Ramayanam is the story of Rama, a prince of Ayodhya, who lived five to six thousand years or more ago. His father, King Dasaratha, had three wives – Kausalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi. Rama, the eldest of the sons, was born to Kausalya. Kaikeyi’s son, Bharata, and Sumitra’s sons, Lakshmana and Shatrugna, followed. In due course, the princes got married. Rama’s wife, Sita, is the heroine of the Ramayanam.
Rama was an epitome of virtue and valour, as were all his brothers. As Rama was the eldest, Dasaratha planned to coronate him. Kaikeyi, who wanted her son to be the king, reminded Dasaratha that he had, when she had saved his life long ago, promised to grant her two wishes whenever she wanted them. Kaikeyi, invoking that promise, listed her two wishes, namely that Rama should be exiled for fourteen years and that her son, Bharata, should be crowned king.
Though Dasaratha tried to dissuade Kaikeyi from demanding that her wishes be fulfilled, Rama would have none of it. He did not want the sin of a broken promise to sully the noble name of his father and happily agreed to give up the throne and leave the kingdom of Ayodhya for fourteen years.
Bharata and Shatrugna had gone to a neighbouring kingdom, to meet their uncle, but Lakshmana was in the palace when this crisis occurred. He immediately made up his mind to go with Rama to the forest. Sita, similarly, decided to accompany her husband. Soon, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana left the kingdom of Ayodhya for the forests.
In the course of their wanderings, the princes and Sita met many sages and made many friends among both humans and in the animal kingdom. The princes also fought several demons to protect those who sought their help. As they moved southwards from their kingdom, word of their sojourn in the forest spread to the island kingdom of Lanka, which is to the south of the Indian peninsula.
Lanka was ruled by the demon king, Ravana, who desired to possess Sita. He made elaborate plans and successfully kidnapped her when both the princes were away and imprisoned her in his island kingdom. Rama and Lakshmana were distraught when they found that Sita had ‘disappeared’. They had few clues about who could have been responsible for this and where she could be found. However, they kept searching for Sita relentlessly and in due course befriended the monkey-king, Sugriva, whose trusted lieutenant, Hanuman, the powerful son of the Wind-God, Vayu, ultimately found Sita imprisoned in Ravana’s garden, with demons guarding her round the clock.
Hanuman, being the son of the Wind-God, had the power to fly across the ocean to Ravana’s island kingdom. But if Rama had to rescue Sita, he had to cross the ocean that separated the southern tip of India from the island of Lanka. He also had to take an army with him to fight the powerful demon hordes of Ravana.
A bridge, called Rama Setu, now known as Adam’s Bridge, was built across the ocean under the supervision of Sugriva’s talented engineer, Neela. After a fierce battle, Ravana was killed by Rama and Sita was rescued.
With the fourteen years of his exile over, Rama returned to his kingdom with Sita and Lakshmana. Bharata, who had castigated his mother for her evil designs and refused to take the throne, gladly welcomed Rama back to Ayodhya.
Dasaratha had died soon after Rama had left, unable to bear the separation from his favourite son. The kingdom, which had been without a king for fourteen years, rejoiced to have the popular prince Rama crowned as the king of Ayodhya. Here ends the story of Rama, prince of Ayodhya.
There is, however, a later section that many say is not part of the original epic, Valmiki Ramayanam.
In this, the last chapter of the Ramayanam, Rama has been ruling the kingdom for some years. The kingdom is prosperous and peaceful, the people are happy. However, the fact that Sita spent some time in Ravana’s palace before Rama rescued her seems to haunt the psyche of some of the subjects, for, one of them is overheard criticising Rama for accepting back a woman whose chastity was under a cloud as she had been imprisoned by the demon king, Ravana. Rama, who comes to learn of his subject’s dissatisfaction, decides to banish Sita from the kingdom so that nobody may not have cause to malign the throne. He chooses Lakshmana to carry out the task.
Lakshmana takes Sita on a chariot to a faraway location on the pretext of taking her on an outing. Once deep in the forest, he tells her the truth with much misgiving. A pregnant Sita is distraught, but knows that Lakshmana cannot disobey the King. Lakshmana deserts her in the forest and drives back to Ayodhya with a heavy heart.
Sage Valmiki, the author of the epic, himself finds Sita in the forest and provides her shelter in his hermitage. In due course, Sita gives birth to twin boys – Lava and Kusha. Rama, meanwhile, arranges to establish himself as the sovereign of a vast empire. As was the practice those days, he sends a white horse as his representative, with the backing of an army. Whichever land the horse passes through, without the king of the land protesting its entry, would become a part of Rama’s empire. Few kings revolt against the powerful army of Rama. Those who do, bite the dust.
Ultimately, the horse and the army are quelled by two mere lads – none other than Lava and Kusha. Rama himself, ultimately, is forced to come out to battle with the boys since all his armies and even brothers, fail. In due course, Rama learns that the boys are his own. Valmiki hands over Sita to him, but Rama is hesitant to take her back. Sita feels totally let down and calls on her mother to come and take her. Her mother, Goddess Earth, opens up and takes her into her womb.