Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
When one is in one’s teens, one has absolutely no worry in the world. The brow is unlined with care and the heart free as a bird. There is a song on the lips and a spirit of adventure prompts one to take on even the most difficult of tasks as a challenge. This was the state of Sri Rama, during the first pAdayAtra He undertook, from Ayodhya to Mithila, via SiddhAshramam. To the young Prince, the arduous journey through the jungle was but a picnic, affording an opportunity to get away from the constraints of royal life. And the tedium of travel on foot was considerably lightened by Visvamitra’s tales, of which he had an apparently unending repertoire.
Circumstances were totally different, when Chakravartthi Tirumagan set out on His second expedition. It was a sentence imposed upon Him by a scheming stepmother, its cruelty enhanced manifold by its having been inflicted on the eve of His coronation as the Crown Prince of Ayodhya.
One day He was all set to don the mantle of Emperor-in-waiting, and the very next day found Him on His way to the inhospitable jungle, for a sojourn of not one or two, but fourteen long years. He also had with Him during this second pAdayAtrA, His young and beautiful wife to take care of and protect against the lurking dangers of the forest.
The journey, however, begins comfortably enough, with the royal charioteer Sumantra taking the trio in the decorated chariot, up to ShringibErapuram, where Sri Rama meets His close friend, the hunter Guha. When the time comes for crossing the Ganga, Sri Rama bids farewell to Sumantra, asking the latter to return to Ayodhya to look after the Chakravartthi, telling the charioteer that thenceforth, they would travel by foot-
“Ratham vihAya padbhyAm tu gamishyAmO mahAvanam”.
And here begins the second and most arduous journey for Sri Raghava, on foot, during which He has to confront not only wild animals but innumerable rAkshasAs, and, finally, the vilest and most terrible of all of them, viz., Ravana.
While setting foot on GuhA’s boat for crossing the Ganga, it is interesting to note that the usually obedient Lakshmana does not carry out His brother’s orders. Sri Rama tells His brother to set foot on the boat first, to steady it against the waves of the Ganga and to give a hand to Sita to climb onto the boat. However, for some strange reason, Lakshmana does the diametrically opposite thing, making Sri Sita enter the boat first and then following himself–
“ArOha tvam nara vyAghra stitthAm nAvam imAm shanai:
SeetAm cha ArOpaya anvaksham parigrihya manasvinIm
Sa bhrAtu: shAsanam shrutvA sarvam apratikoolayan
ArOpya MaithilIm poorvam ArurOha AtmavAn tathA”
Perhaps Lakshmana thought it a better and more practical idea to have Sri Janaki climb on to the boat first, while steadying it himself from the land. Whatever be the reason, this was a rare instance of Sri Lakshmana exercising his discretion, in the face of clear instructions to the contrary from his brother. We have to contrast this with Sri Lakshmana’s reply, when told by Sri Rama to find a place for building a cottage. He beseeches Sri Rama to choose the place Himself, as he (Lakshmana) is but a slave, born to do the bidding of the Master, without assuming an iota of independence—
“ParavAn asmi Kakutsttha!”
Immediately after disembarking from the boat provided by Guha and reaching the southern banks of the Ganga, Sri Rama lays down the order of progression, which they were to maintain during their journey during the jungles-
“agaratO gaccha SoumitrE! Seeta tvam anugacchatu
prishtatOham gamishyAmi tvAm cha Seetam cha pAlayan”
“You lead the way, Lakshmana, and let Sita follow you. I shall bring up the rear, protecting you both” says Sri Rama. However, we note too that this order of progress was not always maintained and was changed according to circumstances, as would be clear from the famous sloka quoted Swami Desikan to explain the ashtAkshara mantram—
“agrata: prayayou Rama: Seeta madhyE sumadhyamA
prishthatO tu dhanushpANi; Lakshmano anujagAma ha”
Sri Rama went first, checking the terrain for any danger and clearing the path of thorns and pebbles that would hurt the delicate soles of Sri Mythily, who followed. And Sri Lakshmana was the last in the order, with his bow and arrow at the ready to face any challenge.
Our heart really bleeds for the trio—the ParamAtmA and the Divine Consort Herself, entitled by rights to all the comforts of the land, living a life of unimaginable bliss and ease at Sri Vaikuntam, walking barefoot on the jungle trails filled with the roughest of stones, prickly bushes and trees with spiky branches, walking hundreds of miles, just to keep the Lord’s word to the celestials for Ravana vadham. We can at best share the grief of Dasaratha, who enquires of Sumantra, upon his return to Ayodhya, as to how the delicate Princes of Ayodhya and the Princess of Mithila, used only to the best of palatial comforts, accustomed themselves to travel on foot through the hard jungle—
“SukumAryA tapasvinyA Sumatra! saha Seetaya
RAjaputrou katham pAdai: avaruhya rathAt gatou?”
Till Sri Rama, Sri Sita and Lakshmana reach Chitrakootam, there are no problems. Then arrives Bharata on the scene, with his impassioned entreaty to Rama to return to Ayodhya and to accept the crown of KOsala kingdom, which Rama declines, setting store by the word He had given to His father and Kaikeyi, that He would stay in the jungle for 14 years.
We now come to a question that must surely have been asked by many before. Unable to persuade Sri Rama to return, Bharata refers to Sri Rama’s Sandals, requests his brother to step on them and receives them with all honour. The description of the PAdukAs here is beautiful. Sri Valmiki says that they were decorated with gold and shone verily like the Sun and the Moon—
“TejasA Aditya sankAsam pratipat Chandra darsanam
adhirOha Arya! PAdAbhyAm pAdukE hEma bhooshitE”
Sri Rama duly steps on the PadukAs and gives them to Bharata. The question now arises as to whether these sandals were the ones being worn by Sri Rama, or a pair specially brought by Bharata with him.
If we say that it was the pair He was wearing that was given by Sri Rama to Bharata, we are confronted by the doubt as to whether Chakravartthi Tirumagan would continue to wear an ostentatiously decorated (“hEma bhooshitE”) pair of slippers, having abandoned all vestiges of princely appearance. Sri Rama goes to the extent of applying the milk of the banyan tree to His hair, to make it matted, in tune with the life of penance and austerity He was to lead for fourteen years. And all He wears are clothes made of tree skin and deer bark, which Kaikeyi thoughtfully hands to Him just before His departure from Ayodhya. This being so, would He wear a pair of sandals which were totally out of tune with His austere appearance?
The other alternative appears equally unlikely, for, why should Bharata bring with him a pair of golden slippers of Sri Rama’s size? The younger brother must have come with all hope of making Sri Rama return and accept the crown of Ayodhya and would definitely not have anticipated that he would have to be contented with the Rama PAdukAs. There is thus no reason for Bharata to carry a pair of golden sandals around.
For want of a better answer, if we were to assume that Sri Rama gave away to Bharata the pAdukAs He was currently wearing, then we would have to accept that the rest of Sri Rama’s travels through the inhospitable jungles were accomplished barefoot, which adds to the Prince’s travails.
Leaving the puzzle for the moment, we find that after Bharata returns to Ayodhya, the trio led by Sri Rama proceeds in due course to Panchavati, where they intend to spend the rest of their extradition in peace and penance. And they enjoyed their stay extremely, with nature bedecking itself with the most glorious of flora and fauna, showing off all its beauty for the Lord and His Consort—‘ramamANA vanE traya:”
Since it would take ages and pages for us to accompany Sri Rama through the fourteen years of His jungle sojourn, suffice it to say that the long march, which was extremely pleasant as long as Sri Mythily was present, turns into a desperate one for the brothers Rama, after Her abduction. They run hither and thither, trying to locate VaidEhi. Sri Valmiki laments that the Princes travelled over hill and dale, dense forest and large plains—
“chankramantou vanAn dEsAn shailAt shailam vanAt vanam”.
The brothers thus traverse the whole of Bharata Varsha and, after the ocean is bridged, cross over to Lanka, on the shoulders of Sri Hanuman. This is perhaps the only brief break in their Long March on foot, which continues till the sacking of Lanka, the slaying of Ravana and the liberation of Sri Janaki.
And only when they return from Lanka, their mighty mission accomplished, that they ascend the Pushpaka VimAnam for the return journey to Ayodhya.
It is a measure of the incontrovertible truth in the Epic that the entire pedestrian route traversed by Sri Rama during His second Long March, has survived till date and all the landmarks He crossed live still to tell us great tales of the Lord and His visit.
ShringibErapuram, the place where Rama met Guha and began His padayAtrA, is now known as “ShingOr”. TamasA river, where Sri Rama gave the slip to the pursuing citizens of Ayodhya, is now known as Tons. Before reaching the Ganga, Sri Rama appears to have crossed three more rivers, the current names of which are indicated within brackets—
VEdashruti (BisUi), GOmati and SyandikA (SAi). Sage BharadvAjA’s Ashramam was located at PrayAg, the modern-day Allahabad, amidst the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna. The beautiful Chitrakoota hill is still available for the devout to perform circumambulation—during Sri Rama navami, thousands of devotees still perform “giri pradakshiNam” here. After leaving Chitrakootam, Sri Rama appears to have travelled along the Yamuna for some distance, before crossing the river. Leaving Chitrakootam, the trio take a southern route over the PannA plateau, to reach the Sharabhanga Ashramam at the confluence of the MandAkinI and Sharabhanga rivers and reach PanchavatI (near Nashik) in due course.
After the traumatic abduction of Sri Sita, the brothers Rama cross the Godavari river and reach KishkintA (the present-day Hampi in the Bellary District of Karnataka) after a long journey. With the aid of Sugreeva’s monkey army and after the location of Sri Sita at Lanka by Hanuman, the brothers, leading the vAnara sEnA, travel south along the eastern parts of the SahyAdri range, through the present Chitradurga district of Karnataka and cross the Cauvery river near its origins in the hills of Mercara. Continuing their southward journey, the Princes must have crossed the present Coimbatore district, reached the Palghat Pass and travelled further along the Western Ghats, eventually reaching the seas at the southern tip of India, from where they cross the ocean by the bridge built across the waters by the expert architect Nala.
If we add up all the distances, Sri Rama and Lakshmana must have travelled no less than an incredible 2000 miles on foot, across the length and breadth of our BhArata Varsha, crossing all its principal rivers, climbing up and down almost all the renowned mountain ranges but for the Himalayas. They must have touched hundreds of villages during their long walk, as proof of which several rural temples have Sthala PurANAs connected with Sri Rama’s visit to that particular place. We still find many towns, villages and districts named after Rama or Sita—Ramnagar, Sitapur, Ramghat, Ramtek, Ramgarh, Rampur, Sitamarhi, Sitanagaram, Ramagundam, Rameshwaram, DhanushkOti, Darbhasayanam (where Sri Rama is reported to have sought Samudra Raja’s cooperation for bridging the ocean), Ramanathapuram etc.
If a census were to be taken in India of villages and towns bearing Sri Rama’s name, we would come up with several hundreds, nay thousands. All this only goes to show that by undertaking the long march, Sri Rama must have left His footprints on a vast stretch of land, which have remained unerased (to coin a word) by the ravages of time. He left imprints not only on the land, but also in the minds of its populace, with His name and exploits remaining evergreen in their thoughts, handed down as valuable heirloom from generation to generation. If the Prince of Ayodhya’s hallowed tirunAmam is a household name today and has been so for countless millennia, it is due partly to the Long March undertaken by Him, touching people’s lives like a fragrant breeze with a healing touch, a touch which rid them of the crippling disease of Samsara and afforded them the infinite bliss of liberation.
Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore