PILGRIMAGE The episodes and places that Valmiki talks about are preserved in Chitrakoot.

The Ramayana traverses India, making Rama a pan-Indian god, leaving his divine footprints in a trail, on his journey to Lanka. His exile of 14 years saw him dwell in dense forests and mountain caves, sheltering from the elements.

Chitrakoot, partly in Madhya Pradesh, and partly in Uttar Pradesh, saw Rama, Sita and Lakshmana reside in its environs for 11 of the 14 years, on the outer edge of the Dandakaranya forest, a region owned by Ravana. Mentioned by Valmiki in his epic, Chitrakoot is sited on the Vindyas, along the banks of the Payaswini, also called the Mandakini-ganga. Kalidas makes mention of Chitrakoot in his ‘Raghuvamsa,’ as a very lovely place. Tulsidas was born here, and was blessed with a vision of the Lord.

This ancient place was where Rama performed the ceremonies for Dasaratha. Chitrakoot is simply green and lovely, just a very small town, connected to Khajuraho by a very good highway, running through forests not long ago inhabited by dacoits.

The 200-km drive is easily done, going past the Panna Tiger Reserve. One can see many wood-apple trees among the dense wild vegetation, the ‘bel’ fruit that was eaten by the exiled gods here, a fruit that is even today offered to the idols.

Going first to Gupt Godavari brings one to the caves up a stepped slope. Dark, dank and overhanging, with many projections, the two caves rapidly take the visitor back in time — this was where Rama lived for some time. A large flat rock gives the appearance of a natural throne, where it is said that Rama held court, with local denizens as devoted audience.

Godavari for Sita

A far corner has a very tiny dark pool, beside which sits a priest — this is Sita Kund, where Sita would bathe. The merciful gods sent the Godavari here, for Sita’s comfort, and the pool runs out as a rivulet runs just a few metres outside, where it ends in a small pond.

The Dhanush Kund is close by, in the same cave — Lakshmana stood guard here, while Sita bathed in the inner pool, out of sight. Minor rakshasas were sent by Ravana to take Sita’s clothes, and hence the guard. Of course, at this point of time the identity of the divine couple was unknown to Ravana — it was just his wont to have demons harass the women in the region.

Ramghat is where the Mandakini flows broad and clear, picturesque with temples up the slopes on either bank — one bank is in Madhya Pradesh and the other in Uttar Pradehs! The Mandakini-Ganga witnesses a daily evening aarti, performed with pomp, below the statue of Tulsidas. Boating on the holy river gives a clear view of the proceedings, while sitting high up on the steps gives a wider vision. Ramghat was where Rama and Lakshmana used to bathe, and also fulfilled Tulsidas’ desire for a vision of his beloved Rama.

Beyond Ramghat is Janaki Kund, away from the hustle of the town. Shadowed and sheltered by overhanging trees, the waters of the river are crystal clear here, a picture-perfect setting, said to have greatly appealed to Sita’s simple heart. Her footprints are marked out in red, for devotees to see, and worship. A little distance away along the river is Sphatikshila, where Rama’s footprints are kept preserved. At this place Sita was pecked at by Jayanta, in the form of a crow. Rama took pleasure in helping Sita decorate Herself, the two sitting on this large rock by the river.

Sati Anusuya’s ashram is located about 16 km from town, well within the forests. The region had no rain for about ten years, slipping into deep drought. Anusuya meditated and brought the Mandakini here, turning the place verdant and fertile, goes the legend. Here Sita was given the gifts of jewels, clothes and unguents by Anusuya, gifts guaranteed to keep Her ever fresh and lovely. The episodes connected with Anusuya are in tableau form here, with lifelike figures charming the viewer.

Kamadgiri is the unusual bow-shaped hill looming over Chitrakoot. It is the original Chitrakoot, abounding with small temples. The parikrama around the hill is 6 km long. The entire circumambulatory barefoot walk is lined with newish shrines and temples to Rama, and Hanuman. Monkeys throng the path and chatter from the trees, easily outnumbering human presence. They are content to feed on boiled gram thrown by the devotee. Shops line the narrow walk, filled with pictures of gods, glittering stickers and tinsel, and brassware. Families live around the parikrama, and young boys are seen playing in groups.

Melted by affection

More than halfway round the hill brings one to the object of the walk — the Bharat Milap temple. It was here that Bharata came to meet Rama, as soon as he knew of the exile. The footprints are a bit vague, sort of melted into each other. Legend states that the great affection between Rama and Bharata melted the rock at this spot. The next marked spot is that where Kausalya embraced Sita, and the last where Lakshmana and Shatrughna were caught up in an emotional hug.

Hanuman Dhara atop a high hill is a spring, created by Rama to cool down Hanuman, returning with a burning tail after setting Lanka afire. Bharat Koop is where Bharata had stored all the holy water collected from all over India, in preparation for the Pattabhishekam.

Chitrakoot certainly brings the Ramayana vibrantly alive. It is an ethereal place, with the modern comfort of a well run tourist bungalow close to Ramghat. The sole sad factor here is the behaviour of the priests, outside the caves. They try to instill fear in the devotees who fail to drop cash offerings at their bogus shrines along the way to the holy spots. Its high time that the Government or tourist authority takes severe action against these quacks.