Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XXXVI: Rescuing Sita, Battle at Lanka – Part I
January 10, 2021
The exceptionalism of Vālmīki’s story centers on Rāma’s determination to rescue Sītā from the island of Laṅkā. He has deep affection for his wife and a loyal brother who is ready to help him. Plus, his new friendship with Sugrīva gives him the companion who is expressly committed to this mission, even though the tasks for the accomplishing the mission are not yet fully defined. All Rāma knows is that Sītā is alive and she is in Laṅkā, as a prisoner of Rāvaṇa. Laṅkā is fortified, and Sītā is severely guarded by some ill-natured demon-like creatures, the rākṣasī s.
To know more about the fortification at Laṅkā and the passageways for entry, Rāma boasts: “I can cross the ocean by building a bridge; I can dry it up by applying the power in my arrows! But what about the difficulty of getting through the fortification? How are the gates guarded, and how strong are the buildings?” Rāma requests Hanūmān to narrate in detail what he had observed during his adventure in Laṅkā.
“Laṅkā is beautiful and elegant! You see a grandiose display of war elephants and chariots. Massively well-built super-man-like rākṣasas populate the island. Four gates with mighty solid metal bars form the passageway to the city. These gates are mechanized, hurl stone missiles to keep intruders from entering, and are loaded with hundreds of clubs that can be used by the guards. A tall gem-studded golden wall surrounds the city; it. is contoured by a wide and deep cold-water moat that is filled with alligators and deadly creatures! Thus, entering Laṅkā is a formidable challenge!”
“Four mechanically operated drawbridges lead to the gates, and massive buildings alongside the drawbridges house the guards and their equipment. The main entrance bridge is most impressive: it is fortified with golden pillars that sit on firmly-built pedestals. The self-possessed Rāvaṇa is ever-eager to demolish his enemies, and himself oversees his forces and their equipment around-the-clock. The island is located in the middle of the ocean, and has natural protection due to the dense forests and deep rivers that surround it. In addition, the city palace is built on a hilly terrain, on a mountain top!”
“The eastern gate is guarded by an invincible brigade of rākṣasas carrying darts and swords. At the southern gate, a full garrison is positioned that comprises four types of forces: cavalry, elephant-riders, chariot-riders and foot-soldiers. The western gate is guarded by ten thousand rākṣasas who are well-trained in the use of swords and missiles. And the most heavily fortified northern gate is guarded by a full battalion of highly skilled warriors on horses and chariots. Finally, in the center of the city is in the command of a hundred thousand soldiers, all unbeatable in their military skills!”
Hanūmān congratulated himself on his accomplishment of having broken into Laṅkā. “Despite the fortifications, however, I was able to break into that city through the drawbridge and the gate! I destroyed innumerable rākṣasas as I went along, and eventually managed to burn parts of the city. It is doable, if we can cross the ocean! The city of Laṅkā can be tackled by Aṅgada, Dvivida, Mainda, Jāmbavān, Panasa, Nala and Nīla – together they can demolish the forests and destroy the mountains. They will scale walls, overcome the guards, and bring back Sītā. Please give them the command to get ready for the task. You may not even need the entire flock!”
Rāma was supremely confident about his skills in archery. “I can visualize the defensive arrangement in Laṅkā, and I promise you that I will be able to kill Rāvaṇa in combat. O’ Sugrīva! this moment is just right, with the ascent of the constellation of Uttarāphālgunī. Tomorrow will be the conjunction with Hastā constellation. I can feel the omens of success in my limbs, and my eye-lids are twitching, which signals success! The sun is up and bright; it is noontime, the auspicious moment to commence our expedition!”
Rāma continued: “Let Nīla lead an advance party, accompanied by a hundred thousand vānaras. Let them navigate though, and check out the route.” He ordered Nila: “O’ Nīla! Please map out a route where we can find fruits, roots, honey and water. Please check these carefully, though - the rākṣasas may poison the fruits in anticipation of our march. Be ever vigilant. Look all around, including in ravines and dense vegetation, to check where the enemy could be hiding. This task is not for weaklings: take only those who are well-built, have a lot of stamina, and who can sustain hardship!”
“We will march like an ocean tide approaching the coast! Myriads of stout monkey-vānaras will make up our battle formation. Let the mountain-like flocks of Gaja, the mighty-looking flocks of Gavaya, and the herd-like flocks of Gavākṣa lead the march. Let Rṣava, the monkey chief, defend the right flank of the Army, and have the invincible Gandhamādana defend the left flank. I will be in the middle, on the shoulders of Hanūmān, and Lakṣmaṇa will be carried on the shoulders Aṅgada. The mighty Jāmbavān, Suṣeṇa and Vegadarśī will oversee the rear side!”
Sugrīva issued the order for the vānaras to assemble. Myriads of them flocked out of the caves and came down from the mountain tops. They came from the trees and they came from the river banks. All were happy with Sugrīva and were ready to follow his command. Rāma thus proceeded south with Sugrīva and Lakṣmaṇa, surrounded by millions of massive and mighty vānaras. The vānaras were playful and joyful, jumping, playing, kicking and feasting on fruits and honey from the trees, shouting the battle cry: “Rāvaṇa and all the night-prowlers must be killed!” They had taken on a mission! They also wanted protection from their arch enemy the rākṣasas!
Nīla, Rṣava and Kumuda cleared the way, as the troop moved forward. Sugrīva, Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa marched in the middle. The mighty S’atabali and his flock served as the principal defenders. Their left side was protected by Keśarī and Panasa and the right by Gaja and Arka. Suṣeṇa and Jāmbavān protected the rear. Nīla disciplined his troops to stay on the forest path and kept them from being distracted and wandering off into the populated villages on the way. Darīmukha, Prajaṅgha, Jambha and Rṣava assumed the role of cheerleading as they marched forward. Thus, an ocean tide led by Rāma progressed to the south!
Vālmīki’s Lakṣmaṇa is a loyal brother. Unlike Rāma, he is pragmatic and practical. Rāma’s romanticism with the vānaras seemed confusing to him, in the context of achieving the goal of the mission. But with this latest development, he was jubilant and wanted to endorse the march. In the evening, he said: “I see good omens both on earth and in the heavens, and they point to the success of our efforts. We are being carried by a gentle and pleasant breeze that is blowing in our direction! Animals and birds are making sweet amicable sounds, all of which indicate stability and happiness!”
“The planet Venus is up in the sky and the pole star, with its seven accompanying holy stars, is blessing your march. We see the bright star Triśaṅku, and the Ikṣvāku icon in the southern sky, along with the star Vaśiṣṭha. The Viśākhā constellation, a foremost omen for our clan, is shining unblemished, without any interference. And the Mūla constellation of the rākṣasa’s, along with the star Nirṛti, is clouded by a comet! Trees are laden with fruits and the water in the lakes is sweet and clean. The monkey troops are mirthful and are radiating joy. These signs are similar to those seen when the gods fought with the demon Tārakā in the ancient days! O’ Lord! You should be pleased with this development!”
The monkeys marched forward. They cheerfully crossed mountains and rivers, their massive numbers stirring up a lot of dust that covered the whole sky. They looked like a line of clouds moving in a southerly direction. Then they did monkey-acts: “hoo hoo hoo.. we are coming.. watch out.. you can’t catch us! hoo hoo hoo!” Some stretched and lashed their tails in joy; the bigger ones showed up with rocks in hand, ready for combat! The serious ones removed creepers and uprooted trees to make path!
They monkeys marched by day and night. Sugrīva was in their midst! He was returning a favor to his friend Rāma!
Let Sai bless all!