Vivaha Panchami: A celebration of divine love

Features Issue 122 Jan, 2012
Text and Photo By Charlie Das Udasin

The epic love story and marriage of Ram Sita is re-lived every year in the very place the story unfolded.

Lord Rama held the mighty and lengthy golden bow in his hand, he knew it was something special, he stood tall in the palace of famed Lord Janak, ruler of Mithila. He knew the story of how no man had been able to pull back the bows tight string, let alone fire even a single arrow. He knew that marrying the enchanted Sita, Janak’s daughter, all depended on making this shot. Rama had met numerous “strong men”, who had failed the test—he was nervous, under his confident persona. What was in his hand was no simple bow, it was the Shiva Dhanush, weapon of the mighty Lord Shiva, the God of Destruction, entrusted into the care of the revered Janak. It was to be a way for Janak to know the correct man, the one who should marry his beloved, beautiful and virtuous daughter.

As Rama held the bow in his hand, he breathed a moment, then swiftly, he lifted the weapon, grander than himself, but yet all within the flash of a second. With calm meditation, he had strung the bow, and, focused his mind. With one clean swoop he pulled back the string, the audience was frozen by the feat, under all his might and power, the bow doubled, and the arrow fired like a thunderbolt. As it exited the bow’s arch, the weapon snapped into two, under Rama’s unseen strength. In that moment, all those present, knew that the virtuous Rama was indeed bestowed with great powers, and was the one destined to marry Sita. The families of Janak and Dasaratha (Rama’s father, ruler of Ayodhya), would now be joined in union. Two great empires were about to come together.

Now what has this great epic, of Hinduism got to do with us here in Nepal?

Simple really, Lord Janak, his daughter Sita, and their ancient Kingdom of Mithila, were all right here, within these borders, in the Tarai district of Dhanusa (Sanskrit for “bow”). The scene described above, happened in the uniquely constructed, mesmerizing temple, known as the Ram-Janaki Mandir. It happened during Sita’s Swayamvar, a ceremony where the woman chooses her own husband. Each year since, in the month of November (-ish), the Hindu world comes together with love and fervor, for the festival of Vivaha Panchami, the celebration of this beloved couple’s wedding day. For the people of India, Ram-Sita are not just a happy couple, they are the incarnations of the virtuous Lord Vishnu (Lord of the Gods) and his serene wife, Laxmi (the Goddess of Wealth).

Lord Janak himself is held in Hinduism as not just a king of lands, but as a divine guru, a master of Hinduism’s practices. Even deities like Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu take council with him on different matters making Janakpur a place that all Hindu deities visit, to pay their respects.

About The Ramayana
The Ramayana is held as India’s first great epic tale. It is the story of Lord Rama and his wife Sita, the tensions that love and other men’s lust can bring, as well as the beauty of divine matrimony. The only other epic is the Mahabharata, written later and chronicling the tales of Lord Krishna, another of Vishnu’s incarnations. The Ramayana has been accredited to the noteworthy sage Valmiki, and is believed to be from the 5th Century B.C.

Through its telling of Ram-Sita’s tale of love and devotion, it gives people a guidebook on the correct behavior for husbands, wives, brothers, fathers, families, friends, as well as depicting how to deal with aggression in correct karmic ways.

In the tale, Rama’s wife Sita is abducted by an evil demonic rakchhasa king called Ravana, who through meditation, received a boon from the universal creator, Lord Brahma, making him immune to divine forces. This see’s Ravana go on a vile rampage of lust and destruction, defiling many a religious tenant. So the gods, unable to defeat Ravana directly, take human and animal forms. Enter Rama, his beloved brother Laksman (the incarnation of Vishnu’s snake) and Hanuman the monkey warrior from Kishkinda, son of Lord Vayu, the God of Wind, and considered as embodying elements of Shiva’s power. Along with this merry band, the entire monkey army of Kishkinda, comes to Rama’s side to rescue Sita, fighting Ravana’s vast, dark army, after he stole her away to his Kingdom of Lanka (Sri Lanka).

The tale follows the exploits of Rama who quests for his wife, and Sita who remains devout to her husband while imprisoned and keeping her love safe. Ravana constantly tries to trick the devout Sita into giving herself to him, willingly but she sees through his illusions.

Hanuman becomes a central figure in her rescue, with his love for Rama becoming a shining example to all people, describing the meaning of selfless devotion. The powerful monkey warrior never takes a wife, keeping his love only for Ram-Sita, remaining a constant figure by their side.

When Ram-Sita left this plain of existence, they offered Hanuman to leave with them. Instead, Hanuman requested to stay on here, for as long as Ram-Sita are worshipped. That’s why whenever the Ramayana is read in public, a red seat is kept empty for the warrior monkey; though unseen, he is always believed to attend.

Janakpur, Nepal and the Ramayana
The Ramayana was not just India’s first great epic saga, in fact it is Nepal’s too. The story was re-written in the Nepali language, by Bhanubhakta Acharya, coinciding with a renaissance in the Nepali language.

The city of Janakpur shows the diversity that is a characteristic of the entire country. The streets, art and buildings are beyond comparison in all this land. Unique is the word. Walking through its streets instantly transports one to a place not so different from India’s Rajasthan. The 52 constructed ponds and ghats are a wonder to behold architecturally, and amazing places to pay devotion to the sacred couple, especially when the colors of the rising sun shine bright. Nowadays there are probably more temples in Janakpur to the Ramayana characters, than there are inhabitants.

During the festival of Vivaha Panchami, the entire city heaves with crowds coming from every direction of the Hindu world, clamoring to pour out their love and respect. The temple of Ram-Janaki (the main one in the city), see the most traffic; it is the spot where Rama pulled the bow’s un-moving string. Next to that is the temple where Ram-Sita were married, the queue gets long here, and for a devotional dip there is the Ganga Sagar (pond). In the olden days, these ponds were laced with gold, to help better transmit one’s devotion to the other side.

On the day, dahi (curd) and chiura (beaten rice) are the prasad, or devotional gift to eat. Both are devoured in vast amounts, laced with sugar. Meeti, the tantalizing milk sweet of India is offered at every corner, and next to those are stalls selling every form of religious picture and trinket. The essence of ripe oranges fills the air throughout.

I’m sure the beautiful capital of the once mighty kingdom has dwindled much through the centuries, but it still exists and gives one a glimpse into a time of myth, legend and fantasy; something that is difficult to find in our world, in this the era of science and fact.

Science and romance
Some facts make the Ramayana story slightly difficult to argue on a divine level. In my opening scene, I paint the story of Rama with Shiva’s mighty bow. Now okay, this can all be called just a very good story. However, if you travel 14 km outside of Janakpur, to the temple of Dhanusadam, you will find a strange scene. Within the temple is a length of molten earth, stretching for about 20m, as if a greatly violent explosion happened here, almost on par with the damage of a meteorite crashing to earth. Or, as the story goes, the arrow fired by Rama. N.A.S.A’s scientists have been here to examine the scene, and the mystery remains.

Further east in the hillside town of Dharan, is a dhuni or religious fire established by Rama more than two and a half millennia ago. Religious ceremonies have been performed there every day since. Even today, it is run by an elderly Udasin Baba, sleeping in the jungle, in the trees at night, avoiding wild animals. It goes to show how long Rama-devotion has been in existence in this country alone.

Another story from the Ramayana is of Lord Hanuman, and the heroic leap he made from the east coast of India, all the way to Sri Lanka, after hearing that Sita might be captive there. The tale goes that after first meditating, he made the jump in one great feat, flying safely over the vast expanse of nothingness. In the saga he succeeds, finds Sita, and brings her the message that her beloved Rama is looking for her, and not to lose faith. It is the moment that brings Sita great hope and strength. She refuses to have Hanuman take her out, for it would tarnish Rama’s reputation for not saving his wife, himself. Hanuman escapes back to Rama with the news, but first sets Lanka ablaze, like the pesky monkey he is.

Now you might say, sure, that really happened. But on top of a Sri Lanka mountain, named Adam’s Peak, is a footprint fused into the solid rock. Perhaps it is the footprint of the landing Hanuman?

The Ramayana provided people with a code of behavior, like Lakshman loyally following his eldest brother Rama, and his wife Sita, into exile for 14 years. After Rama had been tricked, by his stepmother, to relinquish his right over the kingdom of Ayodhya and to leave it. Lakshman follows, keeping watchful eyes for danger, loyally at his brother’s side through thick and thin. Sita is held as the exemplary wife who follows her husband into exile, living with him and his brother as simple sages, giving up their limitless wealth. Ram-Sita, are seen as the personification of true love, and provide a code for all married couples to follow.

Now sure, many people can say all this is just fantasy. Even the creator of the movie epic Star Wars, George Lucas thought so, using it as the model for his hit series. A stolen princess Lea (Sita), a young prince Skywalker (Rama), his loyal friend Han Solo (Lakshman), with his even more loyal, hairy friend Chewbaka (Hanuman), the evil Darth Vader (Ravana) and the Ewok rebels (the monkey army of Kishkinda), who made Darth Vader’s fall possible.

As stories go, the Ramayana is one of the world’s most popular religious texts, incorporated into not just Nepal and India’s culture and religion, but into vast swathes of Southeast Asian Buddhist culture. Rama’s strength with the bow, and the unquestioning love in his relationship with the virtuous Sita have moved people for countless millennia, on a basic level, far removed from religion, but reflected in every love affair.