his legend begins in the ancient city of Ayodhya. This fair city, capital of the powerful kingdom of King Dashratha, stood on the banks of the holy river Sarayu. Ayodhya was a beautiful city with wide tree-lined streets, markets filled with skilled artisans, dancers and musicians. It was also a great seat of learning, sheltering many scholars willing to share their knowledge with eager pupils. The citizens of Ayodhya lived in peace and harmony. The lands were fertile and the harvests rich. The people of Ayodhya never went hungry. It was a happy place.
King Dashratha was a benevolent monarch, kind and generous. His people loved him and his kingdom was prosperous. He had three beautiful and loving wives (for that was the custom in days of yore).Yet, the king's heart was heavy as he longed for a son who would succeed him and carry on their noble name.
King Dashratha decided to perform a holy sacrifice in the hope that the gods would be pleased and grant him a son. During the sacrifice, a being appeared out of the sacred fire holding a bowl of sweet gruel. He told the king to feed the gruel to his queens so that they would bear him sons.
One day, the king's dreams came true. His prayers were answered fourfold and he was blessed with four sons. The king was overjoyed. Ram was the first-born, son of Kaushalya, the senior-most queen. Queen Sumitra had twins, Laxman and Shatrugan. Bharat was the son of King Dashratha's favourite queen - Kaikeyi. But Ram was the king's favourite son.
The four boys were groomed in the true tradition of princes. The wisest teachers in the land taught them skills such as archery, horsemanship, swordplay as well as the courtly manners expected of princes. They were taught the values of courage, truth, piety and respect for elders. They were not just brothers, but friends. The queens loved all the princes equally. Their sweetness and goodness made them beloved in all the kingdom.
The years passed and the princes grew to be fine, upstanding young men. Then one day, the great holy man, Vishwamitra, came to the court of King Dashratha. The King welcomed him with great honour. He asked Vishwamitra if he could be of service to him in any way. He promised the sage that he would do anything in his power to help him.
Being a powerful man, the king could not imagine that Vishwamitra could make a wish that he would find difficult to fulfil. But this is exactly what happened. Vishwamitra asked for something dearer to the king's heart than his kingdom and all the riches in the world - his son Ram.
Vishwamitra told the king that he had been trying to conduct a sacred ritual at his hermitage in the forest. Unfortunately, he had never been able to complete it because two troublesome demons sent by King Ravan used to come and disrupt the rites. The demons would overturn the altar and scatter the offerings. The sage was a master of warfare and could have crushed the demons as if he were swatting a fly. But being a holy man, he had vowed not to use his skills of combat in anger. He wanted King Dashratha to send his son Ram to protect the sacred rite.
The king was horrified. The thought of sending his favourite son, only sixteen years old, to fight two demons, sent a shiver down his spine. He tried to argue with the sage, begging him not to ask such a difficult thing. The king offered to go himself or to send the whole royal army instead. Vishwamitra was greatly angered. He chastised the king saying that he was not a man of his word.
King Dashratha's was reminded of an incident that occurred when he was very young. One day when he was hunting in the forest, Dashratha thought that he heard a gurgling sound of an elephant drinking water at a pond and he let loose an arrow in that direction. Dashratha was a superb archer who could pinpoint his target just by sound. This time, things went horribly wrong. His target turned out to be a young hermit filling a pitcher with water, not an elephant at all! Speechless with guilt, his heart filled with sorrow, Dashratha went to break the news to the hermit's old, blind parents. The old couple was devastated, the hermit's father cursed Dashratha saying that Dashratha's son would also be parted from him, and he too would die grieving for his son.