Can we map the Ramayana? Srinath Perur asks.
How would the earliest author of the Ramayana, Valmiki, have fared on a geography test? There’s no telling for sure after all these years, but we might try and deduce the answer from a fascinating section of his Ramayana where the monkey king Sugriva, directs search parties to set out in all four directions from Kishkindha to look for the abducted Sita.
The monkeys going east are to look around the rivers Bhagirathi, Sarayu, Yamuna, Saraswati, Sindhu and Sona. They will pass through the kingdoms of Kosala, Kashi and Magadha among others and proceed to lands where people’s ears hang below their lips, to islands whose people eat raw fish, to Yavadvipa (thought to be Java), and beyond across oceans of milk and blood-red waters, lakes with celestial beings and mountains of pure gold. To the south lie the rivers Narmada, Godavari, Krishnaveni, Kaveri, the kingdoms of Vidarbha, Banga, Kalinga, Utkala, Andhra, Chola, Kerala and Pandya. Across the ocean is Ravana’s island. Beyond are mountains of gold, silver and jewels, a city of snakes and finally the capital city of Yama, “shrouded in impenetrable darkness” .To the west are the regions of Surashtra, Suva and Bhima, the western ocean filled with fish, then groves of coconut and date palm followed by more mythical beasts and lands. To the north are the regions inhabited by the Pulindas, Kurus, Kambhojas (Indo-Iranians), Yavanas (Greeks), and the Himalayas and China. Beyond are more fantastical lands and water bodies inhabited by celestial beings and beasts. After even the imagination has been exhausted, Valmiki strikes up a refrain about the end of the world in each direction: beyond “there is no sun, and nothing familiar.”
Two and a half thousand years later, we who are able to twirl a globe with the flick of a wrist and zoom in with a mouse-click, would note that Valmiki’s knowledge of geography tapers off quite rapidly as we move beyond the Indian sub-continent. Even within the Indian peninsula, Valmiki’s knowledge of geographical detail grows noticeably sparse as the action moves south of the river Ganga. The parts of the Ramayana set in the north are full of details about river crossings and the time taken to go from one place to another, but the south is altogether a more mysterious place with sudden shifts of location.
Of course, Valmiki was writing at a time when most people lived and died confined to their corner of the world. Knowledge of the world beyond one’s territory and its immediate neighbours had to be pieced together from an amorphous mass of legend, scripture, and the (no doubt, tall) tales of traders, travellers and soldiers. The idea of travel must have had associated with it, a degree of dread, adventure and promise that is hard to imagine today, something given concrete form in the monsters and jewelled mountains that lie beyond the lands known to Valmiki. In such an age, it cannot have failed to enchant people that the Ramayana tells a story of prodigious travel through the length of India, from Nepal and the Himalayas in the north to Sri Lanka in the south.
Ramayana literally means Rama’s Travels. Valmiki’s Rama sets out at the age of sixteen with his younger brother Lakshmana and the sage Vishwamitra. They leave Ayodhya, cross the Sarayu river, kill a few demons, cross the Sona and Ganga rivers and proceed north to Mithila where the king Janaka is looking for a valorous son-in-law. There, Rama breaks Shiva’s bow in a test of strength and wins Sita’s hand. A year later, Rama is about to be crowned king of Ayodhya when palace intrigue sends him to fourteen years of exile instead. He sets off with Lakshmana and Sita. They cross the frontiers of their kingdom Kosala, and the rivers Vedashruti, Gomati and Syandika. They walk along the Ganga towards Prayaga, where the Ganga and Yamuna meet, cross the Yamuna and reach the Chitrakoot mountain with the river Mandakini flowing on its northern side. After living there for a while, they move to Panchavati in the Dandaka forest, close to the Godavari river. Sita is abducted here by Ravana and taken to Lanka. Rama and Lakshmana, “wandering near the Godavari region”, are directed to go west to Kishkindha and seek the help of the monkey king Sugriva to find Sita. Hanuman, a member of the search party that goes south, returns and tells Rama that Sita is in Ravana’s city Lanka, which is on “the southern side of the southern ocean.” Rama marches south with an army of monkeys who build a bridge across the sea to take them to Lanka. Rama kills Ravana in battle after which it is revealed to him that he is the god Vishnu come down to earth in human form for the sole purpose of slaying Ravana. Pressed for time like the modern traveller, Rama flies back to Ayodhya with Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman in the vanquished Ravana’s aircraft.
Many reasons can be put forth for the Ramayana’s sustained popularity. One would be that it is a compelling human drama of loss and separation that people can relate to universally. Another might be that it presents a heroic role-model who upholds a certain set of values even in adversity. These values and the story are bound in a powerful and familiar spiritual framework: Rama’s journey is also a metaphysical one that culminates in a man’s discovery of his own divinity. But almost certainly, an aspect of the Ramayana crucial for it being a rich living tradition today, is its geographical extent. This allowed people across the length of India to relate to the Ramayana, making it perhaps the earliest cultural feature that can be called pan-Indian. Over time, different regions evolved their own versions of the Rama story in keeping with their needs and sensibilities. These versions combined and recombined and were even carried to other lands such as Southeast Asia, where the Ramayana took on a life of its own. The Ramayana became an important part of cultural life across India by being incorporated into local forms of song, drama, sculpture, painting and dance. These art forms in turn imparted their texture to the Ramayana.