It was just a travel idea to begin with. We—old friends—have been going on family vacations together for years. During one such trip, sitting in a hotel room in Jaipur, we were struck by the thought of travelling to Chitrakoot.
We had no idea that we were about to embark on a path-breaking journey. It turned out to be a heady cocktail of faith, fun and exhilaration.
The epic Ramayana tells us that Ram, Sita and Lakshman took refuge in the woods of Chitrakoot when they went on vanvaas or exile. They spent 11 years, 11 months and 11 days in the forests of Chitrakoot, in present-day Uttar Pradesh (and some parts in Madhya Pradesh). Our Chitrakoot sojourn—with visits to some sights associated with the epic—sparked an idea we decided to try and follow the path that Ram, Sita and Lakshman took in exile.
When we reached the Chitrakoot railway station, we did, for a bit, wonder if the decision to visit the town was a wise one, for it looked exactly like any dusty mofussil settlement.
But our first outing to the cave where Ram, Sita and Lakshman stayed during the vanvaas turned the impression around. This was where, folklore had it, a demon cast an evil eye on a bathing Sita, and Lakshman, guarding the cave entrance, cursed that he would hang upside down from the cave roof till eternity. A look at the enormous and grotesque human form in stone hanging from the ceiling ensured we would be hooked to the stories that this travel would unearth.
We went looking for the ashram of Raja Ambrish, an ancestor of Ram. This was from where Ram, Sita and Lakshman first stepped into Dandakaranya. Trekking through two kilometres of farmland, crossing a river by wading through knee-deep water and then climbing up a hill across dense forests sealed the deal for us. If adventure such as this was on offer, we wanted in
We studied a pile of texts and decided to follow the route that was the most plausible from Ayodhya to Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh and across the Ganga.
We arrived in Chitrakoot, went through Dandakaranya in Bastar and to Panchvati, near Nasik in Maharashtra. We then moved southwards to Hampi in Karnataka, and arrived at Rameshwaram, where the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal meet. And then we proceeded to Sri Lanka.
During the journey we searched for sites in obscure villages. The outcome was our book In the Footsteps of Rama—Travels with the Ramayana. The book is what we call a mytho-travelogue.It describes our travels along the route interspersed with stories from the Ramayana. The people we met along the way form a good part of the book.
Our many conversations with local people threw up questions that we never dealt with. Did Shabari never taste the berries that she offered Ram, as some priests near Hampi insisted? Why did Ram, Sita and Lakshman leave Chitrakoot to battle the ogres inhabiting Dandakaranya? Was Hampi actually Kishkindha—the kingdom of the vaanaras? Did the Ram Setu not start from Dhanushkodi, as believed, but from Sethukarai, as local folklore had it Every site or temple we visited had its own tale, narrated by the local priests and endorsed by the people.
One of the strengths of the epic lies in the fact that there are a number of parallel narratives for every story. Likewise, many areas stake claim to a particular event, with the people asserting that a certain chapter in the epic occurred in that very region.
Most local people are aware of their region&rsquos connection with the epic, and justifiably proud of it. In some small villages, though, the stories are associated with local heroes.
Chasing multiple narratives and exploring various locations often led us to serendipitous discoveries.
Take the case of Shringaverpur, or the current Singraur, some 30km from Prayagraj. This is where Ram, Sita and Lakshman cast aside their royal robes and donned the garments of ascetics. We were in search of an answer to a question that we had been pondering over were they met there by the boatman Kewat, who had taken them in his boat across the Ganga, or was it Nishad Raj, the king of the boatmen, who did so According to Valmiki, it was Nishad Raj in Tulsidas' version, it was Kewat.
We met Pandit Maniram, a local priest whose family has been residing there for generations. He offered to show us the ruins of Nishad Raj&rsquos palace as proof of his existence. That was when we chanced upon a water-purifying structure. An Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) board there stated that the structure was more than 2,500 years old.
Driving to a place a kilometre away and climbing atop a hillock, we saw a sunken structure some 250 feet long, 30 feet wide and about 20 feet deep. Surprisingly well preserved, though no longer in use, it was a brick-lined tank with many walls in between and a chamber towards the end. The River Ganga, flowing on three sides, was joined to the hillock through channels. Water was possibly once brought up from the river into the first tank and then, through a system of weirs and aqueducts, it flowed into a tank at the other end, from where it rolled back into the river.
As the flow slowed down due to multiple obstructing walls, the impurities got trapped at each stage. The water in the last chamber was thus purer than the initial stream. Finally, the outgoing channel let the unused water flow back into the Ganga. The gradient ensured that this was a gravity- powered process.
We watched the structure in awe, and listened to Maniram as he told us its story. The chamber at the end, he said, was where the queens of Nishad Raj bathed. The board, however, suggested it purified water for religious ceremonies.
Either way, it was a spectacular sight. We sat there for an hour just marvelling at the centuries-old technology.
All through the journey, marvels fell into our laps. Another example was the Sri Kodanda Rama temple at Chunchanakatte, a four-hour drive from Bengaluru just ahead of Shravanabelagola, the great Jain pilgrimage centre.
The temple at Chunchanakatte is where a hunter couple—Chuncha and Chunchi—embraced a life of righteousness after meeting Ram. The temple is situated on a hillock, with the Chunchanakatte waterfalls just behind it. The view from the temple was mesmerising.
The temple is large, and the gopuram there has three levels. The well-maintained temple, like many of the shrines we had seen in South India, with its picturesque locale and view, was spectacular in itself, but equally astounding was the glorious silence inside the temple. The roar of the waterfall, loud and clear outside, was wholly blocked inside the temple.
The temple guard, Krishnamachary, had a story to tell us. Ram had granted Chuncha and Chunchi absolute silence as a boon.
When they decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives taking his name, the couple found they were being disturbed by the waterfall. They mentioned this to Ram, and he called for silence—and the waterfall's roar was blocked.
Some may say it was an architectural marvel, not a divine blessing. All that we know is that as we sat in front of the idols&mdash with the image of Sita to the right of Ram, unlike on the left as it is in most places—we felt a sense of deep peace.
We had gone to Devipattinam, an hour's drive from Rameshwaram, to see the Navagraha temple, unaware that something of great import in Ram's journey had taken place there. All we knew was that people visited the temple to pacify the planets, to remove negative influences on their lives. However, we learnt that Ram had prayed there—for the very same reason.
We had earlier visited the Vinayaka temple at Uppur, and the priest there told us the story of how Ram had wondered how to cross the sea. That was when the priest at the Adi Jagannatha temple at Devipattinam advised him to seek the blessings of the nine planets.
But every time Ram tried to create a shrine to the planets on the seashore, the sea would wash it away. Finally, the Sudarshana Chakra in the Jagannatha temple recognised its master. It came whirring at the sea, forcing it to recede so that Ram could consecrate the temple.
The Navagraha temple is situated some 100 metres into the sea. It is a circular tank, barely three metres in diameter, approachable by a concrete jetty in which the idols of the planets are placed. During high tide, people stand in waist-deep water and pray.
Our next stop had us transfixed. Some 100 metres away was the Kadaladaitha Adi Jagannatha temple. Just before the entrance to the temple was a platform with sculpted snakes of all shapes and sizes on it. A giant black snake made out of a single stone slab dominated the space, and many others—of stone, silver or other metals—adorned the slab. Couples sat with young girls and prayed to them. A local priest told us that appeasing a snake god helped overcome adverse planetary configurations.
It was a surreal atmosphere—with loud chanting, smoke swirling in the air and multiple snake idols, some with red tongues hanging out.
We came across many such places—repositories of unknown stories—in our 17-month-long journey.
We started our journey in 2019, after reading several versions of the Ramayana to understand the story's many nuances. As a result, we not only discovered new stories but also connected to a vast network of people whose faith enriched us immeasurably.
Vikrant Pande is a full-time author and a prolific translator, and Neelesh Kulkarni is a multi-talented person who wears many hats—businessman, voice-over artist, and stage actor