The Ramayana is now part of the Indian consciousness: any inordinate fuss is wearily termed a Ramayana; people are warned not to cross Lakshman Rekhas; an interim Chief Minister might be referred to as a Bharata. The figures of Rama, Lakshmana, Sita and Hanuman are revered in temples and homes, there are festivals celebrated around events of the Ramayana. Several towns and cities have derived their names and identities from the belief that episodes from the Ramayana occurred there, with individual spots being marked out with the specificity of a story-board.
If the present town of Ayodhya lays troubled claim to being Rama’s birthplace, the city of Janakpur in Nepal, just beyond the Indian border, purports to be Janaka’s Mithila, the childhood home of Sita. Janakpur has temples for Sita and Rama, and one commemorating the spot where they were married. A clearing known as the Rangbhoomi is where Rama broke Shiva’s bow and lakes several kilometres apart mark where the pieces fell.
Rama’s exile and his subsequent wandering in search of Sita make it possible for plenty of places to claim a connection to the Ramayana. One of the more exalted places on the Ramayana trail is Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, thought to be the place where Rama, Sita and Lakshmana spent the initial part of their exile. The Kamadgiri hill, where they are supposed to have lived, is today surrounded by temples. One temple marks the spot where Bharata met Rama to convince him to return to Ayodhya. Some distance away, a stone bears the footprints of Rama and Sita. Janaki Kund is the place where Sita used to bathe in the waters of the Mandakini, and the Hanuman Dhara spring is believed to have been created by Rama to douse Hanuman after he burned Lanka.
The exiles are supposed to have moved from Chitrakoot to Panchavati in the Dandaka forest. Today Panchavati is identified as a place in Nasik, Maharashtra, on the banks of the river Godavari. It is a pilgrimage spot today that has several Rama temples, what is supposed to be the only Lakshmana temple in the world, and a cave called Sita Gupha where Rama, Lakshmana and Sita are believed to have prayed to Shiva. Nearby is also what is supposed to be the Lakshman Rekha, the spot where Ravana abducted Sita. The place Panchavati gets its name from there having been five Banyan trees when Rama arrived here, and there are five living trees here that are still venerated. Even the town Nasik derives its name from being the place where Shurpanakha’s nose fell when lopped off by Lakshmana.
The Kishkindha of the monkeys is popularly identified with the region of Hampi in Karnataka. Found here with associated temples, are the Anjaneya hill where Hanuman was born, the place where Hanuman met Rama and Lakshmana for the first time, Sugriva’s cave, marks on the rock supposed to have been made by Sita’s garment as Ravana flew away with her, and the hill where Rama and Lakshmana waited for the monsoon to abate (with a cleft in the rock caused by Lakshmana’s arrow).
The identity of the seaside town of Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, largely derives from it being the place from which Rama and his monkey army departed to Lanka. The name Rameswaram comes from Rama having worshipped Shiva here to atone for having killed Ravana. The spot is today the site of the much-visited Ranganathaswamy temple. The nearby Navabashanam temple at Devipattinam gets its name from a nine-pronged stone formation in the water that Rama installed to propitiate the nine planets. A temple in nearby Tirupullani has an idol of Rama reclining on its side because he invoked the blessings of the sea in that position. Another temple displays two blocks of coral rock said to be from the bridge built by the monkey army. The blocks’ buoyancy is occasionally demonstrated by having them float in a bucket of water. The southern tip of Dhanushkodi – Bow’s End – is so named because Rama is said to have broken the bridge built by the monkey army with one end of his bow after returning from Lanka. The bridge itself, the Rama Sethu, is accordingly a disconnected chain of shoals that extends all the way to Sri Lanka.
Despite local beliefs, the Ramayana resists being pinned down to an unambiguous geography. The legends of Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi exist side by side with Valmiki’s Ramayana that makes no mention of Rama halting at those places while flying back from Lanka. Valmiki does not mention the Lakshman Rekha pointed out to tourists and pilgrims in Nasik. Hampi, thought of as Kishkindha, cannot on a map be the same place from which Sugriva sends out his monkeys in all four directions to look for Sita. Matters are not helped by the fact that the text of Valmiki’s Ramayana itself has had various interpolations over the years that are difficult to identify. Taken with other versions of the story and local legends, the Ramayana ends up supporting a multiplicity of geographies.
Both Janakpur in Nepal and Sitamarhi in Bihar lay claim to being Sita’s birthplace. At least five places across India – Thiruputkuzhi and Pullabhutangadi in Tamil Nadu, Chadayamangalam in Kerala, Taked in Maharashtra, and Jamui in Bihar – claim that Jatayu, the bird that tried to intercept Ravana while he carried Sita to Lanka, fell to the earth there. All over India we find innumerable foot-prints of various sizes that are supposed to be Sita’s or Rama’s, and caves or alcoves where Sita is supposed to have cooked. We have rock formations that are a result of Hanuman’s prowess, and ponds and tanks that formed when Rama or Lakshmana shot an arrow into the ground to relieve their thirst. There must be hundreds of places called Rampur or Ramnagar, many of them with their own Rama legends. Even a place as seemingly distant from the Ramayana action as the Andamans draws its name from a story in which Hanuman stopped by on his way to Lanka. The geography of the Ramayana is an emotional landscape translated into physical reality. It is as varied, diverse and multifarious as the Ramayana story or its performance traditions.