Thus months and years passed by in happy companionship as the three of them wandered in the forest of Dandaka going from ashrama to ashrama. Everywhere they were welcomed with delight, for Rama's fame had spread to all the far corners of Bharathavarsha and every one longed for a chance to see him and give him hospitality. At some places, they stayed for six months, at others a few days and sometimes even a year. Fortunately they were not accosted by rakshasas at any of these places. Sita forgot her fears and wandered happily behind her husband, enthralled by the beauty of the peaks, the lakes, the birds and the animals. She would exclaim in delight at many of the small things which had escaped the notice of Rama and Lakshmana.
She would pick a twig here and a leaf there and put a flower in her hair. She would peer curiously into the nest of a small bird and run after the deer. The beauties of nature were always a delight to her and she did not pay heed to the hardships which such a life would naturally have had, nor did she miss the sophistication of palace life. As she had told Anasuya, even the most luxurious life would have been a torture to her without the presence of her beloved husband. To her, nothing was as wonderful as walking hand in hand with her beloved, lying in the sun on the mountain-tops with him beside her, allowing him to place a flower garland in her hair or else just sitting beside him, listening to his voice. Lakshmana too never seemed to miss his own wife and derived maximum joy from serving the two of them.
One day Rama had gone to the forest for hunting and Lakshmana had gone to collect firewood leaving Sita alone. It was getting dark and cold and she began to feel frightened so she decided to go after Rama. It was the first time she had ventured into the dark forest alone and she kept tripping over roots and getting caught in brambles.
She walked on and on crying out "Rama! 0 Rama! Where are you"? Soon tears started rolling down her cheeks and falling to the ground. She heeded them not and walked on. At last she heard his answering call and saw him resting beneath a tree. She ran towards him and was caught in a fierce embrace.
"Why did you come here, my darling"? he asked, holding her close.
"It was getting so late and I did not find you and I felt so frightened", she whispered into his broad chest, where her face was smothered.
"Wasn't Lakshmana there to keep you company"? he asked. "I had particularly told him never to leave you alone".
"He had gone to bring firewood, and I could not bear to be alone any longer".
He did not have the heart to scold her and they started to walk back home, but the way was long and Sita was weary. Seeing her distress Rama took her in his arms as one would, a baby, and strode along, while her arms entwined themselves round his neck. It was a hot summer night and drops of perspiration rolled down his thighs on to the ground. At last they reached the ashrama where Lakshmana was anxiously awaiting their arrival.
Rama chided him gently for having left Sita alone. Next week Sita wanted to go back along the path they had taken, since that was her first and perhaps only solo venture into the forest. As they walked hand in hand, they noticed that some strange new saplings had grown up in those spots where Sita's tears had dropped and another type of saplings, where Rama's drops of perspiration had fallen. Within a few months, the saplings had grown into bushes and Sita was delighted to find that one set of trees had strange looking green fruit and the other set had reddish coloured fruit. Both types tasted delicious. They had
never seen such fruit before so Rama laughingly told Sita, "These green fruits shall henceforth be known as 'Sitaphal’. Then Sita retorted that the reddish fruit should henceforth be known as "Ramphal”. To this day these fruits are found in India and are called by those very names.
Ten years thus flew by without any of them feeling the weight of them. However to poor Bharata, residing at Nandigrama, those ten years were like ten eons, for the burden of kingship lay heavily on his shoulders and he did not have the exhilarating presence of Rama to keep up his spirits.
Now Rama remembered his promise to Sudeekshna to visit his ashrama once again. So they returned to that place. The sage was very happy to see them. Rama requested him to direct them to the ashrama of the famous sage known as Agastya. Sudeekshna gave them directions and the next morning the three of them set out to pay their obeisance to him. It was in the eleventh year of their exile that they crossed the Vindhya hills and walked down its southern slopes. They first came to the hermitage of Agastya's brother, who told them many stories of Agastya's wonderful exploits.
Agastya was a very small-made man and he had been doing tapas, up in the Himalayas. At one time, the Vindhya hills became jealous of the Himalayas and began to grow so high that none could cross it. They blocked even the passage of the rain-bearing clouds to the north. Agastya came from the Himalayas and requested the Vindhya hills to allow him passage to go south. They bowed their head low and allowed him to pass. He never went back north any more and the Vindhya is still waiting with bowed head for him to return. Agastya also subdued the might of the two demon brothers, called Vatapi and llwala. After staying the night with Agastya*s brother, they proceeded to their goal.
All of them were excited at the prospect of meeting this eminent
sage about whom they had heard so much. As they neared the ashrama they noticed that the deer were very tame and the bark garments of the ascetics were drying in the sun and perfume arising from the sacrificial fires was pervading the air.
Rama told Lakshmana to go and announce their arrival. Lakshmana did as he was told. Agastya was apparently expecting them, and told his disciple to bring them in, immediately. Though the sage was of small build, he was aglow with the fire of intense tapas and as he came towards them, they were not even aware of his small stature. He welcomed them with great cordiality and after finishing the fire ceremony, he gave them food and then presented Rama with many divine weapons given to him by the gods. The bow of Lord Narayana, the inexhaustible quiver of
arrows given by Indra and a sword, with a silver scabbard which Narayana had used to fight the demons. With all humility, Rama accepted the wonderful gifts though he did not know what use they would be to him in this forest life. Agastya however knew that the time was fast approaching when Rama would need all his weapons.
He now said, "0 Rama, the time of your exile is drawing to a close and your hard times in the forest will soon be over. May you be able to return with all glory and take up the reins of the kingdom once again".
Rama replied, "0 Holy One, our life in the forest, far from being unpleasant, has actually been a very happy time for all of us. We have delighted in the freedom and informality of our life here and been blessed by our contact with great sages like you and charmed by the simplicity of life in the ashramas. But there is one thing I would like to ask you. Could you please let me know of a suitable place where we could stay for the remainder of our exile? It should be beautiful with a river and flowering shrubs, so that my wife will be happy, yet it should not be
Agastya said, "Rama, it is right indeed that you should always think of your wife's happiness, for very few women would have been ready to forego their comfort and pleasures, to go forth into the forest with their husband. Sita is indeed an exemplary wife and you should take great care of her. You have been brought into this forest in order to rid the place of the rakshasas - the night wanderers, who have made it their home. There is a place not far from here called, Panchavati. Fruits and roots are in abundance there. There is plenty of water and deer can be seen bounding all over the place. I am sure Sita will be delighted with that spot. You can make an ashrama over there and live happily till it is time for your return. I would have asked you to remain with me till your exile is over but I can see that there are many things left for you to do and Panchavati is the place from where these will be accomplished".
Taking leave of the great sage, the three of them followed his directions and soon came to the beautiful grove known as Panchavati. On the way they noticed an enormous eagle perched on the very tree which Agastya had given as a landmark. The bird was greatly excited at seeing them and introduced himself as Jatayu. He said he had been a friend of Dasaratha. He also had a brother called Sampati whom he had not seen for many years. He promised to live with them and guard them and give warning at the approach of rakshasas and wild animals. Rama was delighted to hear this and Jatayu showed them the way.
Panchavati was a wonderful place surrounded by mountain peaks and filled with fruit laden trees and flowers. The sound of the river, Godavari close by and the gurgle of the stream near-by, delightful to the ears. Having chosen a level spot, close to the stream, with five flowering trees, champaka, parijatha, ashoka, kadamba and sandalwood, Rama requested Lakshmana to build a small cottage for them.
Lakshmana first plucked some flowers and offered them to the gods for protection and requested them to give him leave to build on that terrain. Then he built a beautiful cottage with twigs and-wattle and
grass roof and invited Rama and Sita to enter. They were charmed to see the place. He had made separate partitions for eating, sleeping and puja. Everything was made to look fresh and beautiful with an eye to utility as well.
Rama laughingly asked him, "My child, where did you learn the art of construction? I can't remember ever having learnt anything like that from our tutors at the gurukula".
Lakshmana answered, "When love fills the heart, there is no task which is onerous or difficult. The magic of love overcomes all difficulties and gives all knowledge".
Rama's eyes filled with tears as he embraced him and said, "My dearest brother, how can I ever repay you for the loving service you have rendered to me all these years. My life during this exile would have been unbearable but for your constant and vigilant care and attention"
The three of them spent a long time in that beautiful spot. Sometimes Jatayu would join them and narrate tales of their father and they would talk of their past life in the palace, which felt as if it was a dream. Jatayu was always on guard against wild beasts and rakshasas and would shriek wildly, if any beast of prey came within fifty yards of the place.
Once, on a misty autumn morn, when the brothers were taking their bath in the Godavari, Lakshmana said, "I don*t know why, but today my mind is filled with thoughts of our dear brother, Bharata, who must be also taking his bath in the cold waters of the Sarayu and perhaps thinking of us. What a noble soul he is? Instead of enjoying the pleasures of palace life, he is living like a hermit in Nandigrama in order to show his love and respect for you. Poor thing, I fear he does not know the happiness that I enjoy, for he is denied the felicity of your company. How is it that such a noble soul was born in the womb of such a wicked woman, like Kaikeyi".
Rama's eyes filled with tears as he replied, "My child, speak more to me about our glorious brother, Bharata, but do not let me hear you speak ill of our mother. After all she was only a tool of fate. I too cannot get rid of the memory of Bharata's tear-filled eyes as he pleaded with me to return with him. I can still see him placing my footwear on his head and going back, with tears streaming down his eyes. How can I forget that scene. Very often it haunts me in the night. I fear that I am fated to bring unhappiness to those I love"! These were indeed prophetic words which Rama spoke.
Thus the three of them spent many blissful days at Panchavati, each doing his allotted task, offering their daily prayers and enjoying the beauty of nature. Sita spent the happiest years of her life here. She would roam through the forest with Rama, clinging to his hands, while he plucked flowers for her. She would sit still while he braided her hair and placed flowers in it. They would lie .close to each other on the hill-tops watching the stars above.
One day when they were walking hand in hand, Rama lifted up his hand to show her something and inadvertently wiped off the vermilion mark on her forehead. He was most apologetic and searched for a red stone which he crushed into powder and applied it once more with great care on her forehead and then he smeared the rest of the powder on her cheek, in order to tease her. Sometimes if a stream was too deep, he would carry her in his arms and when they reached the other bank, she would refuse to get down and he would pretend to throw her into the sky and she would laugh and nestle closer to him. She was in a blissful dream all the time and Rama too found great happiness in the beauty of nature as well as the beauty of his charming bride and the companionship of his brother. Little did they realise that the time was inexorably coming close, for the purpose of his avatara to be fulfilled, and the reason for his exile to be completed.
Thus ends the second Canto called "Panchavati" of the Aranya Kanda in the glorious Ramayana of the Sage Valmiki.