We await with bated breath for January 22, bristling in excitement as if a grand wedding is taking place in our own homes. We imagine a tree-bark clad superhero returning after a long estrangement from his land climbing up the steps of a pink sandstone building. Cheered by a vast crowd, he walks on in slow motion, to ascend the throne that was longing for his warmth.
The Ramayana was the first story most of us from the subcontinent heard in our native tongues, by our mothers and grandmothers as they deftly rolled in food in between pauses under moonlit skies. The story of one man whose narrative weaved the geography of an entire nation as he walked it alongside his beloved wife and brother. Itihasa or history unfolded with every place he visited, every tree he sat under and every stone he touched. Legends, temples, art and music mushroomed at his every step. It was a story that inspired a thousand renditions in paper and music, retold on every new medium we embraced from the Harikatha exponents to actors on the silver screens, from street plays to podcasts, from palm leaves to Kindle digital editions. Is it the charisma of this man, is it the story telling, is it the Dharmic qualities he exhibits, why does this one-story hold steady in our hearts despite its occurrence over 7000 years?
As little girls we sighed coyly, as we imagined the scene when Rama and Sita first saw each other. We clapped in glee as Hanuman razed every building in Lanka while soldiers from Ravana's army tried to capture him. We knew the plots, the twists and the conclusion but that didn't stop us from experiencing the justified indignation as Lakshmana chops off Surpanakha nose, the horror at the killing of Jatayu or the angst when Sita returns to Bhoomi Devi as a heartbroken Rama watched, every time we heard it. His story was narrated to remind us that if an exalted man, the very incarnation of Vishnu is not spared the travails of life, where did we stand as mere humans? Over 2000 years after Rama walked, in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata, the entire Ramayana is retold to Yudhishtira and his family by Rishi Markandeya as a reminder to triumph over each obstacle and not lose heart.
Most of us growing up never thought we would witness a temple at the place of his birth. The disputed area was in legal contention for several centuries, but the storytelling had kept it alive as pilgrims continued to visit Ayodhya and gather in numbers despite the temple being razed and rebuilt again and again. This was a victory to their determination and ardent love for their beloved hero, a love that will finally bear testament in stone.
In the dhyana sloka of Sri Vishnu Sahasranamam recited by Bhishma on the battlefield of Kurukshetra we find the following lines:
श्री राम राम रामेति रमे रामे मनोरमे ।
सहस्रनाम तत्तुल्यं रामनाम वरानने ॥
"In chanting the name of Rama, I find joy in my mind and heart, which is equivalent to chanting a thousand names of Vishnu."
Rama's birth date is celebrated every year in the ninth day of the Chaitra month (March-April) of Shukla Paksha with an offering of panakam , a simple concoction of jaggery, cardamom, lemon and ginger and watered down buttermilk to help us bear an unforgiving Indian summer while celebrating the life of an avatar of Vishnu who chooses to live a simple life. But as history unfolds on Jan 22nd, I have no doubt that a feast will be prepared in many Hindu homes to celebrate the rightful return of the King.