- The Story of Ram in Ramlila
There are many versions of the story of Ram, but the story that is told in many Ramlilas, plus or minus some scenes, is fairly consistent and begins long before Ram's birth in the kingdom of Ayodhya. Two backstories entailing twists of fate and curses uttered in rage are often presented to set up the main plot. In the first one, a young Dashrath slays the virtuous and dutiful son Shravankumar in a hunting accident, prompting the latter's blind father to proclaim that the king too will one day be separated from his son and die bereft. In the second backstory, the overly confident sage Narad discovers that Lord Vishnu has "made a monkey out of him" to bring him down a few spiritual notches, leading him to declare that Vishnu too will one day lose his beloved and have to rely on the aid of monkeys to recover her.
Fast forward to the dramatic present: Ravan, the arrogant tenheaded, half-brahmin, half-rākṣas (a variety of demon) ruler of the island kingdom of [Shri] Lanka is tormenting the earth with his atrocities and reign of terror. Distraught by Ravan's rampage, the gods appeal to Vishnu to take human form on earth to rid it of the scourge of Ravan. Vishnu assumes the form of Prince Ram to defeat Ravan, with the aid of a celestial vānar (monkey) army, gods incarnate. Vishnu's divine partner Lakshmi assumes the form of heroine Princess Sita. Unfortunately for Ravan, he is invincible against all combatants except humans, as per the conditions of a boon he previously received from Lord Brahma after performing great penances.
Down on earth, noble King Dashrath rules the kingdom of Ayodhya. Desirous of a male heir, Dashrath calls on his sage-adviser, Vasishth, who arranges a ritual in which the king feeds his three wives, Kaushalya, Sumitra, and Kaikeyi, a milky pudding. The result of this ritual intervention is not one son, but four: Ram (by Kaushalya), Bharat (by Kaikeyi), and twins Lakshman and Shatrughna (by Sumitra). Lakshman is an incarnation of Sheshnag, Vishnu's protective serpent. A few years later, Sita is born miraculously in the kingdom of Mithila. Her father King Janak and his wife discover the child by accident while plowing a field in a royal ritual, and indeed her name means "furrow." [End Page 34]
When Dashrath's sons are teenagers, another sage pays a visit to Ayodhya. It is Vishwamitra, who earlier pulled himself up by his royal bootstraps through the power of his own formidable austerities, to become a great sage. He entreats Dashrath to place Ram and Lakshman in his care, to receive his tutelage and rid the forested areas of meddlesome demons. Initially hesitant, the king agrees, and the trio sets out. During their travels, the princes successfully clear out the demons, and Ram proves his mettle by slaying the demoness Tadka. Ramal so shows his grace by liberating Alahya, whose ascetic husband had turned her to stone for her supposed infidelity. Next, Vishwamitra brings the boys to Janakpur, where Ram has his first glimpse of Sita in a chance encounter. King Janak is holding a svayaṃvar ("bride-groom choice" or marriage contest) for his daughter Sita. The condition that is whoever lifts and strings the mighty bow of Shiva shall marry Janak's daughter Sita. After many princes fail, Ram steps forward and effortlessly completes the task, breaking the bow in the process. Vishnu's sixth incarnation Parashuram appears and angrily questions why someone has broken Shiva's bow, butis pacified by Ram. Then in a joyous wedding, Ram marries Sita, and his three brothers marry Sita's kinswomen.
Some time later, Dashrath decides to retire and make Ram king. However, before Ram can assume the throne, Kaikeyi, provoked by her hunch-backed maidservant Manthra, conspires to make her son Bharat king. Cashing in an old promise from the king to grant her two wishes after she once saved his life on the battlefield, Kaikeyi now demands that Dashrath crown Bharat king and banish Ram to the forest for fourteen years. Distraught, Dashrath agrees to her demands...