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 dream of the demon lord Ravana, King of the Asuras, wherein appear images of the destruction of Ayodhya. Upon waking, the prince frantically slices through his room, demonstrating considerable martial skill, fearful of his dreams.
Meanwhile, Vishwamitra, one of the Seven Sages of Hindu theology, proceeds towards Ayodhya. As he travels, he becomes aware of disturbance, and disguises himself as a "Shudra hunter": a low-caste marksman. Jatayu tracks his movement and inspects the city of Ayodhya, and Kala-Nemi, disguised as Vishwamitra, enters the same. In the palace, First Queen Kausalya, Dasaratha's first wife and mother of Rama, is paid a visit by the King, whom she scolds for preferring his Second Queen Kaikeyi. Dasaratha begs her forgiveness, and confides that her son Rama is to be crowned on his sixteenth birthday as the new King of Ayodhya, and that Dasarath himself is terminally ill. The sage Vashishta and King Dasaratha greet the disguised Kala-Nemi, until he is exposed by the true Vishwamitra. The two sages banish Kala-Nemi to the netherworld, and Vishwamitra explains that Ravana has plans to invade the Indian subcontinent from Lanka, and has put spies in the court. Rama and Lakshmana have returned from the nearby woods, where they had captured some outlaws. They find their brothers Shatrughan and Bharata waiting for them at the gates, which have been closed after Kala-Nemi's appearance. Rama is allowed to enter, and stops a riot between a number of crazed tantrics and palace guards. Upon entering the palace, he is introduced to Vishwamitra.
Vishwamitra states that his 200-year sacrifice is coming to an end but cannot be completed in time unless Rama destroys the Asuras interrupting it. Dasaratha initially refuses to let Rama go; but is persuaded by Vashishta. During the Holi parade, Dasaratha announces to the entire city that Rama will be crowned successor, and Vishwamitra the reasons for coming to Ayodhya. The crowd roars their approval of both decisions. Lakshmana is granted permission by his mother Queen Sumitra to leave with Rama. Dasaratha mounts the top of the Seer's Tower, where he is attacked by an enraged Kaikeyi and saved in the nick of time by Bharat. Rama and Lakshmana stop for the night in Kama's Grove, a small Saivite hermitage where Vishwamitra endows both Rama and Lakshmana with strength, speed, and power beyond that of any normal man. 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 follow them at a distance. In Ayodhya, Vashishta and Prime Minister Sumantra interrogate the spies exposed in the court, only to find them dismembered and possessed by Ravana. Vashishta battles the possessed body while Sumantra flees.
The boys and Vishwamitra enter the true Bhayanak-van, which Vishwamitra identifies as Narak, the lowest level of Hell, exposed by a portal made by Ravana. Vishwamitra there orders the princes to destroy the five hundred monsters that inhabit the Bhayanak-van, and to kill the monsters' chief Tataka and her sons Mareech and Subahu. Rama and Lakshmana together kill two hundred monsters before Lakshmana is killed. The King's guard enters the battle, and the remaining monsters are wiped out; whereupon Tataka intervenes. Rama pleads with Vishwamitra to revive Lakshmana; and Vishwamitra tells Rama that the only way to revive Lakshmana is to kill Tataka in exchange, which Rama does. Thereafter Lakshmana and Rama arrive at Vishwamitra's ashram, where they spend a vigil of seven days guarding the yagna. Subahu is killed and Mareech expelled. After the completion of the sacrifice, Vishwamitra tells Rama and Lakshmana that they are now to travel to Mithila to attend a marriage. When Rama asks whose marriage they are to attend, the sage 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 Ayodhya, Kausalya, Vashishta, and Sumantra all realize that the King's condition is fatal, but also find out that a spy 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.