Exploring Nashik: Where Legends Of The Ramayana Come To Life

Located on the banks of the Godavari, Nashik is rich in narratives that refer to the Ramayana. A visit is a testament to how these ancient stories have got under our skin
Ghats on the Godavari River
Ghats on the Godavari RiverShutterstock

Standing beneath the Panchavati today, with all the noise and traffic around us, it was difficult to imagine the sowmya pushiptakanan (beautiful flowering forest) which had mesmerized the epic hero Ram. But as our guide chanted couplets describing the beauty of the place as mentioned in various literary works, from Valmiki's Ramayana to Kalidasa's Raghuvansham to Tulsidas's Ramcharitmanas, we slowly fell under his spell. Whether it was his mellifluous voice or our willing suspension of disbelief, I cannot say. But soon, we were following the crowds on the customary trail.

A devotee dressed as Shiva during Kumbh Mela
A devotee dressed as Shiva during Kumbh MelaShutterstock

We had arrived in Nashik the day before and had decided to do a quick tour of the town before heading towards the Gangapur Dam reservoir. Nashik is located on the Godavari banks in Maharashtra and is deeply intertwined with the Ramayana. Dotting the older part of the town, on the north bank of the river, are sites associated with various events from the epic. It is said that Ram, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, lived here for some time, accompanied by his wife Sita and younger brother Lakshman, during his 14 years in exile. The area was part of the Dandakaranya (Dandak forest). He decided to set up a small cottage beneath the Panchavati because the presence of five banyan trees (pancha vat) had rendered the place auspicious, and it was surrounded by scenic views and friendly denizens of the forest. Unfortunately, the tranquil setting did little to assuage their problems.

Surpanakha, sister of Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, lived nearby. She was attracted to the young princes from Ayodhya. Although the description of Surpanakha and her story varies between the original and the various regional versions of the Ramayana, it is generally accepted that she first expressed her love for Ram and urged him to marry her. Ram politely declined, saying he was already married. She then approached Lakshman, who also turned her down.

A woman sells offerings near a temple
A woman sells offerings near a templeShutterstock

An upset Surpanakha turned violent, and an enraged Lakshman cut off her nose. Nasika is Sanskrit for the nose, and the place gradually became known as Nashik. Seeing Surpanakha wounded, her cousins Khara and Dushana, who lived in the Dandak forest, attacked Ram and Lakshman but were defeated by the princes. Surpanakha then reached out to her brother Ravana, the king of Lanka, who decided to take revenge by abducting Sita. 

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After a tour of the Ghats where people were busy taking holy dips, we reached Panchavati. The trees stand in a rough circle, spreading their branches and roots, receiving homages from devout pilgrims who make a beeline for Ram Kund, Sita Gupha (meaning Sita's cave), and other pilgrim spots nearby. Ram Kund is a pond along the course of the river. It is believed that Ram used to bathe here, and it was here that he immersed the ashes after the funeral rites of his father, King Dasharath of Ayodhya.

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Expect a long queue at the Sita Gupha, especially during the festive season. The way to the sanctum sanctorum consisted of narrow staircases accessible by one person at a time. Inside was a shrine dedicated to the trio (Ram, Sita and Lakshman) and another containing a shivling, which Sita worshipped. According to local belief, it was from here that Ravana abducted Sita. You may also see the gallery depicting the incident through a diorama series. We soon discovered that dioramas and life-size installations depicting various incidents are typical here. Located nearby is the Kalaram Mandir, a temple (with a gold-plated dome) which gets its name from the idols carved out of black stones. The present temple, also made of black stone, with its elaborate architectural detail, was built by the Peshwa rulers of Maharashtra. It is said that it took nearly 200 workers 12 years to complete the work. The temple authorities organise colourful processions during Ram Navami, Dussehra and Chaitra Padwa. 

Large statues of Hanuman can be seen all over the town
Large statues of Hanuman can be seen all over the townShutterstock

There are many temples in and around Panchavati (such as Naroshankar, Kapileshwar, Muktidham, etc.), but we had to skip them owing to a shortage of time. However, the pilgrimage did not end here. Following our fellow pilgrims' footsteps, we drove to a rocky riverine zone called Tapovan. This place is associated with the Hindu pantheon and is said to have been the abode of many hermits.

There are many temples here, including one which is known as the Sarva Dharma Mandir (professing all faiths). Those on the Ramayana trail head to the temples dedicated to Lakshman and the monkey god Hanuman. The idol in the Lakshman temple is said to depict him in the Seshnag avatar. The hall contains a rather grotesque installation of Surpanakha in a wounded pose. It is said that Lakshman had cut off her nose here. The green cover of the Hills from the days of the epic has long gone, but people are happy to enjoy a merry outing among the streams and boulders, along with earning some holy merits. The confluence of the rivers Godavari and Kapila located here is considered sacred. Hunger pangs drove us back to the Panchavati area, where we snacked on some delightful missal pav, sabudana wada, and lassi before starting for our next destination.

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