in Sanskrit is kapi.

Ram and the Vanar army reached Rameshwaram, where the Vanars built a bridge from Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar. A NASA satellite has photographed an underwater bridge in the Palk Strait. On his return from Lanka, Ram worshipped Shiva at Rameshwaram, where Sita prepared a lingam out of sand. The lingam at Rameshwaram temple is still made of sand, in a state where nearly every religious icon is made of stone. The places visited by Ram everywhere retain memories of his visit in commemorative temples and local folklore. 

The epic is a zoologist’s delight. The trees and animals described in each of the four forests—Chitrakoot, Dandakaranya, Kishkinda and Ashokavana—are still found in the same forests. The important animal species—langur (Hanuman and Sugriva), bear (Jambavan) and vulture (Jatayu)—were totems of tribes who lived and were recorded by early British officials posted in these areas. Nishadas and Savaras (Sabari’s tribe) still retain ancient memories of Ram visiting their land. 

Valmiki was an ādikavi, a poet who inserted exotica like flying monkeys and flying machines. Some of these have vestiges of the past, like the four-tusked elephants who guarded Ravan’s mansion in Lanka. The Gomphothere, a four-tusked proboscidean related to modern elephants, lived in South Asia and went extinct only 12,000 years ago. 

Rakshasas are described by the Rig Veda as demons and deceitful enemies of the Devas. But several Rakshasas were scholars and kings, like Ravan and Vibhishan. The prime minister of the Nandas was the renowned historical Rakshas, retained as prime minister by Chandragupta Maurya on Chanakya’s advice, and immortalised in Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa. Bhima’s wife Hidimba and Sharmishtha, wife of Yayati, belonged to this clan.

The Ramayan is geographically correct. Every site on Ram’s route is still identifiable and has continuing traditions or temples to commemorate Ram’s visit. Thousands of years ago, no writer could travel around the country inventing a story, fitting it into local folklore and building temples for greater credibility. 

Sri Lanka retains memories of the Ramayan. Ravan is believed to have inhabited the region of the Ella Falls. Hasalakawas, the site of Lankapura where Sita was held captive before she was moved to Ashokavana, is where a Sitai Amman temple is situated. There is a statue of Ravan, king of Lanka, at the Koneswaram temple at Trincomalee. One school of thought places Lanka on the Godavari in Central India. But Lanka, say both Narad and Valmiki, was across the “brackish” sea. 

Ram’s memory lives on because of his extraordinary life and his wonderful reign, a period of peace and prosperity, making Ramrajya a yardstick for successful rule. People only remember the very good or the very bad. So popular is the story of Ram and his reign that it has travelled to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, China and Mongolia—in fact, throughout Asia.

Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai

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