As India celebrates Dussehra or Vijayadashami marking the triumph of Ram, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, over Ravan the King of Lanka and his return to Ayodhya, here is a look at how the story of Ram binds India.
The epic Ramayana, which tells the story, is a text of great religious value for the Hindus. But that apart what is also interesting is how the legend of Ram and the story of the Ramayana is interwoven with places across India. Thousands of years after the story was first told, different parts of India - still reverberate with stories of Ram’s visit when he made his way down peninsular India - to save his wife.
Here is a tour through India as we trace the footsteps of Ram and find the many places he is said to have visited and lived in.
1. Kanha National Park & the Story of Shravan Kumar
Kanha National Park, in Madhya Pradesh is among the largest tiger reserves in central India. The stunning Sal forests of Kanha were famously brought alive in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’. But this beautiful reserve has an interesting connect with the story of Dasharatha, the King of Ayodhya and the father of Lord Ram and Shravan Kumar.
According to the Ramayana, Shravan Kumar was the only son of sage Shantanu and his wife, both of whom were blind. As per his parents’ wish, Shravan was carrying them across the country for a pilgrimage.
While they were passing through the forests of present day Kanha, King Dasharatha who was on a hunting expedition in the same forest, killed him by mistake. Shravan had stopped by the lake to fetch some drinking water for his parents. In the darkness, King Dasharatha mistook Shravan for a deer and killed him. Repenting his actions, he went to Shravan’s parents to give them the tragic news. The grieving parents cursed the King saying that he too would suffer the pain of being separated from his child, as they had been.
Even today there is lake named ‘Shravan Tal’ in Kanha National Park and a place called ‘Shravan Chita’ where it is believed that Shravan was cremated. There is also place called ‘Dashratha Machaan’ from where King Dashratha is said to have shot Shravan.
2. Sitamarhi: The Birthplace of Sita
The town of Sitamarhi in the Sitamarhi district of Bihar, is considered to be the birthplace of Ram’s wife, Sita. As the legend goes, Sita sprang to life out of an earthen pot, when Raja Janaka the King of Mithila was ploughing a field somewhere near Sitamarhi to beseech Lord Indra for rain. Janaka found the baby Sita in a furrow of the field and raised her as his daughter. According to the Ramayana, when Sita (also called Janaki) was about sixteen, Janaka announced that she would marry yhe one who would be able to string the divine bow of Shiva. Though many royal suitors tried, only Ram, the Prince of Ayodhya, was successful. Not only did he string the mighty bow, he also snapped it in two. Thus, Ram won the hand of Sita in marriage.
The Sita-Kund (Sita Tank) is a Hindu pilgrimage site in Sitamarhi. Sita-Kund is a circular pond, 140 ft in diameter, where the devout believe that Sita bathed.
Sitamarhi is also home to Punaura Dham Mandir- one of the holiest Hindu temples dedicated to Sita. Millions of pilgrims visit the temple every year.
Chitrakoot, a town in Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh lies on the border of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The earliest mention of Chitrakoot is found in Valmiki’s Ramayana.
According to the Ramayana, Ram, Sita and Lakshman spent around 11 years of their exile or vanavas here. Chitrakoot is also associated with important events in Ram and Sita’s life. The region is associated with ‘Bharat Milap’ where Bharat came to meet Ram and requested him to return to Ayodhya. It is also believed that all the Gods and Goddesses visited this place when Lord Ram performed the Shuddhi ceremony in memory of his father. Even today, you can find many places linked to the story of Ram in Chitrakoot. No wonder devotees from all over come here to pay homage to Lord Ram.
Ramghat, in Chitrakoot is one of the major ghats associated with Ram and Sita where it is believed they came to pray and bathe during their stay. Hanuman Dhara, a temple situated on a hill is dedicated to Hanuman. There is also a small room called ‘Sita Rasoi’ (Sita’s Kitchen) where it is believed that Sita cooked food during their exile.
It was probably because of the significance of this place, that it is believed that the earliest known Ramleela was performed here about 475 years ago. Also Saint Tulsidas, composed Ramcharitmanas here when he was more than 80 years old in the local language of Awadhi in the 16th century.
Located on the banks of the Godavari, India’s second longest river, Panchvati in Nasik is rich with mythology and history. Panchavati is believed to have been a shelter for Ram, Lakshman, and Sita during their exile. Ram spent a few years of his 14-year-long exile (Vanvasa) at Panchvati, a place known in the Ramayana for Sita’s haran (kidnapping). There are five (Pancham) banyan trees (Vat Vriksha) here and hence the area is called Pancha-vati. It is a part of the famous Dandakaranya Forest, also mentioned in the Ramayana. Since it played such a prominent part in the epic, people come here to take a holy dip in the Godavari.
The city of Nasik is on the western side of the Godavari. Here Lakshman, Ram’s younger brother is said to have cut off the nose of Surpanakha, Ravan’s sister. Nasik means ‘nose’ and thus the city gets its name.
Sita Gumpha is near the five banyan trees in Panchavati. One can enter the cave through a very narrow staircase. The cave has idols of Ram, Lakshman and Sita. To the left, is a cave with a shivling. It is believed to be the point from which Ravan kidnapped Sita.
The most important place for devotees in Panchavati is Ramkund. It is so called because Ram is believed to have bathed there. Mortal remains (Asthi) immersed in this kunda, are immediately absorbed in the water. A dip in this sacred kunda is considered very sacred. Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were immersed in Ramkund after his death.
Another important site is the temple of Kala Ram. This temple was built by the Peshwas of Pune in the 18th century. There are great processions that take place here even today on Ramnavami, Dussehra and Chaitra Padwa (Hindu new year day). The specialty of the temple is that it was built with black stones. In 1930, Dr. Ambedkar performed a Satyagraha, to allow the entry of Harijans into the temple.
Banganga is a medieval water tank which is part of the Walkeshwar Temple Complex in the upscale area of Malabar Hill in Mumbai.
According to the Ramayana, Ram paused at this spot on his way from Ayodhya to Lanka in pursuit of the demon king, Ravan who had kidnapped his wife, Sita. Overcome with fatigue and thirst, Ram asked his brother Lakshman to bring him some water. Lakshman instantly shot an arrow into the ground, and water gushed forth, creating a tributary of the Ganges, which flows over a thousand miles away. Hence the place is named Banganga- the Ganga created by a baan (arrow).
According to another legend, Lord Parashuram shot an arrow and brought Ganga from Patala and so the other name Patalganga to Banganga.
Legend relates Ram and Lakshman to the origin of Walkeshwar temple too. It is said that the shivling here was installed by Ram himself. It is believed that the original shivling was made by sand (Valuka in Sanskrit) and the name Walkeshwar corresponds to Valuka Ishwar (idol made of sand).
The tank at Banganga was built by Lakshman Prabhu, a minister in the court of Silhara dynasty kings of Thane in 1127 CE. Banganga Tank is a rectangular in shape and surrounded by steps on all sides. There are records which suggest that the tank was built out of a donation given by a Rama Kamath in 1715 CE. The main temple has been reconstructed since then and is at present a reinforced concrete structure of recent construction. At the entrance of the tank, stand two pillars bearing oil lamps, probably 300 years old. One of the fascinating things about the tank is that the water of the tank still remains sweet despite the sea being so close.
6. The kingdom of Kishkindha
Kishkindha near Hampi in the Koppal district of Karnataka is said to be a part of the Dandaka forest, which stretched from the Vindhiya mountain range down to the south of India. Kishkindha was the kingdom of Vanara (monkey) King Bali and his brother Sugreev.
According to the Ramayana, after Ravan abducted Sita, Ram’s frantic search for his beloved wife brought him and Lakshman southwards to Kishkindha. It is here that they met the Monkey God Hanuman, Ram’s greatest devotee. At the time, Kishkindha's rulers, brothers Vali and Sugreev were embroiled in a bitter feud, with the former determined to kill the latter. Sugreeva took refuge in the hermitage of Sage Matanga on the Matanga Hill, to the top of which visitors now climb, to enjoy stunning panoramic views of the ruins of Hampi.
The Sugreev Cave near Kodandarama Temple, Hampi is a popular tourist stop. It is believed that this is the place where Sugreev hid the jewels that Sita dropped along the way as she was being taken away by her abductor, hoping that they might lead Ram to her.
While one can argue about the divide between myth and history, legends and reality; what one cannot deny is how the Ramayana and the Mahabharata the great Epics of India have linked the far corners of the country through time.