Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XIV: The Citrakūṭa Mountains – Rāma’s First Abode in Exile
June 16, 2016
As we have observed earlier, Vālmīki excels in describing the beauty of nature. It would appear as though the poet would like Rāma to roam in the forest such that he can glorify the natural beauty at length. The poet is an expert in pointing the names of the plants, flowers, animals and birds. He goes into a celebratory mode when he engages the reader with metaphors in order to create imagination. We saw the story of Gaṅgā in the last article. We proceed to the mountains of Citrakūṭa in this article.
During his exile, Citrakūṭa is the first location where Rāma decided to build his cottage. It was a secluded mountain retreat on the southern banks of the Yamunā River. Vālmīki estimates it at about twenty miles from Prayāga, the confluence of the Yamunā and the Gaṅgā. Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā were guided to the area by the Sage Bharadvāja. The party stayed at Prayāga overnight as a guest to the Sage. Upon instructed on the path to take, they proceeded the following morning. While on road, they took another night’s rest and kept walking the next day to reach their destination. In Citrakūṭa area, they met the Sage Vālmīki. The Sage greeted them and helped in their lodging. It is possible that the Sage Vālmīki of Citrakūṭa is the same as the poet himself.
Even though Rāma had agreed to go in exile to the forest in order to protect his father’s word, he had not fully thought through the conditions that the forest living might entail. He was also sensitive to the feelings of Sītā, who had spontaneously jumped to accompany him without fully analyzing what the forest conditions might offer. As they entered the forest, Rāma started narrating the grandeur of the colors and ambience, which sounded like a rationalized consolation: “Vaidehī! Look at all these flowering trees radiating with spring blossoms. The kiṁśuka tree is laden with strings of flowers! See here, the nut and bilva trees are loaded with blooming fruits. There is enough food here for us to live through.” He communicated the bounty of the forest to Lakṣmaṇa: “Look, there are large honeycombs dropping down from every tree. They are laden with fresh honey made by the bees. And on the other side you see the beautiful scatter of flowers. I hear birds chattering and peacocks crowing! Inhabited by herds of elephants and surrounded by flocks of birds, we would have excellent time roaming the valleys in this lovely and auspicious forest!” (Ayodhyākāṇḍa Ch 94)
As time passed, Rāma settled down to the environment of the mountains. In a beautiful episode of narrative poetry, Vālmīki creates a romantic exuberance for Rāma in an outing with Sītā. Through the description, we come to know that the area was rich in minerals; the colors of the rocks shone brightly in daylight. It had a rich depository of animals including leopards, tigers and bears. Though wild, the animals were friendly; they did not attack the humans. Birds congregated from everywhere to feed on the fruits on the trees. There were colorful flowers all around. The splendor of nature exhibited the area as a paradise on earth!
The area was inhabited by people whom the poet classifies as Kinnara and Vidyādhara. Kinnaras were known for their swords and the Vidyādhara for their craft. Apparently such people did not care much for their privacy and sported romantic feelings publicly. In Rāma’s words, the sights and the scenes were “agreeable to mind, speech and the body.” With a solicitous touch, Rāma whispered to Sītā: “Vaidehī! do you feel happy to be with me?”
The important attraction for Rāma in Citrakūṭa was the Mandākinī River, the mountain stream of crystal-clear water flowing leisurely. It reminded him of the Sarayū River in Ayodhyā. The river supported cranes and swans, and furnished water to the herds of deer and animals. The most interesting sight was its sandy banks populated with fruit trees and flowers. Amidst the heavenly grandeur, there were ascetics with matted locks. Clad in deerskin they would take their ablution in the river. Rāma was overwhelmed with the sight when they prayed standing in water with hands stretched up with an ovation to the Sun. He exclaimed - “there is no one who would not be relieved of his/her fatigue by taking a dip in the River Mandākinī!”( Ayodhyākāṇḍa Ch 95)
Bharata met Rāma in the cottage at Citrakūṭa Mountain. The story and the conversation are a salutation to the love between the two brothers. It declared the steadfastness of both sons in upholding dutifulness and righteousness. Rāma learned about his father’s death from Bharata and proceeded to perform the ritualistic oblations at the banks of the Mandākinī River. Bharata’s sincere appeal to Rāma to return to Ayodhyā was expressed on the banks of the River. Upon Rāma’s insistence on not returning back, Bharata had to be satisfied to carry the wooden sandals to indicate Rāma’s presence. In a brilliant move, Bharata delegates the sovereignty of the land to Rāma through those sandals on the banks of the River Mandākinī. “O my Heroic Brother! I would like to live on fruits and roots for fourteen years!” said Bharata. (Ayodhyākāṇḍa Ch 112).
As the Rākṣasa clan in the south became powerful, the Citrakūṭa area came under the spell of Khara, the wicked general of Rāvaṇa. The technique applied by the Rākṣasa(s) was to cause terror and stress in the life of the ascetics in the the area. The Rākṣasa(s) were against the occupation of land by the meditating ascetics, who disavowed violence. Gradually the ascetics had to pack up and leave for the safer abodes away in order to escape Khara’s intimidation. Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā also left and went southward to the Daṇḍaka forest. The party lived two years in Citrakūṭa and then ten years in Daṇḍaka before finally creating an abode in Pañcavaṭī, where Rāvaṇa abducted Sītā.
Vālmīki is methodical about the locations, the directions and the distances to help create a story which transforms as a historical legend through its details. With Ayodhyā as a reference point, the story weaves westward and southward. For long distances to be traveled on horses, the distance is estimated with the duration of the journey. For shorter distances, he uses the measures of krośa or yojana. We believe that a yojana is about eight miles and a krośa is one quarter of a yojana. Citrakūṭa happens to be at a distance of ten krośa southwest from Prayāga, which roughly fits with the area currently known as Citrakūṭa in Uttar Pradesh, India.
The location where the Sage Viśvāmitra performed his austerities was on the other side of the Yamunā River. Apparently the Yamunā valley was revered by the scholars as a destination for establishing hermitage for a tranquil lifestyle. It is possible that the Gangetic valley was already densely populated with villages, farms and urbanized development. We read through the text that the southern part of India was populated by Vānara(s) who can be conceived as ape-like creatures. Rākṣasa(s) were most likely the intruders and were cruel. Rākṣasa(s) and the Vānara(s) were in conflict in sharing the forest resources and the food products. Citrakūṭa Mountains acted as the northern periphery of the southern forests marking the boundary of the Rākṣasa influence.
Let Sai bless all.