Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XVII: Pañcavaṭī
February 18, 2017
Out of various geographic locations narrated in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, Pañcavaṭī is the place where the drama of the story takes a profound turn. Assuming that Rāmāyaṇa is a story, it would appear as though Vālmīki had thought about Pañcavaṭī where the story would host the key action. The natural beauty of the area with the ground water streams feeding Godāvarī river is both peaceful and harmonious. The tranquil forest still recalls Sītā who walked through its leafy trails, it was Sītā’s homestead in the woods. The exposure in the open environment invited the assault that became the core of the Rāmāyaṇa story.
After leaving Citrakūṭa, Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā spent ten years in hopping hermitages in the Daṇḍakāraṇya area. It is possible that Rāma had been always curious about the monastic living and he enjoyed his visits to the hermits and accepting their hospitality. The sages respected him as the King Daśaratha’s son and received him cordially. Through these visits, Rāma learned about the disturbance the Rākṣasas were causing to break the tranquility of the forest. He learned that the Rākṣasas were causing undue harm to the innocent sages hounding them away from the area.
As we discussed in the last essay, Daṇḍakāraṇya forests have been the abode of the sages for practicing austerities and meditation. The area was fertile with fruits and roots, and had good water. One could live there for a long period of time without the tensions of urban settlements. But the Rākṣasa tribe had eyed to occupy the land. Their goal was to drive out the sages and gain full control of the area. The story could be pre-historic when tribes in the southern part of India were aggressively exercising their power against the northern settlers.
Determined to help the sages, Rāma went deeper in the south to meet the Sage Agastya. The Sage had been a foe of the Rākṣasas. He blessed Rāma’s intentions. The Sage gave him a few special weapons for use in the battles. He invited him to stay in his hermitage. Rāma had other thoughts. He had been observing Sītā’s unhappiness over long years in exile. He wanted to make her life more comfortable. He had been thinking to provide Sītā with an independent and private place where she could wander freely and feel at home. Sage Agastya advised Rama about the woods at Pañcavaṭī and gave directions to the location as clearly as he could.
At Pañcavaṭī Rāma met his first friend, a vulture named Jaṭāyu who showed up as a god-send. Rāma had the skill of interpreting the vulture’s language. The bird narrated his family tree to show his ancestry and his relation to King Daśaratha. Vālmīki makes a special effort to create a genealogy of the living objects on earth from an animistic point of view. In such genealogy all living beings owe their origin to a singular father called Kardama. Hence every living entity gets related to each other through the chain of a family tree. Jaṭāyu committed his help in protecting Sītā in Pañcavaṭī as an elder friend of the family.
The vulture knew of the Rākṣasas’ camp, Janasthana, not too far from Pañcavaṭī. Janasthāna was a holy place, but had been occupied by the Rākṣasas. Rāma was not aware of the proximity. He had already expressed his intention to meet the challenge to confront the Rākṣasas. Vālmīki does not say how the Rākṣasas got there, but says that thousands of them were inhabiting the area with orders from their King Rāvaṇa who lived in the island of Laṅkā several hundred miles away. The Rākṣasas in Janasthana were ruled by a Rākṣasa general, Khara, who was loyal to Rāvaṇa.
Rāma was delighted to reach Pañcavaṭī. He described the site to brother Lakṣmaṇa: “Look, the land is even. It is beautifully covered with flowering trees. Here is a lake with fragrant lotus flowers as large as the sun! The other lake there is filled with more lotuses. And there is the river Godāvarī. Its banks are laden with fully blossomed trees. You see swarms of swans, cranes and the cakravāka birds. Herds of deer are not too far. There are beautiful mountains covered with flowers and trees. The peacocks are joyously dancing in the mountain caves. Speckled with gold, silver and copper mineral stones, the mountains look like sober elephants seen through a latticed window!”
Ramayana is an encyclopedia to study botany. Pañcavaṭī boasts many kinds of tropical trees of fruits and flowering bushes. They made it extremely habitable. Rāma requested Lakṣmaṇa to build a cottage by choosing a location near water. Lakṣmaṇa dutifully constructed the cottage out of mud, bamboo, cords, reeds and grass. We also notice Lakṣmaṇa’s lonely lamentation in winter: “Thick fog leads to mid-day warmth that develops into a pleasant day. Nights are frosty, colder and longer. Winds from the west make the mornings cold. The farmlands look beautiful with herons and cranes. Water is cold in winter. Animals do not touch it though they stand nearby! The forest looks sleepy. The lotus buds are withered.” It could be a reflection of his own fatigue!
The current location of Pañcavaṭī near Nasik is in Maharastra state of India. It could fit the description that Vālmīki provides though some people think that the location could be more towards central India. However, to interpret Vālmīki’s description as pure historical facts might be incorrect. Vālmīki uses poetic imagination in his narration of events. He does create mythical characters to embellish the story. But the cottage in the current Pañcavaṭī location and the assumed walks of Sītā in those forest trails do give a sense of authenticity to Vālmīki’s description. One can surmise that the natural setting can stay pristine if protected from over use.
It is in Pañcavaṭī, the Rākṣasa damsel Sūrpaṇakhā showed up and solicited Rāma. Rāma diverted her to Lakṣmaṇa. Noticing that Sītā was an obstacle to her solicitation, Sūrpaṇakhā tried to hurt Sita. At this point Lakṣmaṇa intervened and cut off Sūrpaṇakhā’s nose and ears with his sword. Enraged, Sūrpaṇakhā called on the local Rākṣasa battalions to fight Rāma. They all perished being killed by Rāma’s arrows. The Rākṣasa general Khara himself was killed. Eventually the news reached Rāvaṇa. Sūrpaṇakhā described Sītā’s beauty to him entreating him to get the latter for his wife. Rāvaṇa’s evil instincts were kindled. He planned with another Rākṣasa called Mārīca to kidnap Sītā. This becomes the dramatic turn of the story.
The wooded Pañcavaṭī consisted of five large banyan trees with hundreds of their shoots reaching ground to create an impression of perfect illusion of light and shade. A man cloaked in deerskin as a deer can easily move around the maze to create a pure magical perception. Marica cloaked himself in a beautiful deer skin and ambled around near Rama’s cottage. Sītā was pleasantly amazed and begged Rama to get the “deer” for her. Lakṣmaṇa could sense the error but could not dissuade Rāma from going after the “deer”.
Rāma pursued the “deer”and after a long chase shot an arrow that injured the deer badly. It was then that he discovered that the deer was really Marica, the Rākṣasa. While dying hecalled out “Sītā” and “Lakṣmaṇa” in Rama’s voice. Sītā fell into the trap, and forced Lakṣmaṇa to go to rescue Rāma from danger. In those brief moments of Lakṣmaṇa’s absence Sita was kidnapped by Rāvaṇa, who had been hiding nearby. Rāvaṇa’s plot worked through the illusions of Pañcavaṭī.
While this part of the story could be historically reconstructed, Rāvaṇa’s journey in an aerial vehicle (Pushpaka Vimana) would appear as a mystery and fantasy. While the Vedas talk about aerial chariots for transporting gods in the sky, Vālmīki’s aerial vehicle is described as a physical object. It was propelled by animals, galloping over the tree line. It was low-flying, and the technology for such a vehicle is beyond the current discoveries in modern science. If it is fancy, Vālmīki should be credited as the first science fiction writer of repute in the ancient world.
The next part of the story in Pañcavaṭī is the fight between the vulture Jaṭāyu and the Rākṣasa king Rāvaṇa. The lightness of the vehicle is suggested since it broke down when attacked by the wings of the bird. Rāvaṇa finally succeeded in lopping off the wings of Jaṭāyu. He repaired the aerial vehicle and flew off through his powers of magic, a skill that some of the Rākṣasas had.
Pañcavaṭī gets a sense of animation when a distraught Rāma madly wandered asking every tree to reveal the whereabouts of Sītā. “My Sītā loved Kadamba flowers! O’ Kadamba, have you seen my Sītā?” “O’ Arjuna, my Sītā loved your flowers! Please tell if she is alive or not!” “O’ Aśoka! Can you reduce my pain? Where is my Sītā?” When the trees did not respond, he asked his question to the animals: “O’ Deer! Have you seen my fawn-eyed Sītā?” “O’ Elephant! Please tell me if you saw my Sītā”. Rāma is bewildered with the silence of the forest. He had assumed the life in the forest through Sītā’s presence!
Jaṭāyu had been lying around injured waiting to convey the news of Sītā’s abduction to Rāma. After communicating to Rama that Sītā was flown away by the Rākṣasa King Rāvaṇa, Jaṭāyu breathed his last. Lakṣmaṇa arranged a funeral pyre. Rāma cremated Jaṭāyu with the dignity that he would accord to his own father. Jaṭāyu’s ashes have made the forests of Pañcavaṭī a holy abode for the faith-seekers.
Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa proceeded further in search of Sītā.
Let Sai bless all.