Like all good Anglophiles, I went to one of India’s best schools in Bombay. Among the many things they taught me was that the epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—were mythologies. And I believed this till, one day, I decided to read Valmiki’s Ramayana in Sanskrit. And there I read that, as the trio are about to enter Dandakaranya, Sage Bharadwaja warned them to beware of lions and tigers. Lions and tigers don’t share forest space had also been taught to us; so that was yet another myth in the epic. Till I went to Bhimbetka and saw a 10,000-year-old painting of a lion and tiger sitting together. If one fact was so wrongly presented by my good teachers, could the others be equally wrong?
What is a myth? The online dictionary has two meanings: a) a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events; and b) a widely held but false belief or idea. Thus, the Ramayana was damned for all time as a myth.
The epics are known to us as itihasa—thus it happened. And to Hindus, there is no doubt that the events of the epic did happen.
The actual story of the Ramayana is very simple. It starts with Valmiki, the ascetic, asking Narada, the chief of hermits (and a generic name), as to who was the greatest man who ever lived. Narada narrates the story of Rama, King of Ayodhya, a man of virtue, knowledge, prowess, righteousness, truthful, resolute, of right conduct, friendly to all, powerful, handsome, who subdued his self, conquered anger, and many more virtues—but all human. Valmiki was a contemporary of Rama, as confirmed by Narada himself.
Narada’s story is short and important: King Dasharatha wanted to make his beloved son Rama regent. But Queen Kaikeyi, who had been granted a boon by the king on an earlier occasion, wanted the exile of Rama and the installation of her son Bharata as king. As an obedient son, Rama left for the forest with his brother Lakshmana, son of Sumitra, and his wife Sita. Meeting his friend Guha, chief of the Nishadas, Rama crosses the Ganga at Sringaverapura and goes from forest to forest till they reach Chitrakoot. Here Bharata meets them and begs Rama to return. On Rama’s refusal, Bharata returns to Ayodhya and settles at Nandigrama.
Rama then enters the Dandaka forest where he kills several rakshasas—including Khara, Trishira, Dooshana—and disfigures Shoorpanakha. Hearing of the mass killings of 14,000 of his kinsmen, Ravana, using Maricha to distract the two brothers, steals Rama’s spouse, killing the vulture Jatayu. On the advice of Kabandha, Rama meets Sabari, described as a pious hermitess, and befriends the Vanara chief Hanuman on the banks of the Pampa, and later Sugriva, killing the latter’s brother Vali. Then, as advised by Sampati, king of the vulture people, Hanuman crosses the brackish sea, and reaches Lanka where Sita is imprisoned in a grove of Ashoka trees. He lets himself be bound and taken before Ravana. He sets all Lanka—except Sita—on fire and returns to tell Rama that he actually met Sita. Rama then makes Nala construct a bridge and crosses over to Lanka, killing Ravana in combat. But, ashamed to take back Sita, Rama speaks harshly to her in public. She enters the fire, after which Rama accepts her. Having installed Vibhishana on the throne, Rama flies with family and friends (including Sugriva and Hanuman) to Ayodhya in the pushpaka, and regains his kingdom.
This is the original story of Rama, a historical biography, as narrated by Narada, which Valmiki uses as a prologue to his epic. Narada is very clear that Rama is a man, descended in the line of Ikshvaku. The pushpaka is the only extraordinary part of it.
Janaka of Mithila, Sita’s swayamvara, Rama’s mother Kaushalya, Rama’s brother Shatrughna, the golden deer, the lakshman rekha, Rama’s ring, Sita’s choodaman, Kumbhakarna, Indrajit, Mandodari and so many other people and events are missing in Narada’s tale. Even Sita and Lakshmana are minor characters. Interestingly, only the rakshasas he meets in Dandaka are mentioned: not those in Lanka. The events of the UttaraRamayana are totally missing.
Creativity distinguishes Valmiki’s poetic epic from Narada’s factual report. Rama is not a god, either to Narada or to Valmiki. But Valmiki is a poet. He goes on to elaborate the story in poetry, partially deifying Rama and creating the Ramayana. We have contemporary examples of people deified in their lifetime, such as the Shirdi and Sathya Sai Babas. Valmiki’s epic is filled with supernatural beings and events—flying monkeys, a ten-headed demon and so on. But why not? After all, his work had to be readable.
The Ramayana is linear, with perfect geography. Every site on Rama’s route is still identifiable, with continuing traditions or temples to commemorate Rama’s visit. Around 1,000 BCE, no writer had the means to travel around the country, listing local plants and animals, inventing a story and fitting it into local folklore, least of all building a temple to commemorate Rama’s visit.
When I saw the painted lion and tiger in Bhimbetka, I deputed two of my botanists to study the plants and animals in the four forests of Chitrakuta, Dandaka, Panchavati and Kishkinda. Amazingly, the same plants and animals described by Valmiki still exist in these places. Nothing was fictitious. They went on to publish a book on Plant and Animal Diversity in Valmiki’s Ramayana (By M Amirthalingam and P Sudhakar), which I believe is a confirmation of the epic.
Rama, Lakshmana and Sita first went to Sringaverapura (in Uttar Pradesh) where they met Guha the Nishada. The Nishadas were hunters and fishermen. Thereafter, the three wandered through Dandakaranya in central India, described as a land of rakshasas, obviously tribes inimical to the encroachment of their land. Munda tribes are still found in these forests. Rama meets Sabari (of the Sabara/Saora/Saura/Savara/Sora tribe), a Munda ethnic tribe found in southern Odisha, north coastal Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Even Megasthenes mentions the Saoras in his Indica. Among the Saoras, a female shaman is the intermediary between the worlds of the living and the dead. Hence, possibly, the importance of the female Sabari in Narada’s narration. The Nishadas and Saoras still maintain that Rama visited them.
Several places maintain memories of Valmiki’s description of Rama’s visit. The trio reached Nasik on the River Godavari, where Rama and Sita used to bathe at Ramkund, Lakshmana at Lakshmankund, and several caves in the area are associated with their forest life. Rama then moved to Panchavati, where five banyan (vat) trees are maintained in memory of Rama’s sojourn. Ravana abducted Sita from Panchavati. The brothers go towards Kishkinda on River Pampa, near modern Hampi, where Rama first met Sugriva and Hanuman. It is a major Ramayana site, where every rock and river is associated with the epic. Anjanadri, near Hospet, was the birthplace of Hanuman (Anjaneya); Sugriva lived in Rishyamukha on the banks of the Pampa (Tungabhadra); Sabari probably also lived in a hermitage nearby.
Rama and the Vanara army left Kishkinda to reach Rameshwaram, where the Vanaras headed by Nala built a bridge to Lanka from Dhanushkodi on Rameshwaram Island to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka. Parts of the bridge—the Nala sethu, as named by Rama—are still visible: NASA’s satellite has photographed an underwater bridge in the Palk Straits connecting Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar. The Mahabharata says it was protected out of respect for Rama, while several Chola and other rulers mention it. Several scientific bodies, including the National Remote Sensing Agency, have suggested that it was man-made. It lasted as a footbridge between India and Sri Lanka till 1480 CE when a major storm washed away parts of the bridge (according to CD Maclean, Manual of Madras Presidency, 1902).
On his return from Sri Lanka, Rama worshiped Shiva at Rameshwaram, where Sita prepared a linga out of sand. It is still one of the most sacred sites of Hinduism. Sri Lanka also has relics of the Ramayana. There are several caves, such as Ravana Ella Falls, where Ravana is believed to have hidden Sita to prevent Rama from finding her. The Sitai Amman Temple at Nuwara Eliya is situated near the Ashoka Vana where Ravana once kept her prisoner.
Valmiki’s flying monkey Hanuman has made the authenticity of the epic suspect. But Narada does not describe the vanaras as monkeys (kapi). They were the vana naras (forest people) or vanar vansh (monkey lineage), people of the forest as described by the Jain Ramayana, written by Acharya Ravisen in the book Padam Puran. The Jaina Ramayana mentions that Hanuman was a vana nara, and the banner of the vanaras was the vanara dhvaja (monkey flag), thereby reinforcing the totemic theory. Similarly, Jatayu would have been the king of the vulture-totem tribe and Jambavan of the bear-totem tribe. Kishkinda, where Hanuman was born and Jambavan (the bear) lived, still has the peculiar combination of two primary animals—langurs and bears. The bear and the monkey people were totemic tribes—after all, the whole story is about tribal India. However, Valmiki, the poet, preferred the exotic to the mundane. He made them into flying monkeys, talking bears and fighting vultures—much more interesting than the vanara dhvajas!
The Ramayana belongs to a period when most of India was jungle with tribal forest dwellers. India still contains several tribes with animal totems. An early issue of the Bellary District (now in Karnataka) Gazetteer gives us the interesting information that the place was inhabited by the Vanara tribe.
Was Lanka the modern Sri Lanka? One school of thought places Lanka on the Godavari in central India, citing the limited descriptions of the south in the latter half of the epic. Narada does not mention Panchavati or Rameshwaram, but jumps directly from the Pampa river bank (Kishkinda) to Lanka. Living in the north, it is unlikely that Valmiki knew the south well enough to write about it. But Lanka, say both Narada and Valmiki, was across the brackish sea, 800 koshas broad. It could not be a river.
“Sri Lankan folklore and religious scholars have identified more than 30 places on the island which are associated with the Ramayana. And interestingly enough, people in these places have a strong sense of history and lore, and a strong sense of possession. They are proud of their association with the Hindu epic,” explains S Kalaiselvan, director general, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, although 90 per cent of the people in the Ramayana-related areas are Sinhalese Buddhists. Sita is the heroine of Sri Lanka.
All the places visited by Rama still retain memories of Rama’s visit, as if it happened yesterday. Time, in India, is relative. Some places have commemorative temples; others commemorate the visit in local folklore. But all agree that Rama was going from or to Ayodhya. Why doubt connections when literature, archaeology and local tradition meet? Why doubt the connection between Nala-setu and Rama, when nobody else in Indian history or tradition has claimed its construction? Why doubt that Rama travelled through Dandakaranya or Kishkinda, where local non-Vedic tribes still narrate tales of Rama? Why doubt that he was born in and ruled over Ayodhya?
Major settlements, including temples, were renovated several times: restoration is a 20th century development. When the main image was made of perishable materials, it was replaced by stone. For example, we know that the wooden image of Varadaraja Perumal of Kanchipuram was replaced by a stone image, for the earlier image is still preserved in a water tank. The present architecture belongs to the sixteenth century Vijayanagara style. Yet, the temple was known to have existed before the Pallava period (seventh century). This is the story of many sacred sites in India. This happened to several Rama temples too.
So how did Indian history become myth? Early officers of the East India Company (EIC), such as Warren Hastings, were deeply influenced by Indian culture. While Hastings captured India for the Company, he was also captured by what he learned of Hinduism, and the change was described as the ‘Brahminisation of the Englishmen’ by the Board of Directors of the EIC. Between 1806 and 1808, the Company organised a debate among the officers returning from India on the high morality of the Hindus. Thirty papers of over 100 pages each were submitted. Shocked, they decided to control the situation by demeaning Indian history, culture, knowledge and spiritual influence. So, in 1813, JS Mill and Charles Grant were appointed to write the History of British India, where almost all Sanskrit literature was described as mythical. This book formed the syllabus for English administrators who had to pass through East India College (later, Haileybury and Imperial Service College) before leaving England. It also became a part of the educational syllabi of Indian schools and colleges, teaching Indians to despise their history as mythology. Further, the Reverend James Ussher, Archbishop of Ireland, had fixed October 23rd, 4004 BCE as the date of the creation of the earth. So anything that claimed to be earlier had to be a figment of imagination.
Tamil Sangam literature (200 BCE-200 CE)—Aganaanuru, Puranaanuru and Silappadikaaram—refer to Rama frequently, comparing various situations to Rama’s life. Various inscriptions by Tamil rulers, such as those of the Cholas, refer to Rama and the Nala setu with pride. Al-Beruni, who visited India in the 11th century, also says that Rama built the dyke (setu) to Lanka. Only a mortal could have done that.
Did Rama exist? Yes, I am quite sure he did. Rama’s life was a fact. His divinity is a matter of faith.
To doubt the existence of Rama is to doubt all literature. There is no archaeological or epigraphic evidence for either Jesus Christ or Prophet Muhammad, who are known only from the Bible and Quran, respectively. Does it mean they did not exist? If Rama performs miracles, such as liberating Ahalya, the Biblical story of Jesus walking on water or the Quranic tale of Muhammad flying to heaven on a horse are equally miraculous. Such stories reinforce divinity, not fact.
Rama’s memory lives on because of his extraordinary life and persona, and his reign, which was obviously a period of great peace and prosperity, making ‘Rama Rajya’ a reference point. People only remember the very good or the very bad. And they only deify the best. It is appropriate that a temple to commemorate the life of this extraordinary king of ancient India will come up soon.