At the head of the raakshasa forces were Khara and Dushana, the leaders of the horde, in their mule drawn chariots. To their left, mounted on a mule and bearing the insignia of the raakshasas was Trishira, the commander of the forces. To the right of Khara and Dushana was Shoorpanakha, mounted, again, on a mule. The rest of the battalion was split evenly in three groups and arrayed at equal distances behind these four, with the riders on mules in front and the foot soldiers at the back. Most of the raakshasa soldiers wore armors, but some didn’t. They carried a variety of weapons, ranging from swords to maces to spears; some just carried logs of wood or boulders. The soldiers were dressed in a variety of dresses – some wore battle gear, some wore deerskin, some were just wrapped in a piece of loincloth, their bellies bulging! Some were able bodied and tall, some were short and thin, some pot bellied and some were emaciated. As Sri Ram surveyed the army, he could tell the group was a rag-tag coalition of raakshasas put together to scare away commoners. Less than half must be regular soldiers with any kind of martial training, rest were either mercenaries or just farm hands, hired to scare the ascetics away by their ugly forms and their large bellies. Khara, Dushana and Trishira, on the other hand, looked like trained and accomplished soldiers and, judging by their stance, had seen several battles in their lives.
As was customary, the adversaries first introduced themselves. Sri Ram spoke first, ‘I am Ram, elder son of King Dashratha of Ayodhya, descendant of the great Raghu, scion of the Ikshavaku line of Kings. I am living in the forests following the order of my father Dashratha and my stepmother Kaikeyi. My brother, Lakshman, the undefeated archer, and my wife, Sita, daughter of the great King Janaka of Videha are also here with me. We live in the forests in harmony with nature and have not done anything to offend anyone. You, who stand in formation, introduce yourself and declare your purpose’. Khara and Dushana eyed this ascetic with some wonder, adorned with weapons, looking like the great Parashuram himself, and looked at each other in surprise. They had come for battle expecting some truant Kshatriya, a member of the martial race, and had instead found the crown prince of Ayodhya,banished from his kingdom, standing before them. In spite of themselves, they were impressed by the way he stood and held his magnificent weapons with ease. His confidence and fearlessness came as a surprise to them. Till date, in these impenetrable forests, they had fought and overpowered only ascetics or vagabonds who roamed the jungles, and had not expected to find a real warrior here in the Dandaka Van. A shadow of doubt crept into their minds and touched their hearts with its icy-cold fingers. Things were not so simple, they thought.
Khara spoke, addressing Ram, ‘ I am Khara, leader of the raakshasa legions of Dandaka Van, cousin brother of Ravana, the mighty king of all raakshasas, the ruler of Lanka, the golden city, son of Vishrava, the great sage and maternal grandson of the great raakshasa warrior, the learned Sumalyavan. I, along with my brother Dushana,and sister Shoorpanakha, reside in Janasthan and rule over all Dandaka Van. No one dares enter the premises of the forest without my permission. Even the great sages and all the celestial beings are afraid of the might of the raakshasas and bow in obeisance to me. You have not only entered my territory without permission but have also attacked my beautiful sister Shoorpanakha, for which you deserve death. I have come here to punish you by killing you and your brother and abducting your wife Sita as war bounty.’
Ram replied, anger welling up inside him at the mention of Sita, ‘ Your sister Shoorpanakha attacked Sita and was punished as per the rules which we adhere to. We have spared her life but if you continue on this path, yours shall not be spared. I have heard about you people; you torment the peace loving ascetics who live in the forest and worship the deities or perform austerities. Know this that I have sworn to protect the rishis and shall punish you forthright for all your sins. The sands of this holy land of Panchavati shall run red with your blood, the Gods and all the celestials bear witness that I have warned you. Beware!’
Saying so Ram picked up the Aagneyastra, the missile of the fire God and, murmuring the invocation, stringed it on his great bow, pulled the string and stood ready. His face red with rage, Khara ordered Trishira to get the soldiers ready and order them to attack. A great cry arose among the men as, shrieking with anger, the column of soldiers standing to the right, fearsome in attire, started preparations to attack Ram. Shoorpanakha, Khara and Dushan moved aside to let the men pass, and took their positions in front of the remaining two columns. Their weapons at the ready, their eyes staring, their attire fearsome, the men yelled war cries and jested about who will kill Ram first and drink his blood. Trishira, the one with three heads, the commander of the armies, yelled the order to advance. As the troops started to move menacingly towards the clearing, Ram calmly pulled the string of the divine bow back, right up to his ear, and released the missile. It rushed towards the approaching group of soldiers with a great sound, releasing sparks of fire, and fell right in their middle. There was a huge explosion, the sound from the weapon split the sky, the fire searing everything in its vicinity, scorching the forest and reducing several hundred soldiers to ashes instantly. The impact of the weapon uprooted trees and sent them flying in the air. Soldiers, severed limbs and heads, and debris from weapons and chariots and remains of their mounts, shot across the sky and fell at a great distance. Thousands of soldiers were martyred in an instant and hundreds more lay dying from their wounds. A great cloud of smoke arose from the site of impact and ascended into the sky, revealing a huge crater in the earth where the battalion of soldiers had stood. The remaining few soldiers broke formation and ran for their lives. Trishira’s chariot, bearing the royal insignia and flying his colors, was damaged, his mules dead, his charioteer impaled with shards of flying debris. Khara and Dushana were stunned and stared all around in shock. Trishira rose shakily from the ground and, gathering his weapons, mounted a mule. The remaining two columns were already breaking formation; they had never witnessed anything like this before. They started shifting their positions, fear writ large on their faces now!……(to be continued)