Prince of Ayodhya
|Author||Ashok K. Banker|
|Publisher||Penguin Books India|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|LC Class||PR9499.3.B264 P75 2003|
|Followed by||Siege of Mithila|
Prince of Ayodhya (2003) is the first installment of an eight-part series of books written by Ashok K. Banker, which chronicles the events of the Ramayana in a modern retelling of the Indian epic. The series revolves around the stories of Rama, Lakshman, and Sita and their struggles against the demon-king Ravana, highlighting the intense love of Rama and Sita and the young prince's adherence to Dharma.
The story begins with Rama's first encounter with the demon lord Ravana, King of the Asuras, a race of evil beings who represent everything against that which mankind stands for. As he dreams, he is filled with images detailing the destruction and rape of his home city, Ayodhya, the capital of Kosala, kingdom of Dasaratha, Rama's father. The prince frantically slices through his room, demonstrating considerable martial skill, fearful of his dreams.
Meanwhile, the great seer Vishwamitra, one of the Seven Sages of Hindu theology, proceeds towards Ayodhya. As he travels, he becomes aware of some strange disturbance, and changes his form to that of a Shudra hunter, a low-caste marksman. As he walks, Jatayu, leader of Ravana's air force, tracks his movement and inspects the city of Ayodhya. Only a few seconds before Vishwamitra walks through Ayodhya's massive gates, however, a second being who looks exactly like him is seen proceeding through it...
In the palace, First Queen Kausalya, Dasaratha's first wife and mother of Rama, is paid a visit by the King. At first, she spurns him for not having stepped into her palace for the past year and spending all of his time at the palace of the Second Queen Kaikeyi. Letting out her frustration and anger through sarcastic words, she describes the hurt that she feels. Dasaratha begs for her forgiveness, and tells her that in reality, he always loved Kausalya more as a wife and the mother of his eldest son. He tells her two pieces of information that shock her: the first, that her son Rama is to be crowned on his sixteenth birthday as the new King of Ayodhya, and the second being that he is terminally ill.
Vashishta and Dasaratha both make arrangements to greet the illustrious visitor, but while performing the prescribed welcoming ritual (known as arghya), they are rudely interrupted by the shudra hunter. Despite Dasaratha's attempts to peaceably (and then forcibly) remove him from the location, the hunter ignores him, claiming that the Vishwamitra they were about to welcome is a demon. The hunter changes back to his real form as Vishwamitra and exposes the hunter as Kala-Nemi, the uncle of Ravana. They banish him to the netherworld, and Vishwamitra states that he needs to ask Dasaratha for a favor. He explains that Ravana has plans to invade the Indian subcontinent from Lanka, and has put spies in the court. He exposes the spies, who are locked away and interrogated.
Meanwhile, the sons Rama and Lakshmana have returned from the nearby woods, where they had encountered a band of pahadi warriors led by Bearface, all of whom were arrested. They find their brothers Shatrughan and Bharata waiting for them at the gates, which have been inexplicably closed. They find out that the city has been completely closed off, cutting off the disappointed Holi revelers who have come from across all of India to celebrate, because of an attack in the palace grounds. Rama is allowed to enter along with his brothers, who feel immensely guilty, but do not argue. He stops a riot on the way between a number of crazed tantrics and palace guards. Upon entering the palace, he is introduced to Vishwamitra.
Vishwamitra explains his predicament to Rama; his 200-year sacrifice is coming to an end but unless the demons of the Bhayanak-van, the forest in which he resides, are destroyed, it cannot be completed in time. He claims that Rama is the only person necessary for the task and is the only one who can accomplish it. Dasaratha vehemently refuses to give Rama away, pushing away all rational reasoning in the love for his son. Incensed, Vishwamitra moves to leave but is pacified by Vashishta, who then says the matter will be put to a popular vote as decreed by the rules of Manu, since it is a conflict between two dharmas.
During the Holi parade, Dasaratha announces to the entire city that Rama will be crowned as crown prince and that he is to be his successor. The statement is met with an uproar of approval, after which Vishwamitra details the reasons for coming to Ayodhya. After demonstrating the potential effect of an invasion in Ayodhya to the people, he tells them that the only way to stop it is to allow Rama to be taken under his tutelage. The crowd roars their approval of the decision, saying in unison that Rama is the greatest champion of Ayodhya.
Lakshmana is granted permission by his mother Sumitra to leave with Rama, who both travel with Vishwamitra and leave the city during the height of the Holi celebration while everyone is distracted. Dasaratha makes his way up to the top of the Seer's Tower, where he is attacked by an enraged Kaikeyi and saved in the nick of time by Bharat. Kaikeyi, who had spent the day fuming at Dasaratha's announcement of Rama's coronation, her rage fueled by Manthara, threatens to kill Kausalya.
Rama and Lakshmana travel far from Ayodhya towards the Bhayanak-van without much delay (aside from being tailed by the Maharaja's personal guard) and stop for the night at an ashram in a location known as Kama's Grove, a small Saivite hermitage. Before arriving, Vishwamitra endows both Rama and Lakshmana with the powers of Bala and Atibala, the two most powerful brahmanic mantras which grant them super-strength, speed, and power beyond that of any normal mortal being. Their powers develop separately, with different effects, but with equally satisfying results. Unbeknownst to them, the rakshasi Surpanakha, the sister of Ravana, has witnessed the entire ritual, having followed them from Ayodhya. After reporting to Ravana, she is told to wait and follow them from a distance.
Meanwhile, in Ayodhya, Vashishta and Prime Minister Sumantra enter the prisons to interrogate the spies exposed in the court, only to find that their bodies have been dismembered and ripped to shreds by Ravana's mayavic power. Joining their limbs and heads together in a mockery of his own body, he tells Vashishta and Sumantra that he will destroy Ayodhya utterly for defeating Lanka in the Asura Wars. Vashishta battles the possessed body while Sumantra flees.
The boys and Vishwamitra leave in the morning and head towards the true Bhayanak-van, which Vishwamitra reveals runs through Narak, the lowest level of Hell, exposed by a portal ripped by Ravana. They encounter a foul environment worse than that of any other on the planet. Vishwamitra gives them a simple goal - destroy the five hundred monsters or so that inhabit the Bhayanak-van and kill Tataka and her sons Mareech and Subahu. When the battle begins, Rama and Lakshmana together kill more than two hundred monsters back-to-back with their bows and arrows. When the second, more powerful wave attacks, however, while Rama remains unscathed and continues to wipe out monsters, Lakshmana is brutally murdered and torn to pieces.
Meanwhile, the King's guard, the elite Vajra regiment, has continued to tail Rama into the Bhayanak-van and enters the battle, at which point the remaining monsters are wiped out. Tataka, a beautiful yaksha rakshasi of towering height, arrives on the scene, entirely naked, distracting most of the soldiers. Rama realizes at this point that Lakshmana has been killed, and pleads with the Maharishi to revive him. Simultaneously he has qualms about killing Tataka because she is a woman, but Vishwamitra tells Rama that the only way to revive Lakshmana is to kill Tataka for her sins. Rama uses the power of the sun in his blood, and destroys her utterly.
Lakshmana is revived, but is not informed that he had died upon the battlefield. He and Rama arrive at Vishwamitra's ashram, where they spend a vigil of seven days guarding the yagna after receiving the divine power of the deva-astras, weapons which have the ability to call upon the power of any deva at will. At the end of the seven days, Subahu and Mareech, Tataka's two sons, attack the yagna, but are both dispatched by Rama and Lakshmana. After the completion of the sacrifice, Vishwamitra tells Rama and Lakshmana that they are now to travel to Mithila in order to complete the next task - attending a marriage. Perplexed, Rama asks whose marriage they are to attend, and he cryptically replies "... Yours."
The book finishes with the image of Jatayu flying over the massive navy of Lanka, which is preparing to invade the mainland in full force with the power of Ravana behind it. Meanwhile, in Ayodhya, Kausalya, Vashishta, and Sumantra all realize that the King's condition is most definitely fatal, but also find out that a spy exists in the royal family who may be destroying the country and court from within.
Commentary and Differences from the Valmiki Ramayana
The Ramayana is an ancient Indian epic that has gone through many retellings and versions in different languages and styles, including a live-action TV serial and a film (currently in production for release in 2008). Banker, in his foreword to the text, remarks that his version is by no means authoritative, and it merely follows in the footsteps of other authors of the Ramayana, including Valmiki, Tulsidas, and Kamban. He states his intent as a desire to portray the nature of ancient India and the epic story of the Ramayana through a medium that appeals to modern writing.
The story takes significant liberties from the original Ramayana by Valmiki. The scene in which rishi Vishwamitra confronts Kala-Nemi is entirely non-canon. Kala-Nemi, in fact, does not appear in the original Ramayana until well near the end of the text and plays a very short (albeit important) role. Surpankha similarly does not play any role until the Aranyakaand of the Valmiki Ramayana, where she tempts Rama; and Ravana, who is the primary antagonist in this book, does not appear to take any part in the everyday occurrences upon the Indian subcontinent until the Aranyakaand, at least on the surface level. Characters such as Manthara in the original Valmiki Ramayana similarly had no association with Ravana and no indication was given that they were in fact working against the welfare of Ayodhya.
The book also makes numerous references suggesting that Rama and his brothers previously knew Sita, Urmila, Mandavi and Shrutakirti as young children, which is absolutely false in the Valmiki Ramayana; the first time Rama met Sita was on his trip to Mithila with Vishwamitra.
Also, no explanation was given in the original Ramayana for the extensive power that Rama and Lakshmana received to battle the rakshasas single-handedly in the text, despite the assertion that both boys were mortals.