Ram had been worried ever since and had known that the attack would come some day. And so in the morning when he saw the scouts, he had started his preparations. Having entrusted Lakshman with Sita’s safety up in the mountain cave, he had positioned himself outside his hut, in the clearing, to face the raakshasa hordes. He stood there now, chanting the invocations to the Gods and the divine weapons that he carried, scanning the area around him.
The forest suddenly fell silent, the chirping of the birds, the growl of the lions, the trumpet of the elephants all ceased, as if anticipating what was coming. A palpable fear seemed to have gripped the inhabitants of the forest in Panchavati. Only the gurgling of the nearby river could be heard, the rush of its clear, cold water loud in the near total silence. The wind ceased to blow, Vayu, the wind God pausing to wonder at the events about to unfold. The celestials crowded the heavens, waiting with bated breath to see the first, real battle of Sri Ram, an incarnation of Sridhar Vishnu, the Padmanabha, the almighty God of all creation. This and many other battles had been foretold since long ago, the Devas and the Rishis had all pinned their hopes on these predictions coming true. Now they waited, and they watched, numb with anticipation.
‘He’s standing on the ground’, said one. ‘He’s barefoot’, exclaimed another. ‘He’s not prepared for battle’, they murmured amongst themselves as they worried about the preparedness of Sri Ram to face the raakshasa multitude. They knew he was disadvantaged in not having a mount or a chariot and not even having proper footwear to make his stand against these savages. He had no one to help him arrange or fetch his weapons during battle, or to bandage his wounds when he got injured or get him water to drink. A single man, standing bare feet on the ground would not stand a chance against the raakshasa armies. But while the celestials worried, they also knew of the martial prowess of this young man who stood facing the forest. They had seen and heard others tell stories of his valour in rishi Vishwamitra’s hermitage when he was just a boy. He had grown since then, and had become abler in body and training, and was also well armed with all the divine weapons bestowed on him by all the ascetics he had visited during his stay in the forest. Yet, they waited, with bated breath to see this battle.
From atop the mountain Lakshaman could see dark clouds gathering from the southeast direction, an occasional flash of lightening splitting the sky, the rumble of thunder full of foreboding. Suddenly there was movement in the underbrush, the branches of the tall trees started to shake, bend and break. Lakshaman yelled out a warning to Ram, ‘They are approaching brother’. ‘I am ready’, said Ram and ground his heel in the earth and gripped the end of the large bow of Vishnu, gifted to him by the great sage Agastya, with his toes. He kept all the divine missiles ready at hand and twanged the string of the bow loudly. There was an ear shattering sound that echoed across the valley, warning his foes and scaring the birds and beasts of the forest, which fled away from the scene. The raakshasa battalion nearing the hut stopped dead in their tracks, suddenly afraid, their hearts beating – maybe they had misjudged this lowly ascetic! Khara and Dushana yelled encouragement to their soldiers and goaded Trishira, the commander of the troops, to egg the army on. The soldiers resumed their march towards the clearing where Sri Ram stood, bow in hand, ready to battle the fourteen thousand strong contingent of the most fearsome raakshasas in Panchavati.
Soon enough, as Lakshamana had warned, the troops reached the edge of the clearing and could be seen now from where Sri Ram stood, wading across the woods, pouring into the edge of the clearing, even as blood soaks the cloth that is tied to a wound. Like the gentle waves of a lake slowly seep into the sands of the shores, the raakshasa army came into view. Led by Khara, Dushana, and Trishira, their commander, the raakshasa army looked resplendent with their signage and battle gear, their conches and shells, mounted upon chariot and mule and carrying all sorts of weapons conceivable. Shoorpanakha rode on a mule on one side of the contingent and pointed towards Ram, as they cleared the woods and were finally in view of the hut. Her hair askew and a cloth bandaged around her nose, she looked nothing like her usual beautiful self. Her eyes red with anger and rage, her dress in shambles, her limbs flailing as she gestured towards the hut, she looked possessed. The raakshasa army slowly inched towards the perimeter of the clearing and stood in an arc outside the fencing, waiting…….(to be continued)