– Ramayan: Book 5: Sundar Kanda – Book Of Beauty Canto II – The Ashoka Grove

Ram had told Hanuman that Sita was extremely fond of flowers and trees and he hoped that she might come to that enchanting grove for a walk. The garden seemed to be made for her, with its flowering shrubs and waterfalls and ponds. Looking around in the light of the setting moon, he saw a small temple with white pillars. The steps were of coral and the surface covered with gold. It gleamed in the moonlight. As he peered closer, he suddenly saw her and he knew unmistakably that this was Sita – the beloved of Ram. She looked like the crescent moon, thin and wan. It was obvious that she had been fasting for a long while.

Her beauty was like a flame hidden by smoke. She was draped in a crumpled piece of yellow silk. She had no ornaments. Tears were flowing
from her lovely eyes. Sorrow seemed to be her constant companion. Her long black hair was tied in a simple braid, which fell to her thighs. She was surrounded by ugly looking rakshasis – horrendous monsters, some with one eye or one ear and some without ears and some with noses on their foreheads, some hairy and some bald, some hunchbacked and some with faces resembling goats, foxes, camels and horses. In the midst of these, she looked like a frightened deer, surrounded by fierce hounds. She had never known sorrow before and now she knew only sorrow. Her eyes mirrored the depths of her despair.

Hanuman thought to himself, “This indeed is Sita. Neither the lack of ornaments nor the fact that she is clothed in rags and is frail and emaciated, can hide the fact that she is a raving beauty. She is as beautiful as Ram described her – exquisite eyebrows, graceful, rounded breasts, lips as red as the bimba berry, peacock blue throat, slender waist, lotus petal eyes – all these can be seen through her screen of sorrow”.

She sat on the bare ground like a female ascetic, bound in a net of grief, the picture of shattered hope. The ornaments which Ram had described were hanging on the branches of the tree. Though parted cruelly from her husband, her mind was full of him, alone. Her lips
were constantly murmuring “Ram, Ram”. This was indeed the woman for whom Ram was pining. Hanuman could see that she belonged only to Ram – body, mind and soul.

“She is meant only for Ram and he for her. Their love for each other is so great that it is only because of it, that they have managed to remain alive”. Hanuman prostrated mentally to Ram and told him, “Lord, I have found her”.

Hanuman was overcome with sorrow at the sight of the princess of Videha who was parted so cruelly from her husband. “Fate is indeed all powerful”, he thought to himself, “or else why should this innocent lady have to suffer like this. She was protected by no less a personage than her illustrious husband and Lakshman. Her husband killed thousands of rakshasas at Janasthana for her sake, because Shurpanekha was threatening her and now she is the captive of Ravana, surrounded by these dreadful women, with no privacy even to weep. She has no
eyes for this beautiful garden. Her eyes are with her heart and her heart is with Ram”.

The night was almost gone. With the break of day, he could hear the chanting of the Vedas being recited by the bards to wake up the demon king. Drums were booming and lutes playing to welcome the dawn. Ravana woke up and his first thought was for Sita. He had never met with such resistance from any woman in all his life and he certain had a lot of experience with females of every type. Her resistance had only served to whet his appetite. It was a challenge to him and he was determined to make the citadel fall, at all cost. He was sure that no
woman could resist him for long and that it could only be a matter of time before she succumbed, like so many others.

He strode towards the grove of Ashoka trees. One hundred beautiful ladies holding chowrie fans and golden lamps followed him. They were madly in love with Ravana and though they were still sleepy with the wine they had imbibed the previous night, they were curious to get a glimpse of Sita and to find out what her approach to Ravana would be. Hanuman watched him carefully from the top of the tree. He had only seen Ravana asleep. Now he looked even more magnificent.

Hearing the tread of his feet as he approached, Sita trembled in terror and grief. She loathed the very sight of him but she tried to put up a brave front. She sat on the bare ground looking like the felled branch of a flowering tree. Crossing her arms across her chest, she tried to cover her scantily clad body with her two hands and thus avoid his piercing, lusty, looks.

Looking at her pitiable efforts to cover herself, Ravana said, “Why do you try to hide your beauty from my eyes. Wherever my eyes fall, I see nothing but your beauty. I am sure there is no one in all the three worlds as exquisite as you. Honour my love and accept me as your husband. You think my action is unrighteous. In the code of the rakshasas it is quite acceptable to take another man’s wife for one’s own. Do you think I cannot force you to be mine! It is only my intense love for you that stops me from doing this. I want you to come to me of your own accord. Why are you torturing yourself like this? Your lovely hair is matted with neglect, your silk garment soiled and dirty and you are half-starved and emaciated. Come, rise up, dress yourself in lovely silks and satins. Wear jewels and perfumes. This ground is not a fitting couch for your flaming beauty. My seductive Sita, Why do not you listen to me and accept my attentions? Youth and beauty are short-lived. Do not waste both in unnecessary sorrow. Come, shed your grief and accept my love. I will make you the happiest woman in the world, my chief queen. I cannot bear to take my eyes off your tantalizing form. Night and day I am haunted by your face. Can’t you see that I am crazy with love for you? After having met you, I cannot bear to look at my other wives. Your dress is in rags and you have no ornaments, yet you continue to fascinate me. You have seen me and my glory. What has Ram got, to compare with this? He is only a mendicant, clad in bark, with not even a kingdom to call his own. Take it from me that you will never see him again”.

From the moment he entered the garden, Sita had cast her eyes down and sat with averted face throughout his passionate declaration of love. Though she was terrified of Ravana and tortured by his sensual talk, she clutched at the remnants of her tattered pride. Without raising her eyes, she picked up a straw from the ground and placed it before her and spoke to it, as if addressing Ravana, no doubt with the idea of impressing on him the fact that she cared two straws for him, however grand his opinion of himself might be.

“I am the wife of Ram and it is against all the laws of dharma for you to lust after me. Give up these sinful thoughts and go back to your own wives. Be satisfied with them. I am not the one for you”. Turning her back on Ravana she continued, “Why are you bent on destroying your race? An entire kingdom can perish, if its ruler becomes the slave of his passions. Lanka is doomed. Do you think you can tempt me with gold and riches? Ram is to me, what sunlight is to the sun. Restore me to him and earn my gratitude, if that will suffice, but never hope to earn my love, for that is irrevocably given to Ram. Before long, he and Lakshman will arrive and shoot their deadly arrows at you which will suck your life’s blood. So beware”!

Ravana retorted, “You are different from any other woman I have ever known. Most women respond to compliments and gifts but the more I offer you, the more you repulse me. It is lucky for you that my love controls my anger or else you would have been killed long ago. But do not think you can escape so easily. You have only two months left, of the twelve I promised you. After that, either you share my bed or become my breakfast! Bed or breakfast! The choice is yours”. So saying, he glared at her. His angry eyes, sparked with green and blue flames and pierced through the thin piece of silk, in which she was clad. She trembled with rage and fear and spoke bitter words of condemnation to him.

“How dare you talk to me like this! I have warned you. Your death is imminent. You call yourself a hero because you defeated the gods. Yet you stole me away from my husband, when he was not there and took me away by force. Is that the action of a hero”!

A few of the women who had followed Ravana felt sorry for Sita but none dared say anything. Some took the opportunity to ingratiate themselves in Ravana’s favour and entwined their soft arms round his neck and offered themselves in lieu of Sita. But he shook them off angrily and told the rakshasis who were guarding her, to make sure that she changed her mind fast, either by persuasion or by coercion. With this ultimatum, he strode off making the ground tremble with the force of his strides.

As soon as he left, the guards started shouting and abusing Sita. “What a stupid woman you are, to refuse to be the wife of this king of kings? At his command, the trees scatter flowers and clouds release rain. The sun and moon would stop shining if he did not wish it. Why don*t you agree to his wishes and become his wife”?

Another said, “You are very lovely. I have an irresistible desire to feast on your luscious breasts and berry-like lips and delicious liver and spleen. Come let us have an orgy. Bring the wine and we will chop her into little bits and eat her”.

All the pent up feelings which she had repressed before Ravana now broke loose and Sita burst into heart-rending sobs. She cried as if her heart would break. Leaning on the trunk of the tree on which Hanuman sat, she cried out, “0 Ram! Ram! Where are you? Why don’t you come? I realise now, that death will not approach a person, till the appointed time has come, or else how can I continue to live, in the midst of these cruel rakshasis, in the palace of this lecherous man, parted from my beloved Ram”.

Hanuman could not bear to see her grief but dared not come down. Then one of the rakshasis called Trigata, who was wiser than the rest told the others to shut up and stop tormenting Sita, for she had seen a dream in which Ram and Sita were dressed in white and riding victoriously on an elephant, while Ravana was defeated and dressed in black, with shaven head.

Sita in the meantime had shed so many tears that she had none left. Heartbroken and lonely, she felt she had reached the end of her endurance and determined to end her life. As she was leaning on the trunk of the tree, her left eye and shoulder started to throb, which was a good omen for ladies. She was surprised. Was there some truth in what the woman was saying? Was her Ram coming for her?
Hanuman in the meanwhile was wondering how he could approach her, without frightening her.

Surrounded as she was by these hostile creatures, she was sure to mistrust everyone. “If I jump down in front of her she will surely scream and alert the rakshasis and thus foil my plan?. Then he hit upon a bright idea. Since her mind was always full of Ram, he would start by extolling him and then perhaps she would trust him. Without revealing himself, he spoke from his hiding place in the tree under which she was leaning.

Suddenly Sita heard these sweet words coming from above. “There was once a king called Dasaratha who was famous for his prowess. He had four sons, of whom Ram was the eldest. He is the noblest of all men. He went to the Dandaka forest with his wife and brother. One day when the brothers were away, Ravana entered the hermitage and stole his wife, Sita. Ram was heartbroken and wandered all over the country, looking for her. At last he made friends with the monkey king, who promised to help him find her. The monkeys were sent in all directions to search for her. I am one of them and I have come here because I have found the person who has been described to me by Ram, as being graceful, charming and beautiful”. So saying he fell silent.

Sita was filled with wonder and hope when she heard this. Brushing her dishevelled hair aside, she looked up at the tree and tried to find out the person who was responsible for bringing this ray of hope into her despondent heart. The thick foliage hid him from her sight. Her eyes roved in all directions but she could not find him. The rakshasis had given up their efforts to persuade her. Some had gone to tell Ravana and the rest were snoring under the trees.

Hanuman jumped lightly down to a branch, from which he could be seen and at last her anxious eyes spied him – the messenger of Ram, the harbinger of hope and happiness. She saw a small monkey clinging to the branch of the tree. He was small and cute with white fur and red face and his eyes were the colour of liquid gold. He was seated humbly on the branch and looked harmless. Still she had her doubts. She had been cheated and tormented so many times in the past few months, that she was always suspicious of everything and everyone, in case it was some new ploy of Ravana*s. Then she decided that it was all a figment of her imagination and started to call agitatedly for Ram and Lakshman. Hanuman guessed what was going on in her mind and decided that it was high time for him to appear before her. He jumped down lightly from the branch and prostrated before her. He held his folded palms above his head, in a gesture of worship and began talking in a soft tone.

“0 fair lady, tell me who you are? I see you wearing soiled garments but you look as if you are a princess. Like dew-drops on a lotus petal, tears seem to be clinging to your eyes. Why are you alone here and what is the cause of your sorrow? If by some great good fortune you are that, Sita, wife of the noble Ram, who was forcibly brought here by Ravana, then please listen to me carefully. I feel that you are indeed Ram’s queen. Your beauty has no parallel. Tell me truthfully, are you not Sita”?
Sita was elated when she heard these words and cried out, “Yes indeed, I am the daughter-in-law of the great Dasaratha and wife of the noble Ram. My father is the king of Videha and I am called Sita. I accompanied my husband to the forest and was kidnapped by Ravana and brought here. He has given me two more months to succumb to his passion. If Rania does not come before that I will end my life”.

Hanuman listened attentively to these words and then spoke, “My lady! I have been sent here by Ram. He is well, though he is also desperately unhappy at being parted from you. He grieves for you night and day and has sent me, as his messenger, to tell you that he will come for you, very soon and kill Ravana and rescue you”.

Sita was thrilled when she heard these words. She had been living in the darkness of despair for so many months, that she had almost given up hope of rescue. These words put new heart into her and she said, “It is said that if a person lives in hope, happiness will come her way sooner or later. I see now that this is true”.

Hanuman came closer and once again fear rose in her heart. She shrank into herself. She had been tricked so often that fear always lurked in her heart and she doubted everyone. Maybe this was a new trick of Ravana?s to beguile her into believing him, by pretending to praise Ram. Her mouth went dry and her limbs grew weak and she sank to the ground, unable to cling on to the branch. Again Hanuman guessed a little of what was going on inside her mind. He prostrated full length before her and refused to look up.

Timidly, Sita cast puzzled glances at him and said, ?0 Ravana, you tricked me once before, in the garb of a sannyasi. Have you now come in the form of a monkey? If so, it is useless. Please do not torment me further”.

Hanuman remained silent and Sita spoke again, “Perhaps you are indeed what you profess to be. Somehow I feel drawn to you. Please tell me more about Ram and allay my fears”. She was torn between doubt and hope and it was pitiful to see her.

Softly and sweetly Hanuman began to speak of the one who was closest to her heart. “My Lady Please believe me. I have indeed been sent by your husband, the noble king of Ayodhya. In looks, he is veritable god of love. In valour, he is a lion. He is a terror to his enemy but now he is in the depths of despair, at having lost you. I am the minister of the vanara king Sugriv and my name is Hanuman. I had been searching for you all these days. I crossed the ocean and had to enter the city to see you and now my mission is over. All I have to do is to return and give my message of hope to Ram who is waiting anxiously for my return.

Very soon you will see Ram and Lakshman entering the city of Lanka with a large army and you will be rescued At last Sita was convinced that he was indeed a messenger from Ram She asked him to tell her everything about Ram. What did he do after she was abducted, where did he go, how long would it be before I reached Lanka, and so on. She was thirsty for news of Ram and eager. lapped up every scrap of news which Hanuman gave her. Hanuma was only too happy to speak of Ram, who was his god. He told her how they had picked up the jewels, she had thrown to them, while they sat on the peak of Rishyarnukha and all the other incidents ending with his finding her. At the end of the recital, he stood respectfully with folded palms before her. Sita?s joy knew no bounds. She was now convinced, that he had indeed come from Ram. Tears of happiness replaced the tears of sorrow, which had been flowing in torrents down her cheeks. She was speechless with delight.

Hanuman said respectfully, “My lady! Please give me leave to go now. I have told you all that you wanted to know. Rest assured that Ram will arrive Portly and rescue you. Here is his signet ring ? the ring of the Raghu dynasty?-which he has sent with me, to reassure you of my identity”. So saying he went near her and handed over the ring which she knew and loved so well.

Taking the precious article in her cupped hands, she gazed and gazed at it, as if hungry for the hand which used to wear the ring. Tears coursed down her checks. With eyes filled with gratitude, she looked at Hanuman who had brought new hope to her barren heart.

“0 Hanuman”! she said, “you are indeed the noblest and bravest of all people. How could you have crossed the ocean, which is a hundred miles wide and dared to enter this citadel, which is guarded on all sides? You must surely be possessing some miraculous powers. You have also given me news of my beloved husband, who is dearer to me than my father or mother or any one else in the world. Banished from his kingdom, he walked about all these years in the forest, with me by his side. We were so happy together until this calamity overtook us. I hope he has not lost heart. Please tell him that I cling on to life, only in the hope of seeing him again”.

“My lady! If Ram had known where you were, he would have come for you, long ago. As it is, he lives in a cave and hardly eats or sleeps. He does not care for anything any more and is always lost in thought. Even when he falls into a fitful sleep, due to exhaustion, he wakes up calling, ‘Sita! Sita!? Whenever he sees something which is pleasing to you, he sighs and is inconsolable”.

Sita was thrilled to hear that Ram’s desire for her was as great as hers for him. At the same time, she was unhappy to know that he was neglecting his own health. “Your words bring both happiness and unhappiness to me, 0 Hanuman. When I think of his unhappiness, I become sorrowful too. Both extreme happiness and extreme sorrow are the outcome of one*s actions in a past life. I wonder if he will be able to reach me in time. I have barely two more months to live. This is the tenth month of my captivity and I have been given one year by the rakshasa king, before he kills me”.
Hanuman could not bear to think of going away and leaving Sita alone for another two months. “My lady’! he said, “no doubt, Ram will come soon. But I can?t bear to think of you being left alone here. Come with me and I will carry you across the ocean and take you to Ram this minute. Just give me the command”.

Sita was both touched and amused by these words. “Dear little monkey”, she said, “your good nature has made you suggest the impossible. How can a tiny creature like you, carry me across the sea”?

Hanuman smiled and said, “My lady! Do not doubt my capacity. I can grow to any size”. So saying, he began to expand his body till it looked like a huge mountain. He was a gargantuan figure with a body “If necessary, I can carry off the whole of Lanka. Do not be frightened. Come with me and I will take you to Ram and make him happy”.

Sita?s eyes were round with wonder and she said, “I see that I have under-estimated your prowess. I am sure that you can easily take me across the sea but we have to consider this proposition carefully. It is possible that your speed may make me feel giddy and I may fall into the sea. It is also possible that we will be spied by the rakshasas, who will pursue us and take me back and then my fate will be worse than what it is now. You will also be placed in great danger and you will not be able to return to Ram. Moreover, if you rescued me, it would bring no credit to Ram. It is only proper and fitting that Ram himself should come and rescue me after killing the rakshasa. Another point is that I belong only to Ram, and the thought of touching another man willingly, is abhorrent to me. Of course, it is a fact, that Ravana held me, when he brought me here, but at that time I was helpless and had no choice. Hanuman, please go back soon and bring my husband and Lakshman as fast as you can. Then, and only then, will my sorrow come to an end”.

Hanuman said ?It is fitting that a pure soul like you should speak like this. My suggestion was only because of my immense devotion to Ram and intense desire to make you happy. I will return immediately and give him all the news. Do you have any special message for him”?

Her eyes filled with memories and she said, “Hanuman, ask Ram if he remembers the hill of Chitrakoota, where he was relaxing on my lap on the banks of the Mandakini. A crow came to our presence and pecked at my breast, with its sharp beak. I tried to shoo it off with a stone but it would not leave me. Just then, Ram woke up and saw my distress and teased me. He took me on his lap and comforted me and then he dozed off once again on my lap. Then the crow came again and pecked at my breast so hard, that drops of blood fell on Ram and he woke up. He was furious when he saw that I was hurt. Looking around for the culprit, his eyes lighted on the crow whom he realised to be the son of Indra. Taking out a blade of grass, he invoked a fatal mantra and sent it after the crow. It flew in panic to all the worlds with the astra pursuing it like a ball of fire. At last it returned to Ram and fell at his feet and begged his pardon. Though it deserved to die, Ram pardoned it, since it had surrendered and let it go but the blade of grass in which the mantra had been invoked, could not go waste so he took the crow’s right eye, as punishment. 0 Hanuman! My Lord invoked the terrible brahmastra for killing a crow, who had dared to harm me. Ask him why he is keeping silent now when this wretch has kidnapped me”?

Hanuman assured her that Ram was not indifferent and would come the moment he knew about her whereabouts.

Then Sita told him of another incident which was known only to her and Ram. “Ask him if he remembers the time when the red mark on my forehead was obliterated by his hand. He powdered a red stone and placed the dot on my cheek, instead of on my forehead, to tease me”.

Sita then sent her blessings to Lakshman also. She said, “If there is anyone who is capable of looking after my Lord when I am not there, it is Lakshman, who loves him like his own father and me, like his mother. No one can withstand his anger. Tell them both to come soon, 0 Hanuman. I will not live a day longer than two months”.

So saying, she unwrapped the end of her garment and carefully took out her precious hair ornament and gave it to Hanuman and said “Please give this to Ram. When he sees this and hears the story of the crow and the red dot, which is known only to both of us, he will be convinced that you have indeed met me. 0 Hanuman, my life depends on you. Do you really have to return immediately? Your presence is like balm to my wounded spirit”.

Then she was suddenly assailed by another doubt. “Are you sure, Ram and the others will be able to cross the sea and come here”?

Hanuman assured her that everything was possible and told her not to worry. He comforted her as best as he could but she could not control the tears which were pouring down her cheeks at the thought that the one friendly face she had seen in ten long months was now about to depart. But she knew that it was dangerous for him to be seen with her, so sadly she allowed him to leave.

Thus ends the second Canto called “The Ashoka Grove” of the Sundar Kanda in the glorious Ramyana of the Sage Valmiki.

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