In the peninsular part of the ancient land of ‘Bharatvarsha’, south of the Vindhya mountains, was located a territorial region known as Nashikya. Most of the land of Nashikya was covered with dense, impenetrable forests where even light did not reach, no vegetables grew and no flowers bloomed. This dense forest, akin to hell on earth was known as the Dandaka Van, the harsh forest!
A portion of the forest, however, was more verdant than the rest, and had trees that bore fruits and flowers. Situated on the banks of the holy river Godavari, this piece of the woods was known as ‘Panchavati’ after the five types of ‘vat’ or trees found in the area. Populated by birds and beasts, green plants and flowers of different varieties, this small area of the Dandaka forest stood out like an oasis in a desert, the only sign of life in an otherwise desolate and threatening region.
It was in this area of the forest that the two brothers had cleared a patch of the woods by cutting away the trees, and used them to build a modest forest dwelling with logs for pillars, a thatched roof and a mud floor. A huge rocky mountain stood at the rear end of the clearing and the river Godavari encircled it from two sides, leaving only one side for approach to the area. Thus protected by natural landmarks, it had seemed an ideal place for them to build their dwelling for the period of their stay in the forest.
After clearing away the trees and the shrubs, they had built a perimeter around the clearing by a wooden fence, and had planted shrubs and creepers inside the compound to make it look beautiful and habitable. At the far end of the compound, near the foot of the mountain, with the river encircling it on two sides, stood the hut where the three had dwelled on the advice of the great sage Agastya, after their banishment from the city Kingdom of Ayodhya, the impenetrable city.
It was in this clearing that he now stood, with his back to the hut and the mountain, facing the south. As the late afternoon sun started to slide down, the shadow of the hut grew longer till it just about touched his feet. He had stood erect, motionless, looking at the dark forest beyond. The sunlight glinted off his armor, and the chainmail he wore, shining like the sun itself, his skin dark against the metal. He was tall and dark, well built, and had several scars on his body; a testimony to the martial training in his past life. His hair was, however, matted and, like ascetics, he wore ‘valkal’ or garments made from the bark of trees and had smeared ash from the sacrificial altar on his forehead and arms.
Looking at him it was difficult to tell if he was an ascetic or a warrior. He wore a scabbard on his waist, holding the sword, and held a bow in his left hand. The other weapons like the shield, the spear, the discus, and several quivers of arrows were neatly arranged in a perimeter around him. He possessed two kind of bows, a small one for swift archery using short, light shafts and a huge one which needed to be stationed on the ground and could be used to launch bigger missiles, divine weapons, which he had earned from the various sages he had visited during the years of his residence in the forest. It was one such divine bow that he now held with his left hand, resting one end of the bow on the ground and gripping it with his great toe.
He stood still, his lotus eyes intent, his bow shaped eyebrows arched with anticipation, his back erect, his muscles taut and his face serene. His handsome face, crowned with the matted locks looked like a blue lotus that had blossomed in the middle of the forest. His eyes scanned the area around him, looking for signs of the impending attack that he knew would come soon enough. He had anticipated as much, after what had happened a couple of days back and, in the morning, when he saw the raakshasa scouts in the woods nearby, he had sent Sita, his wife, to a cave in the mountain which stood at the rear end of the compound, with Lakshman, his brother, to protect her. Having thus secured Sita and having instructed Lakshman not to leave her side at any cost, he had come out of the hut, arranged his weapons and stood out on the ground in the clearing, barefoot, and ready to face what came out of the woods.
Though he waited patiently, he really wanted to get this over quickly. It was common knowledge that the evil powers of the raakshasa hordes multiplied several fold at night. Also, they were experts at changing forms and the war of deception. This would be easy to detect and tackle in the daytime, but at night this would be a tough job. There were only a few hours of light left before it would be evening and this worried Raghunandan Sri Ram. He had been the prince of Ayodhya before palace intrigue banished him into exile, for a period of fourteen years. His dutiful wife Sita, born of the Earth, and loving brother, his alter ego, his inseparable companion, Lakshaman had followed him to the forest and borne the hardships like he did. Through no fault of theirs, the three were forced to live like ascetics, eating what the forest gave them and sleeping on the ground. They had roamed the forests south of Ayodhya and had kept going south till the great sage Agastya recommended Panchavati as a good place for staying for a few years. And it had indeed been beautiful, with its flowers and fruits and the adjacent river; the forest had provided whatever they needed and the three of them had lived happily till that fateful day when Shoorpanakha arrived at their dwelling….. (to be continued)