In the Yuddhakaṇḍa (book 6) of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, the heroes Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, and their monkey allies led by Sugrīva and Hanumān, set off on a mission to rescue Sītā who has been forcibly taken by the demon king Rāvaṇa to his island kingdom of Laṅkā. Once the heroes arrive at the shore of the immense ocean, they stop and stare:
For it was dreadful with its fierce sharks and crocodiles. And now, as the day waned and the night came on, the ocean, Varuṇa’s lair, agitated at the rising of the moon, was covered with reflections of its orb. It was swimming with huge crocodiles as powerful as fierce gales and with whales and whale sharks. It was teeming, it appeared, with serpents, their coils flashing. It swarmed with huge creatures and was studded with all sorts of rocks. The abode of asuras, it was fathomless, unapproachable, and impossible to cross. (6.4.78-80)*
At this juncture, the troop gain a new ally, the righteous rākṣasa Vibhīṣaṇa, younger brother of Rāvaṇa. Vibhīṣaṇa advises Rāma on how to propitiate Sāgara, god of the ocean, in order that they might find a way to cross the ocean’s depths. After an interval, Sāgara rewards Rāma, declaring that he will:
… divise some means that I can tolerate whereby the sea monsters will not attack while the army is crossing … (6.15.7)
He instructs Nala, the simian son of the divine architect Viśvakarman, to build a bridge across the ocean.
Then with Rāma’s permission, all the leaders of the troops of tawny monkeys rushed excitedly into the great forest by the hundreds and thousands.
There those monkeys, bulls among the hosts of tree-dwelling monkeys, resembling mountains, broke down trees and dragged them to the sea…
Heaved up violently by the boulders hurled into it, the water rose into the sky and cascaded down on all sides.
Nala constructed a great bridge, ten leagues in width and one hundred in length, right through the middle of the ocean, lord of rivers and streams (6.15.14-12).
Of all the sculptural depictions of the building of the causeway to Laṅkā, the one, in my opinion, that most closely captures the picture conjured by Vālmīki, is a little-known polished black basalt panel from Rajaona in Lakhisarai district, southeast Bihar. It just so happens, that this is also the earliest surviving visual imagining of this important episode, and arguably the most engaging.
This highly animated scene portrays Rāma standing on the right extremity, his matted hair arranged in a topknot. He wears a cross belt, with quivers of arrows strapped to his back, and carries a bow. With his free hand he instructs the monkeys who wade through, and dive into, the dark swirling waters of the ocean. The composition is positively buzzing with frenetic energy as figures hurtle about in opposing directions. All hands are on deck for the building of the bridge, including, rather endearingly, those of a baby monkey watched over by its elders (in the upper register). Most of the monkeys – each of whom have a generous mop of hair swept back from the face – shift jagged boulders, while one carries an entire tree over his shoulders, its roots and leafy branches depicted. The most captivating element of this composition, and that which most recalls Vālmīki’s narrative, are the animals, reptiles and sea creatures which swim in the waters. There is a creature which looks like a cross between a hippopotamus and a lioness, its mouth wide open, hungrily eyeing a monkey. A snake slithers over a tree trunk and begins to wrap itself around the arm of a monkey who pays it no heed. In the lower register, the head and curved snout of a gharial crocodile emerges, and is threatened by a snarling slightly lynx-like monster. A harmless-looking fish, one of only two creatures here who actually belong in saline waters, leaps out of the waves.
The glossy surface of the stone has a liquid-like appearance which works exceptionally well with the theme of the relief carving here.
This episode is the fourth and final scene represented on a Rāmāyaṇa panel, now housed in a small museum at the modern Aśokdhām Temple in Chauki, close to the village of Rajaona. This panel is one of a pair; I am not sure, however, of the current whereabouts of its counterpart but Frederick Asher has kindly shared his photographs with me. The iconography of these panels is explored at length in my forthcoming monograph.
The two Rāmāyaṇa panels were found among the foundations of a Gupta period temple dating to circa the late 5th or early 6th century CE, probably the same temple excavated by Alexander Cunningham in the late nineteenth century (he makes no mention of the Rāmāyaṇa panels). Frederick Asher was the first scholar to publish these panels in his excellent article on ‘Sculptures from Rajaona, Valgudar and Jaynagar: Evidence for an Urban Centre,’ East and West 36.1/3 (1986): 227-246, but the imagery is not explored in great detail. Asher presents a persuasive argument for this collection of villages, situated at the confluence of three rivers – the Haruhar, Kiul and Ganges, once having been a thriving urban settlement, Kṛmilā, which seemingly held some importance during the Pāla period, evidenced by the sheer volume and outstanding quality of the sculptures (many inscribed) and architectural elements found here. Indeed Anil Kumar notes that there are more than thirty large unexplored archaeological mounds in this area (see Anil Kumar, ‘Kṛimilā: A Forgotten Adhiṣṭhāna of Early Medieval India’, Indian Historical Review 38.1 (2011): 23-50 (23)). Importantly, Cunningham identified this locale with lo-in-ni-lo visited by Xuanzang in the seventh century CE (see Report for the Year 1871-72, Volume III (Calcutta: Archaeological Survey of India, 1873)).
To date, three ancient sites in Bihar have turned up wonderfully vivid Rāmāyaṇa images dating between the 5th and 7th centuries. These comprise the basalt panels at Rajaona, a terracotta plaque from Chausa in district Buxar (now in the Bihar Museum in Patna), and large-scale stucco panels at Aphṣāḍ in Nawadah district, the latter explored in a previous blog post (April 11th, 2019).
My hope, in the not too distant future, is to make an extensive study of the early epic and purāṇic temple iconography located across the length and breadth of Bihar.
*I have used the following translation of the Rāmāyaṇa: Robert P. Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman and Barend A. van Nooten, The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, An Epic of Ancient India. Volume VI: Yuddhakāṇḍa (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2010 – 1st published 2009).