Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XIX: The Kingdom of Lankā
June 20, 2017
There has been continuing debate to determine the historic value of the Rāmāyaṇa story. A realistic life of a warrior man is interspersed with fanciful episodes connected with the mysteries of south India. The most intriguing object in these descriptions is a self-propelled transport system which traveled above the tree line. It could carry a reasonable amount of payload and could travel long distance possibly with the help of air currents. It sounds like a good technological feat, but the timing of it does not tally with the current understanding of the evolution of technology on the planet.
The aircraft was one of a kind and was possibly commissioned and owned by the richest man of the time. The man called Kubera controlled most of the wealth created from the land resources. He belonged to a class of human beings called yakṣa who had mastered the knowledge of agriculture, mining and construction. The class of people who controlled the ocean resources were called rakṣa.
Rāvaṇa was the leader and the king of this latter group. Vālmīki states that Kubera and Rāvaṇa were brothers in a genealogical sense and had turned as rivals through their individual talents.
In the story, Rāvaṇa wins over Kubera and extracts wealth from Kubera’s palace to create a paradise in the ocean. This paradise happens to be in an island off the coast of India’s mainland. The island is called Lankā. By exploiting the massive oceanic resources and by utilizing the stolen property from the land, Rāvaṇa engaged himself in creating a spectacular dwelling protected by oceanic waters around it. He employed the best of engineers and craftsmen and indulged in opulent construction that he thought would surpass anything that ever existed. After completing the construction, Rāvaṇa extracted the afore-mentioned aircraft from Kubera in order that he can roam freely from his ocean abode to the main land and beyond.
Lankā as a geographical name comes from the astronomical literature that predates Vālmīki. It probably draws its name from the shape of the island, but we do not know how the cartography was done. Vālmīki does not describe how Rāvaṇa assumes the reins of the island. Possibly it was hereditary. What is described is that it was a beautiful piece of land containing a walled city with well-constructed roads and houses, palatial buildings and massive gates. The city was so attractive that Hanūmān reached poetic ecstasy to enjoy the view in moonshine while he rested on the mountaintop overlooking the city. Not only that the construction was well-engineered, the inhabitants were elegantly dressed. Hanūmān was stunned to see ladies with beautiful attires adorned with ornaments of gold, gems and pearls. He was lost in his search for Sītā.
From the account of the eagle Saṁpāti and other citations, we come to know that Lankā was situated eight hundred miles (a hundred yojanas) from the main land. The location, where the vānaras and Hanūmān met Saṁpāti, is named as the Mahendra mountains. Such a mountain range still exists on the Eastern Ghats on the coast of southern Odisha. The bird’s eye distance from the mountain to Lankā can be estimated as eight hundred miles. Hanūmān started his journey to Lankā from the mountain. Rāma also camped at the Mahendra mountains on his onward journey to Lankā. It is possible that Mahendra mountain range was the southernmost point on the mainland known to Vālmīki at the time of composing the Rāmāyaṇa.
The water mass surrounding Lankā is called Bay of Bengal in the modern terminology. It has a shallow but wide continental shelf with occasional submerged islands. Hanūmān is described to leap over the water almost following the coastline. It is possible that he encountered larger aquatic creatures as he veered into the deeper waters in the direction of Lankā. The physical features of the coast line and the species in the ocean were part of the legend. Vālmīki does not talk about any maritime traffic. It is possible that the foot bridge connecting the island to the mainland was used by the island inhabitants to access the southern forests of India.
Vālmīki does not talk about any trade relations between the island of Lankā and the mainland. It is possible that the southern areas of the mainland were mostly uninhabited and were gradually being occupied by the rakṣa people. Rakṣa people could be moving north in their occupation pursuit and the Daṇḍaka forest might have been a peripheral boundary between the two regions. Vālmīki mentions about a camp called Janasthāna not too far from Paṅcavaṭī. This camp settled thousands of rakṣa people. The latter were not well developed with the skill of combatting at a distance. They possibly operated mostly on muscle power. It was easy for Rāma to eliminate them with his bow and arrow.
On the other hand, the inhabitants of the island of Lankā were learned and cultured. Hanūmān heard and saw musical events and religious chanting. He saw men with shaven heads or matted locks meditating on beads with kuśa grass in hand. Some of them were deformed in structure whom he assumed as spies. Then he found many engaged in scholarly discussion and in the study of the scriptures. Apparently, the language was understandable to him, hence could be Sanskrit-like. We do not know if Vālmīki goes into a pure poetic mode of conjecture. We can estimate that the technology and engineering in construction would demand learning and analysis in language.
As we have said before, the kingdom of Lankā was naturally protected. The city inside was built as a fort with high walls around, a moat, and gates guarded by agile guards. Hanūmān saw security men and stout people parading all over carrying swords and javelins. Vālmīki describes an incident where Hanūmān could outmaneuver the woman guard at the gate by simply punching to her face. It is possible that the guards were trained in wrestling and not in boxing. Over all the discipline was militaristic, any disobedience was threatened with capital punishment. Rāvaṇa ruled the kingdom as an autocrat. We can speculate that it was an example of the early history how kingdom settlements might have developed.
Lankā was mesmerizingly beautiful. Hanūmān had the most pleasant view overlooking the kingdom sitting on the hilltop on the coast. Surrounded by turquoise waters, the greenery of the trees and the forests was punctuated by massive tall white buildings. Befitting the tropics, there were natural vegetation of medicinal trees and fruit orchards. There were scattered lakes and ponds. And, there were manicured gardens and public parks with elegant pathways. Sītā was kept under guard in one of these exclusive gardens. In his poetic eye, Hanūmān reflected in his mind that Lankā was a celestial woman made by nature that was enhanced by human engineering.
When pressed by Rāma, Hanūmān announced that it was extremely difficult to penetrate Lanka to rescue Sītā. While Rāma spoke of his own prowess in drying up the ocean or creating a bridge, Hanūmān cited the “machines” in Lankā that were engineered to create access to the city over the surrounding moat. The “machines” alerted the guards in case there was the attempt of any intrusion. “Myriads” of soldiers were called on to action immediately. The soldiers were supplemented by hordes of elephants which roamed the streets. The moat itself was populated by alligators and other ferocious aquatic creatures.
Hanūmān said: “Lankā offers no base for invasion. It is protected four ways: (i) a river around the island, (ii) the mountain on which the city is built, (iii) a ring of forests around the city, and (iv) moat and wall surrounding the city. O’ Rāma, Lankā is difficult to access by the gods and the set up evokes terror in all!”
Let Sai bless all.