Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Ramayana, in a nutshell

The Ramayana is a very long story, so for those of you who have never heard it, this is a potted version, you might even say an egg-cupped version. The illustrations are close-ups from the tiny wedge shaped originals (4cm-7cmx10cm) I painted many years ago for the Ramayana clock described in my previous blog. I have missed out the stuff about Rama growing up and jumped to the place at which most western fairytales begin; when all the trouble starts.

The ruler of Ayodhya, King Dasaratha, decides to name one of his sons, Rama, crown prince. Rama is virtuous, skilled in battle, devastatingly good looking and everyone loves him. He’s also the son of Dasaratha’s first wife, Kaushalya, so he’s got everything going for him. But fate intervenes in the form of evil handmaiden Manthara. She reminds her mistress Kaikeyi, who is one of the King’s younger wives, how difficult Kaushalya is going to be with Rama on the throne, and urges Kaikeyi to act before it’s too late. Kaikeyi once nursed Dasaratha through what should have been a fatal wound on the battlefield, so she has his eternal gratitude. She also has a promise from him that when the time comes, she can have one boon, without reservation, no matter what it is.

Kaikeyi now fakes a fit of depression and says she wants her boon. Dasaratha, blinded by his concern for her, promises she can have anything she likes. No sooner has Dasaratha spoken than Kaikeyi asks him to banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years and appoint her own son, Bharata, crown prince.

You can imagine how Dasaratha wishes he had thought more carefully before making such a promise but there’s nothing he can do about it and so he summons Rama.

Dasaratha explains the problem, bitterly regretting his boon, but Rama only says that of course the king must honour his promise and he’ll start packing at once. He also thanks his stepmother Kaikeyi for allowing him to prove a king can still be true to his word and says he hopes she will enjoy being the Queen Mother. Dasaratha blesses Rama one last time and then falls into a coma from which nothing will waken him. When Bharata hears the news he is furious; not only because Rama is his favourite brother but because the whole affair has cast a terrible slur on his name. He kills Manthara and vows never to speak to his mother again.

Meanwhile, Rama’s wife, Sita, and another of Rama’s brothers, Lakshmana, insist on joining in the banishment, and nothing Rama says can put them off. Laksmana bids his wife, Urmila, farewell and promises to be back in fourteen years. They leave Ayodhya for the forest and the entire city lines the streets to see them go. The country plunges into mourning. While the palace is going through the motions of Bharata’s coronation Dasaratha quietly dies of a broken heart.

Bharata places Rama’s sandals on the throne and takes an oath that even though he is now king he will rule only as Rama’s deputy until his safe return.

The brothers build a little hut for themselves and life in the Panchavati forest begins. The years pass quickly; good company, simple food and lots of fresh air being the best medicine for all kinds of problems. Life in a palace drags on, with its endless rituals and duties, but the forest is full of variety. The simple life of subsistence teaches them patience, endurance and peace.

Unfortunately, dark things also enjoy the outdoor life. Prowling the forest one day, a demon called Ravana chances upon the clearing with its little hermitage. He catches sight of Sita at her everyday tasks and instantly falls in love with her. Now, Ravana is no ordinary demon, but a powerful king-demon, and his chief vice is pride. The more his subjects warn him not to interfere with Rama and Lakshmana, and to forget Sita, the more he cannot think of anything else. All his palaces, gardens and endless wealth seem as nothing compared to the beauty of the thing he cannot have. Ravana is extremely good looking for a demon, and he convinces himself that once Sita is parted from Rama she will consent to be his own wife. He has watched Rama practising martial arts so he knows that brute force is not going to work; he will have to do something really underhand to separate the two of them.

Showing his extreme cunning and understanding of princessy psychology, Ravana disguises one of his henchmen as a beautiful golden deer and orders it to prance about enticingly in front of their hut before taking off into the forest.

Sita immediately wants the deer as a pet and sends Rama out after it. The deer manages to evade capture and mimics Rama’s voice, calling out in pain. Laksmana warns Sita that it is a trick, but Sita insists that he goes to his brother’s aid.

Laksmana draws a magical protective circle around Sita and instructs her not to step outside it under any circumstance. Whilst the two brothers are looking for each other in the forest, Ravana approaches Sita in the form of a holy man. He tells her he has not eaten for days, and because Sita is well brought up she steps out of the circle to make him some food. 

No sooner does she step outside the circle than Ravana assumes his everyday form, snatches her up into the air and speeds away towards his far-off lair. When Rama returns and discovers she is gone the two brothers have the first argument of their lives and then set out to find her.

Rama and Lakshmana soon chance upon a great and kingly bird called Jayatu, who is dying from one of Ravana’s arrows. He attempted to rescue Sita but the demon was too stong for him and he warns the brothers not to underestimate the job in hand. Rama vows to avenge Jayatu and the bird dies satisfied.

As Sita was being carried through the air she managed to let fall a scarf in the hope that someone would find it. Two talking monkeys come across the scarf and bring it to Rama. They and all their relatives swear their allegiance to the brothers, so Rama now has an army. They introduce Rama to Hanuman, who is a real hero in the monkey world, and will also, in the fullness of time, become his greatest devotee.

Hanuman takes Rama’s ring for Sita and follows her trail. When he reaches the sea he never pauses but throws himself into the air and leaps across the waves to Sri Lanka, the land that plays host to Ravana’s palace and vast armies.

Magically disguising himself, Hanuman sets off in search of Sita but begins to fear the worst. The streets are full of gossip about the endless temptations Ravana has conjured up for Sita in the hope she will become his latest wife. The denizens of Lanka are all laying bets on when she will succumb. On the one hand she’s already married; on the other, Ravana is handsome, rich, sophisticated and he’s never going to release her anyway. Only the demonic bookies are certain of a win...

He finds Sita in one of the palace gardens. She is thrilled to see the ring and desperate to get off the island as Ravana is fast coming to the end of his patience. The dastardly demon has given her an ultimatum and soon she will face an unenviable choice; marriage to him, or being served up as his evening meal.

Hanuman shows her the ring and promises she will be rescued, once they’ve solved the problem of getting an army over the sea without a boat. At this point he comes up with the obvious solution, that he can carry her back over the sea and out of harm's way, but Sita insists that it is Rama who should come to rescue her. Opinion is divided on the subject of her motive; after all, why hang around? Some think it was her adoration of Rama and her wish for him to glorify himself in battle, some say she wanted Ravana to suffer for her abduction. Whatever the reason, she refuses Hanuman's offer and he leaves empty-handed, although not before torching a large portion of the capital city.

When Hanuman gets back to the camp his story causes an uproar. The army marches straight toward Lanka until they reach the sea. Rama paces up and down the shore thinking of Sita waiting for him in the garden. He is completely at a loss, for although he has studied the magical arts of war he never thought he would have to walk on water.

Seeing his predicament, the local monkeys, bears and squirrels get on the case and in no time at all they have built a bridge over to Lanka. It is said that Rama blessed the squirrels especially because they were so tiny and that the blessing left its mark in the black stripes Indian squirrels have on their heads to this day.

Rama’s army marches over to Lanka and an epic battle begins (which I didn’t have space to depict.) During the course of the battle, in which demons are falling like ninepins, Laksmana takes a mortal wound and Rama sends Hanuman off to find a cure.

After many days of patiently searching the Himalayas, Hanuman discovers a herb that will do the trick but is not sure of the correct dose so brings the whole mountain back. Laksmana is cured and continues to cause havoc amongst Ravana’s army.

The battle rages for many days and nights. After killing Ravana's sons, commanders and his special guard of honour, Rama finally comes up against Ravana himself. The demon performs many marvellous feats but his time is up. Rama fits an unbeatable arrow to his bow and looses it straight into Ravana’s heart.

Ravana takes a long time to die (we all know the type) but it is said that Rama’s arrow is fulfilling a certain Rakshasic prophecy and so the demon is not too gutted; at least he is being sent to the other world by a great hero.

When they reach the palace and rescue Sita there is much rejoicing, until Rama makes an announcement. He feels that the people of his kingdom will never believe she stayed true to him whilst living in the handsome Ravana’s palace, and being a king he must consider the will of his people. Therefore, he does not wish to keep her as his wife; he has rescued her out of a sense of duty, and not for any personal reason. When Sita hears this quite extraordinary accusation she calls out to the gods to witness her purity and causes a fierce fire to be built. Casting herself onto the fire, she declares her faithfulness will protect her (don’t try this at home.) It does, and Rama publically apologises. He says he knew he would have to goad her into establishing her innocence once and for all and now nobody in Ayodhya will doubt her fidelity. The happy couple are reunited.

Everyone returns to Ayodhya as by now the time span of the banishment has elapsed. Bharata gives Rama’s sandals back and Sita rewards Hanuman with a beautiful necklace. 

Many happy years pass and then, somehow, the question of Sita’s supposed infidelity raises its head again. Bowing to public opinion, or to the threat of public opinion, Rama banishes the pregnant Sita from his kingdom. 

She takes shelter in the hermitage of Valmiki, and in secret bears Rama two sons, Kusa and Lava. Many years later, Rama happens to be passing through the forest and hears two boys singing a song describing his life's story. When they get to the bit about her banishment, Rama starts to cry and to ask himself how he could have sent her away.

Sita appears before him, asks that very same question and when he has no answer, instead of repeating herself with another fire, causes the ground to open up and swallow her. At this point it is revealed that she is an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi and her disappearance into the earth is symbolic of her re-assimilation into the higher worlds she originally came from. Rama, completely distraught, wanders his kingdom for a few years before leaving the crown to his sons and following Sita to the other world.

Look, I didn't promise you a happy ending, did I? Please note that I have made no comments about Rama's treatment of Sita; you can draw your own conclusions about how to balance kingship with marriage. Anyone sympathising with Sita might enjoy Nina Paley's amazing animation, "Sita Sings the Blues." It is funny and sad and has some unforgettable scenes of dancing monkeys.

Some of the full images of these pictures are already on sale at ETSY, the rest will join them in a few days.

That's all!


  1. What wonderful storytelling prowess in paint you have Hita! Really expressive and succinct images. It's great to have them wound round the tale here too... Hurrah! x

  2. I love your storytelling - and the pictures are wonderful.
    The beetle I bought via Etsy is now framed and hanging in my son's room and he loves it. Thank you.
    I also nominated you today (on my blog) for the Versatile Blogger award which, goodness me, you certainly deserve!! Hope you take up the offer - I have so enjoyed the versatility of your posts so I'm sure you have some good quirks to share. Axxx

  3. Thanks Annie! I saw your nomination an hour ago and am desperately trying to think of quirks I can reveal to the world without scaring you all away from my blog : ) I'm so glad your son loves the beatle - I am really happy to think of my work on other people's walls, having a completely different life than if they had just stayed with me. The water-beatle is definitely a good spirit, the only star person brave enough to dive beneath the primordial waters to see what was there. A good role model, if you can have an insect as a role model...

    And Rima, you have commented on so many of my blogs, like the good guardian angel you are; your comment totally describes your own work too, which is supremely narrative and full of expression. Double hurrah for you!

  4. Hi Hita

    I really enjoyed your retelling of the Ramayana and the images are spectacular. I work with an organization in India that is currently working on an archival project on the different versions of the Ramayana. We would love to speak with you--please email me at
    And have a look at our website