Scion of Ikshvaku (Ram Chandra #1)


by Amish Tripathi

Chapter 1

3400 BCE, somewhere near the Godavari River, India

Ram crouched low as he bent his tall, lean and muscular frame. He rested his weight on his right knee as he held the bow steady. The arrow was fixed in place, but he knew that the bowstring should not be pulled too early. He didn’t want his muscles to tire out. He had to wait for the perfect moment. It must be a clean strike.

‘It’s moving, Dada,’ whispered Lakshman to his elder brother.

Ram didn’t reply. His eyes were fixed on the target. A light breeze played with the few strands of hair that had escaped the practical bun atop his head. His shaggy, unkempt beard and his white dhoti gently fluttered in the breeze. Ram corrected his angle as he factored in the strength and direction of the wind. He quietly cast his white angvastram aside to reveal a battle-scarred, dark-skinned torso. The cloth should not interfere with the release of the arrow.

The deer suddenly came to a standstill as it looked up; perhaps instinct had kicked in with some warning signals. Ram could hear its low snort as it stomped its feet uneasily. Within a few seconds it went back to chewing leaves as silence prevailed. The rest of the herd was a short distance away, hidden from view by the dense foliage of the forest.

‘By the great Lord Parshu Ram, it ignored its instincts,’ said Lakshman softly. ‘Thank the Lord. We need some real food.’

‘Quiet…’

Lakshman fell silent. Ram knew they needed this kill. Lakshman and he, accompanied by his wife Sita, had been on the run for the last thirty days. A few members of the Malayaputra tribe, the sons of Malaya, led by their captain, Jatayu, were also with them.

Jatayu had urged flight well before the inevitable retaliation came. The botched meeting with Shurpanakha and Vibhishan would certainly have consequences. They were, after all, the siblings of Raavan, the wrathful demon-king of Lanka. Raavan was sure to seek vengeance. Lankan royal blood had been shed.

Racing east through the Dandakaranya, the dense forest of Dandak, they had travelled a reasonable distance parallel to the Godavari. They were fairly reassured now that they wouldn’t be easily spotted or tracked. Straying too far from the tributary rivers or other water bodies would mean losing out on the best chance of hunting animals. Ram and Lakshman were princes of Ayodhya, inheritors of the proud Kshatriya tradition of the Raghukul, the descendants of Raghu. They would not survive on a diet of herbs, fruit and leaves alone.

The deer remained stationary, lost in the pleasure of grazing on tender shoots. Ram knew this was the moment. He held the composite bow steady in his left hand as he pulled the string back with his right, till it almost touched his lips. His elbow was held high, almost perfectly parallel to the ground, exactly the way his guru, Maharishi Vashishta, had taught him.

The elbow is weak. Hold it high. Let the effort come from the back muscles. The back is strong.

Ram pulled the string a notch further and then released the arrow. The missile whizzed past the trees and slammed into the deer’s neck. It collapsed immediately, unable to even utter a bleat as blood flooded its lungs. Despite his muscular bulk, Lakshman rushed forward stealthily. Even as he moved, he pulled out a knife from the horizontal scabbard tied to the small of his back. Within moments he reached the deer and quickly plunged the blade deep in between the animal’s ribs, right through to its heart.

‘Forgive me for killing you, O noble beast,’ he whispered the ancient apology that all hunters offered, as he gently touched the deer’s head. ‘May your soul find purpose again, while your body sustains my soul.’

Ram caught up with Lakshman as his brother pulled the arrow out, wiped it clean and returned it to its rightful owner. ‘Still usable,’ he murmured.

Ram slipped the arrow back into his quiver as he looked up at the sky. Birds chirped playfully and the deer’s own herd displayed no alarm. They had not sensed the killing of one of their own. Ram whispered a short prayer to Lord Rudra, thanking him for what had been a perfect hunt. The last thing they needed was for their position to be given away.

Ram and Lakshman made their way through the dense jungle. Ram walked in front, carrying one end of a long staff on his shoulder, while Lakshman walked behind, holding up the other end. The deer’s carcass dangled in the middle, its feet having been secured to the staff with a sturdy rope.

‘Aah, a decent meal after so many days,’ said Lakshman.

Ram’s face broke into a hint of a smile, but he remained silent.

‘We can’t cook this properly though, right Dada?’

‘No, we can’t. The continuous line of smoke will give our position away.’

‘Do we really need to be so careful? There have been no attacks. Maybe they have lost track of us. We haven’t encountered any assassins, have we? How would they know where we are? The forests of Dandak are impenetrable.’

‘Maybe you’re right, but I’m not taking any chances. I’d rather be safe.’

Lakshman held his peace even as his shoulders drooped.

‘It’s better than eating leaves and herbs,’ said Ram, without turning to look at his brother.

‘That it certainly is,’ agreed Lakshman.

The brothers walked on in silence.

‘There is some conspiracy afoot, Dada. I’m unable to pin down what it is. But there’s something going on. Perhaps Bharat Dada…’

‘Lakshman!’ rebuked Ram sternly.

Bharat was the second oldest after Ram, and had been anointed crown prince of Ayodhya by their father Dashrath following Ram’s banishment. The youngest, Shatrughan and Lakshman, were twins separated by differing loyalties. While Shatrughan remained in Ayodhya with Bharat, Lakshman unhesitatingly chose a life of hardship with Ram. The impulsive Lakshman was sceptical of Ram’s blind trust in Bharat. He considered it his duty to warn his excessively ethical eldest brother about what appeared to him as Bharat’s underhand dealings.

‘I know you don’t like hearing this, Dada,’ Lakshman persisted. ‘But I’m certain that he’s hatched a plot against—’

‘We’ll get to the bottom of it,’ reassured Ram, interrupting Lakshman. ‘But we first need allies. Jatayu is right. We need to find the local Malayaputra camp. At least they can be trusted to help us.’

‘I don’t know whom to trust anymore, Dada. Maybe the vulture-man is helping our enemies.’

Jatayu was a Naga, a class of people born with deformities. Ram had come around to trusting Jatayu despite the fact that the Nagas were a hated, feared and ostracised people in the Sapt Sindhu, the Land of the Seven Rivers, which lay north of the Narmada River.