Hailed as one of the greatest stories ever told, the Ramayana — the ancient Hindu epic written by the poet and rishi (sage) Valmiki — tells the tale of Prince Rama, who embarks on a long and treacherous journey to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of King Ravana of Lanka. Composed sometime in the 5th century, the Ramayana is intrinsically embedded in India’s history and culture, so much so that the Hindu festival of lights, or Deepavali, is based on the celebration of the day Rama, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman finally return to Ayodhya in triumph after 14 years of exile and defeating Ravana’s army of demons.
But it is in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, long believed to be Lord Rama’s birthplace (Rama is worshipped as the seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu), that the spirit of the Ramayana is now most keenly felt. The world’s eyes are now locked on the ancient city, nestled on the banks of the Sarayu River, as the Ram Mandir, a magnificent new temple dedicated to Lord Rama, is inaugurated this week by India Prime Minister Narendra Modi. No less than 200 dignitaries from 55 nations, thousands of spiritual leaders and heads of temples, prominent industrialists and, of course, major celebrities from the worlds of Bollywood and cricket are expected to attend.
Already considered one of India’s holiest cities, Ayodhya, besides being Ram Janmabhoomi (or the birthplace of the deity), also counts itself among the Sapta Puri, or “seven sacred sites”, together with Kanchipuram, Varanasi, Haridwar, Ujjain, Mathura and Dwarka. These holy places are sometimes collectively referred to as “the givers of liberation” as it is held that pilgrimages to all seven will result in the attainment of moksha and freedom from samsara, or the endless cycle of birth and death.
One of the key events surrounding the entire Ram Mandir whirl would be the Pran Pratishtha, or consecration ceremony, of an idol of Lord Rama. Lovingly referred to as “Ram Lalla”, due to its depiction of Lord Rama as a child, the idol was masterfully carved by Arun Yogiraj, one of the country’s most in-demand sculptors and who himself is descended from a long line of royal artisans in Mysore, Karnataka.
For those who worship Lord Rama and his devoted Hanuman, the presentation of the idol seems to be yet another providential occurrence in the multifaceted Hindu pantheon. How so, you might ask? To start, Arun Yogiraj hails from Karnataka, the legendary land of Hanuman. Second, the Ramayana incessantly tells of how Hanuman never wavered in faithfully serving Rama, even dispatching his army of monkeys to search for and help recover Sita. Perhaps devotees might consider the Pran Pratishtha, the presentation of a great work by another son of Karnataka to Rama, as yet another act of selfless service by the Monkey God to his Lord. Like we said, the spirit of the Ramayana is most keenly felt in Ayodhya.
This article first appeared on Jan 22, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.