Among the many subsets of travel that has mushroomed significantly in the last few years is that of travel which puts India’s mythological heritage front and centre. Ramayana and Mahabharata, two of our oldest and ever enduring epics, have naturally spurred the most intrigue and interest among travellers. So when authors Vikrant Pande and Neelesh Kulkarni began the research for their new book, In the Footsteps of Rama, they were intent on retracing the journey outlined in the text and visiting the places Ram, Sita and Lakshman were believed to have spent time in during their exile.
In a quick chat with NGTI, Pande elaborated how his travels through India and Sri Lanka eventually shaped his book.
You’re an engineer and IIM grad. What propelled your interest in historical fiction and vernacular literature—subjects so far removed from your professional realm?
My journey started about six or seven years ago, when I translated a beautiful collection of Marathi classics into English. Excited about the project, I sent these translated scripts to my friends, who all rang me up saying, “Wow, these are fantastic.” I had to tell them, wait, these aren’t mine. That’s when I realised that translating these regional texts into English opened them up to a much larger reader base.
Why did you pick the Ramayana specifically for your book?
I realised that unlike other epics, for instance the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, especially in the geographic sense, has a linear storyline: it goes from north to south. It starts at Ayodhya and then goes along Allahabad, Chitrakoot, Rameshwaram and then takes on from there. In contrast, the Mahabharata has a lot of back-and-forth in its timeline.
I also had a few inspirations that fuelled the project. I had read the accounts of author Haroon Khalid, who had traced the footsteps of Guru Nanak in his book Walking with Nanak and Sun Shuyun’s Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud, where she follows Xuanzang’s journey from China to India. We (Neelesh Kulkarni and I) had also met with Dr. Ram Avatar Sharma in Delhi, who as I recall, had conducted this Ramayana trail some 14 times. He had begun his journey around 40 years ago, one which he documented in great detail especially the many temples associated with the epic tale.
Through your journey, did you learn new facets of the folklore you already knew?
Oh, there were many of those! For instance, in India there is a popular notion that Ravana was highly revered in Sri Lanka, but we found that that was not actually the case. In fact, we found Ram temples scattered throughout the country. What we gathered was that Ravana wasn’t considered a villain per se, but thought of more as a gentleman who had committed a serious crime. However, he is not considered a deity.
Then there are lots of contradictions to certain parts of the popular text that we had studied. For instance, popular belief is that Ram, Sita and Lakshman had visited a certain sweet water lake in Rameshwaram when they were returning from exile. However, we found out that they had probably stopped by this spot on their way to exile, because they hadn’t crossed Rameshwaram upon their return.
Is the version of Ramayana in Sri Lanka different from the one in India?
Only one portion of Ramayana’s storyline is set in Sri Lanka: the final war. All of the events that take place before that—the exile, Ram’s interaction with Bali and Sugriv, Ravan abducting Sita, none of that really features in the local folklore. Beyond that, you wouldn’t see too much of a discrepancy between the version of the Ramayana that exists in Sri Lanka and in India, at least not like the ones in say, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia, or even the Jain retelling of the Ramayana, where some of the character relationships and narratives are very different. In one version, for instance, Ram and Sita are depicted as brother and sister!
Out of all the places associated with the Ramayana that you visited: through Chitrakoot, Ramaghat, Ralegaon, Nashik, Sri Lanka—which is one place whose story stood out to you the most?
For me, this would be in Sri Lanka, when we visited the Ravana Caves in Ella. We were always of the impression that Ravana had abducted Sita and then kept her in Ashok Vatika, which is where Hanuman had spotted her and then reported back to Ram, who then attacked Sri Lanka with his army. As it turns out, she was actually constantly shifted from one mountain to another following her abduction. The caves were a section of a tunnel that connected to the Ravana Ella Falls, and the tunnels themselves were used to transport her between the mountains. These tunnels still exist, and while we couldn’t go explore them beyond a few metres (since we didn’t know how safe it would be), it was quite the experience to just witness the system that had been put in place.
What kind of heritage or mythological trails apart from the Ramayana would you recommend to other travellers?
A heritage walk through old Delhi is a must. While there are many local outfits that are now offering this experience, a walk I had conducted with supreme court lawyer Sanjay Hegde stood out the most to me. It contained a heady mix of food, culture and history: jalebis and chaat, tales of the Mughal rule, stories about Ghalib who once lived here—I spent half-a-day just reliving several centuries of Indian history.
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is former Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.