Panchavati

Harshal Agrawal

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Panchavati

Nashik is home to the Panchavati region where it is believed that Lord Ram along with his wife Sita and brother Laksman lived for a while when they were in exile. The significance of this region is best understood by those who have read (and believe in) the story of Ramayana. Ramayana is an ancient Indian poem that was first composed by a Sage named Valmiki. The poem has evolved over time from 7th to 4th century BC. The poem narrates the story of the life and times of Rama who is considered to be an avatar of the hindu God Vishnu. Lord Rama is one of the most revered Hindu Gods, and although Ramayana is typically considered to be mythological story, there is historical evidence to suggest that the various characters within the story lived. So in essence Ramayana is a combination of historical facts and mythology associated with the immense respect Indians have for the divine powers of Lord Ram. Nashik is considered to be the place where Ram, along with his wife Sita, and brother Lakhsman lived while they were exiled from the kingdom of Ayodhya.

The Story of Ramayana

Here’s a very simplified and shortened story of the Ramayana along with the various landmarks in Nashik that are believed to be witness to this great epic. There is no way of knowing whether these landmarks were actually associated with events in the Ramayana and indeed some of the landmarks were pretty difficult to be convinced. But then, when in Nashik, believe the Nashikians. So we asked a local autorickshaw driver to give us a tour of the various landmarks that ‘they say’ witnessed the events from Ramayana.

King Dasharath of Ayodhya had four sons: Ram, Bharat, Lakshman, and Shatrughna, from his three wives. While visiting Sage Vishwamitra’s ashram, they were introduced to the kingdom of Mithila. At that time, the King of Mithila was looking for a suitable husband for his daughter Sita. The king had organized a ‘Swayamvar’ (a historical verion of the TV show Bachelorette) where young men were asked to string a ‘bow of Shiva’ to win the Princess. However, no one had yet been able to string the bow. When Ram entered the Swayamvar, he was able to string the bow and thus won the Princess. Ram was married to Princess Sita. Some years later King Dasharath wanted to retire and hand over the throne to his eldest son Ram. However, his second wife convinced him to send Ram to 14 years exile and hand over the throne to her son Bharat. Ram followed his father’s instructions and left the kingdom to live in the forests for the next 14 years. His wife Sita and one of his brothers Lakhsman accompanied him in the exile. Later on when Bharat heard about Ram’s exile, he came to look for him in the forest and tried to convince him to return. However, Ram would not dishonor the promise he made to his father and refused to return. So Bharat took a pair of Ram’s footwear and back to Ayodhya. He put Ram’s footwear on the throne and continued to take care of the kingdom until Ram’s return.

Tour of Panchavati

Panchavati is a region in the center of Nashik city and to the north of the River Godavari. It is about a 10 minute walk from the Godavari Ghat. It is believed that Ram, Sita, and Lakshman, lived in this area during this exile. This place is marked with five large banyan trees which gives the name Panchavati (Panch=Five, Vat=Tree). Out of these four vats were easily visible, vat #2 was inside a school so it was not quite accessible. Today this place is a crowded shopping area with street-side vendors selling bags, trinkets, brass decorations, and all kinds of food. In between all the businesses, there are five banyan trees that are clearly marked for the tourists. Right next to the banyan trees is a place called ‘Sita Gumpha’ or Sita’s cave. The locals believe that this is where Ram kept Sita hidden from the demons while they were living in the forest. There was a very long line to get in to see the caves and I was also informed that reaching the cave involved crawling through a small opening and was not ideal for claustrophobic or older people. Since I was travelling with my Mom, I decided to skip the Sita Gumpha. A few miles from here is a small housing arrangement that is supposed to be the place where Ram, Sita, and Lakshman lived. This is indeed one of those places that was difficult to believe. Today is place is a set of very small apartments complete with kitchens, bedrooms, and toilets where a few locals live. They have two small shrines dedicated to Ram-Sita-Lakhsman and to Agasthya Muni (Ram’s Guru) at the entrance of the apartments. There are also a couple of vendors selling stuff. Overall I was quite unconvinced that this was Lord Ram’s place of residence, or even if it was, there was no historical evidence linking it to that time in history. I did try to question our tour guide/autorickshaw driver, but he countered with his strong belief that this was indeed the place and I left it at that.

The Godavari rivers is about a ten minute walk from the Panchavati area. The locals believe that Lord Ram used to come to the River to take bath. It is also believed that he performed the last rites for his father, King Dasharath, on the banks of Godavari. Today the banks of the Godavari are considered extremely holy and is called Ramkund. There are numerous temples in the area and people come here to take a dip in the holy waters of the river to wash away their sins. Many women can be seeing offering prayers with a small ‘boat’ make of leaves and flowers and a lamp in the belief that all whatever they wish for will come true. Unfortunately centuries of washing away sins have made the water quite polluted.

The story of Ramayana describes various events from the lives of Ram, Sita, and Lakshman while they lived in the forest. Once a demon called Surpanakha saw Ram and was infatuated by him, and asked Ram to marry her. When Ram refused, she was angry and went to kill Sita. Lakshman intervened and cut off Surpanakha’s nose and ears. The name of the city (Nashik) is derived from this event in history (Naak = nose). The locals believe that the actual location where Lakshman cut off Surpanakha’s nose is very close to the river Godavari and this place remains under water during the monsoons. Just a few meters from this location is a temple built to honor Lakshman. This is the only temple in India solely dedicated to Lakshman. Strangely enough there is a ‘Surpanakha Temple’ next to the Lakshman Temple with a statue depicting the event where Lakshman cuts of Surpanakha’s nose.

Surpanakha Temple

Surpanakha was extremely angry and insulted, and she immediately went to her brother who was the demon king Ravana of Lanka (Sri Lanka). Ravana was determined to take revenge. He asked his demon friend Marich to appear in front of Sita as a golden deer. Sita was so impressed by the golden deer that she asked Ram to get the deer for her. Ram goes off to get the deer while Lakshman stays with Sita for her protection. When Ram doesn’t return for a long time, Sita sends Lakshman to look for him. Lakshman was concerned about Sita’s safety, so he draws a line around the hut and asks Sita not to cross that line. Anybody trying to approach Sita by crossing the line would be engulfed in flames. Sita was safe inside that line. This line was called Lakshman Rekha. Our ‘tour guide’ showed us a narrow water channel made of concrete under a bridge and claimed that that was the original Lakshman Rekha. Today’s Lakhsman Rekha has no restrictions as to who can cross the line and all kinds of traffic and pedestrians constantly crossed the line with no flames going up! This was probably hardest to believe, but I let him continue with his story.

Sita Temple

A few hundred meters from this area was a Temple dedicated only to Sita. This was unique and we were told that this is the only temple in India dedicated exclusively to Sita. All other Temples are dedicated to Ram and Sita, and most are dedicated to Ram, Sita, and Lakshman. The Sita Temple was a small structure with a small statue of Sita inside it. The interesting part was a statue of Ram outside the Temple watching over his wife.

Going back to the story of Ramayana, after Lakshman left to look for Ram, Ravana came disguised as a hermit begging for food. Sita was tricked into crossing the Lakshman rekha and Ravana immediately kidnapped her and took her to Lanka on his flying chariot (the airplanes of mythological times). When Ram and Lakshman returned home they couldn’t find Sita. They started looking for her and came upon a group of monkeys who had happened to see Ravana kidnapping Sita. One of these monkeys was Hanuman. He was the one who ultimately located Sita in Lanka. Ram took help from the monkey chief Sugreev and the monkey army launched a battle against, and eventually killed Ravana. Now Sita was free from the demons. However when she approached Ram, he refused to accept her because she had been living with the demons for so long. Sita was asked to give Agni-pariksha (Agni = fire; pariksha = exam) whereby she had to step into fire to prove her sanctity. Sita said her prayers to the Gods Bramha, Vishnu, and Shiva, and successfully stepped in and out of fire unharmed and thus proved her sanctity. Since 14 years were over, Ram returned to Ayodhya and was crowned the king. He is considered to be the greatest king and his kingdom flourished under his rule.

Across the street from the Lakshman temple was a vast area of river bed where there were two small shrines at some distance. This area remains under water during the monsoon season. We were fortunate to be there after the monsoons and so we were able to walk up to the shrines. These shrines are believed to be built at the location where Sita had her agniparishka. One of them has statues of Bramha, Vishnu, and Shiva, whom Sita worshipped before stepping into the fire. The other one had small statues of Ram and Sita. There was a priest at both of these shrines. When they spotted married couples among the tourists they were asking them (almost forcing them) to chant mantras for a happy married life. Since Sita proved her sanctity and reunited with Ram at this spot, it is supposed to be a holy spot for married couples.

Godavari river bed. The hut on the far end is where the two shrines are
This was our last stop of the ‘Panchavati tour’. There are numerous temples in Nashik and many of them are dedicated to Ram, Sita, and Lakshman. Panchavati and Nashik are considered to be important pilgrimage areas by Believers due to the association with the events from Ramayana. We will never know whether or not all of these locations are actually connected with Ramayana, but what I saw was that the locals in Nashik absolutely believe in the connections and the association with Ramayana. All the locals I spoke to knew the story of Ramayana in great detail and they have made it into a complete little Ramayana tour that is providing a source of livelihood for thousands of people for generation.

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  • ID: 2155

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  • Allow additional guests: No

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  • Smoking allowed: No
  • Pets allowed: Yes
  • Party allowed: No
  • Children allowed: Yes

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