Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XII: The City of Ayodhyā
February 18, 2016
Early in the text of the book, Vālmīki presents to us his search of that “perfect” man about whom he had been contemplating. He is told by the Sage Nārada about Rāma and is given an outline of the Rāmāyaṇa story. After the dramatic presentation of the story Nārada says that Rāma returns to “Ayodhyā” to rule. This is where Ayodhyā enters the outline story. While there have been various discussions in the literature about the historicity or the mythology of the Rāmāyaṇa, the city of Ayodhyā remains as a historic landmark. The description of city by Vālmīki gives us the picture of an advanced urban society with the city’s layout, people, roads, business and security.
India is known for the early well-planned urban settlements. From the text, we can deduce that various settlements existed in various parts of the country, each being governed through a dynastic rule. The eldest son of the King was nominated to be the future king. Each king maintained a small Army, the members of the Army stayed loyal to the royal family. The King made sure that there was fairness and proper application of justice to the residents. It was the King’s duty to create an environment of happiness and prosperity among his people. The King must conduct himself in his dharma in performing his duties as the ruler. The failure of the King was the decay of the kingdom. A settlement was considered as a City-State and was ruled as a kingdom.
King Daśaratha inherited the kingdom from his father, Aja. They belonged to a clan called Ikṣvāku which apparently had a long royal tradition. It is not clear if the clan had always stayed in Ayodhyā or if they migrated to the area from somewhere else. From the genealogy and the stories, it would appear as though it was a historical family dynasty, which had a celebratory past. It would also appear that the city was built over time and was fortified with moats and walls for security. The city as described by Vālmīki was well laid out, well populated, prosperous and cultural. The city appears as a self-contained unit with various undeveloped farm lands and villages surrounding it. From Vālmīki’s description, we can infer that the surrounding villages depended on the city for business and security.
From Vālmīki’s poetic description, the city of Ayodhyā would appear real. It is not clear if he lived when the city in the form existed or if he had been to a well spread out city worthy of literary description. Ayodhyā of Valmiki was eight yojana long (ninety six miles) and three yojana wide (twenty four miles), laid out on table land. It had a number of well-proportioned thoroughfares with a major central “royal road” rājamārga. There was the practice of sprinkling water on the road to tamp down the dust from the carts and traffic. The road was wide enough for chariots, cavalry and soldiers to march. The roads were strewn with flower petals on the occasions of special events.
The entire city was surrounded by a deep moat and was enclosed by a defensive wall. The city was insulated in all directions. The roadway had gates and arches. It had stores on both sides. The city was equipped with weapons and was populated with various tradesmen who serviced the weaponry. There were tall buildings with flags that hosted missile batteries. Wrestlers and musclemen were visible and were maintained as a force. There were skilled charioteers living in nice houses. The soldiers had the skill of fighting duel with wild animals. They could kill with weapons or even using blows of their bare arms. The host of domesticated animals included horses, elephants, cows, camels and donkeys. Royals from many other kingdoms would be seen in the city for business and trade. Fine stores laden with goods and groceries decorated the thoroughfare. The city had plentiful supply of rice and the water was sweet.
Ayodhya had multi-storey houses with balconies and windows. The large houses were decorated with gems. Well-attired good-looking ladies lived in them. The city had panegyrists, bards and singers. Troops of female dancers would be seen performing in the gardens and the mango groves in the city. There were various religious places where people would come to offer their worship services and sacrifices. The king invited and provided residence to the scholars and philosophers of the highest quality. There would be vedic recitations and scholarly discussions at various street corners. “The colors and the activities in the city looked like the squares on a chess board.”
By virtue of his noble conduct and dutifulness, King Daśaratha had assumed the title of Rājarṣi. In order to create good drama, Vālmīki paints the dwellers in the city as the best among the human beings. They were truthful, religious, knowledgeable and happy. Everyone had a family and each had wealth. There was food in plenty and there were domesticated animals to care. Nobody was known to be cruel, miserly, illiterate or anti-religious. People were virtuous and disciplined in life. Each was well dressed and well adored with ear-rings, bangles and flower garlands. Nobody was petty or immoral, and none was of illicit birth or character. They were handsome, hospitable, generous, heroic and powerful. They were well-read in the scriptures and loyal to the king. All lived long life. People of different aptitudes pursued their interest to the fullest to make each life contented and joyful.
The King was known to enjoy life. He would go to the neighboring forests in hunting trips. He imported horses and elephants from around the country. He would help breed new species. People would spend nights in the public gardens engaged in romance and merrymaking. There would be massive royal festivities where everyone would join at the royal courts in celebrations. There were pomp and pageantry. The city would light up in flowers and decorations on special events like Rāma getting to city after getting married. The royal events were open to the public and people had a say in the royal conduct. People did express their unhappiness when they came to know of Rāma’s exile. They expressed their anguish against the King. Public expression of discontent could permeate as noise in the city. The women had a say in the city life. They would wait eagerly for Rāma’s return and would not take interest in household work for days!
The text does give impression of pockets of urbanization, with the surrounding areas occupied by people pursuing a different social life. We meet the Chieftain Guha when Sumantra and the party reach the banks of the Ganges. The Chieftain and his people appreciated to live in a more natural setting than the city setting. The Chieftain, though independent, appears to be loyal to the King and expresses his affection to Rāma. He assists Rāma in ferrying his party across the river. He does send “spies” to check on the events at the other side of the river in order to get news of the progress of the party. Rāma also talks about “spies” while teaching Bharata the art of statecraft. It would appear that the people in the city did their part towards the maintenance of security and prosperity.
Vālmīki’s description of Daśaratha’s palaces contains some exquisite design and architecture. There would be multiple layers of fortified doors manned by able guards at each entrance. The palace had the King’s room, the court and the queens’ residence. The queen’s area was guarded by women guards. The King’s room was well furnished with finest silk and excellent furniture. Kaikeyī’s palace was more stylish. She had a whole garden with fountains and statues inside the palace. It is not clear if Vālmīki heard these stories or if he reports the observations in the society of his time.
From the city planning, buildings, architecture and design, one can infer that a fair amount of civil engineering was known at the time. Under Bharata’s direction, the engineers succeeded in constructing new roads in the forest in just two weeks’ time. It could also be possible because of the able administration of the King that has streamlined the construction with the wisdom of his learned Ministers. The Ministers also employed herbal specialists, who succeeded in preserving the body of the King in oil until Bharata returned after a week. Vālmīki provides us with various glimpses of engineering in different parts of the development of the story. The vividness of the description makes the Rāmāyaṇa appear more as history than as a product of poetic imagination.
Let Sai bless all.