The Sun had begun its ascent westward. Nascent rays bounced on the edges of the jewelled sculptures, casting reflections all around the garden. Morning blossoms welcomed the flying swarms with tunes of fragrance. Sita hissed a rather unladylike curse at the bees teeming around her garland of pink chrysanthemums; their buzzing could’ve given away her best hiding spot! Maybe the bees understood her because they left her alone and settled themselves over the petals of a large blue flower,
Or, maybe they sensed a much more enticing fragrance…
He had arrived. The game had begun.
Coached by the greatest sages of the North, Ram was baffled by his inability to catch even a single glimpse of some impish little princess’ face. Well, she wasn’t all that little, he thought to himself. The other day he had come very close to catching her but somehow she managed to slip away like water through his fingers. All he could catch was a fast impression of her feet on the damp mud around the duck pond. She could only be a few inches shorter than him, he figured.
They had been playing this bizarre game for two days now, an unexpected match of equals. All he wanted was to see her once, before participating in the tourney to win her hand but he was too pious to be direct about it. Moreover, the princess’ skilful evasiveness had only intensified his determination to see her.
Just one glimpse.
The First City of the mighty Aryavarta[ii] kingdoms, Ayodhya was blessed with not one but four magnificent heirs. Of them, the reputation of Ayodhya’s First Son, Prince Ram, already stretched up to the seven corners and beyond. And he hadn’t even formally registered himself as a suitor for her swayamvara[iii]! With whispering footsteps Sita made her way to a swan-shaped topiary. Almost all entrances to the garden converged there. She had to see the face of the boy who wasn’t interested in marrying her, not overtly of course—it was unchaste of princesses to have such curiosities. Gritting her teeth with determination, she winded the string’s end between the fingers of her right hand.
Just one glimpse.
After being hoodwinked so many times by the princess, Ram had located an assistant gardener the previous night and charmed him into revealing the blueprint of Mithila’s most glorious garden, the Pushpa Vatika[iv]. The third day was now to be his day; Ram was ready to win. Cautiously he made his way deeper into the green labyrinth through one of the less trodden pathways.
It was an unusual garden in many ways; for one, it was decked with extravagant sculptures but it missed the most common flowers. There were no roses, sunflowers, nor lilies to be seen anywhere. Roses were special to the Ayodhyans. Why couldn’t the people of Mithilia be normal at anything, Ram mused, his frustration escalating after spotting three (incredibly placed) booby traps at the very last second. He only wanted to ask the princess if she was really ready for marriage. And in return, she had given him bruises and scratches all over his body with this ridiculous chase.
But not today… he smiled as he saw a lithe shadow move behind some bushes in distance.
In her time girls weren’t encouraged to be very outdoorsy. Reluctantly, Sita had submitted herself to the comforts of her father’s palace with her sisters in tow. She wouldn’t call it a boring life, but it was an immensely sheltered one. Moreover, she was certain that her life ahead as some stranger’s queen wasn’t going to be very adventurous either. Royalty brings responsibility of those who carry your adventures for you, her teacher often said. Perhaps that’s why Sita relished this little chase and played it so seriously. She had dressed in garden greens with minimal floral embellishments. She even switched her perfume, an exotic scent of Mogra[v] to a locally favoured Champa[vi]. With the dark eyes of a doe and feet as nimble as a mouse, her camouflage was perfect. One glimpse, just one; she stared intently towards the east waiting for the prince’s tall shadow to betray his geography. And then, to her surprise, she heard the snap of a taut string from the North. HOW DID HE?!
HOW DID SHE?! 16-year-old princes take victory very seriously, and Ram wasn’t all that different. So instead of walking right towards her shadow, Ram turned his back to it and began moving in reverse. She wanted to see his face and he wasn’t going to let her unless she appeared right in front of him. So clever!
Warily he walked in the shadow’s direction, pretending it was very normal for people to walk backwards in Mithila. Odd place anyway, sure there must be some back-walkers here, Ram thought. He was almost there, almost… when he stumbled upon a virtually invisible barrier and fell down on his back. The prince stifled a really loud exclamation, certain that the princess was around. Getting back as fast as he could, he inspected the cause of his fall–a string dyed green, tied between the poles supporting two oddly shaped structures. He gritted his teeth but somewhere in the back of his mind he resolved to never be on the wrong side of her, in a battlefield.
How on earth did he get so near?! Just a few meters away, she could see his smooth blue back and his impeccable white dhoti[vii] through the bushes, as he sat on a knee inspecting the green string–a trap she had placed months ago for her sisters (they never went out to play that day). Sita had to put her fist in her mouth to stop herself from laughing out loud, now that he was so close that she could hear him move. If only he’d turn a little, she would be able to see his face and then she could run back into the castle and be the docile princess she was expected to be! Few moments passed, he hadn’t turned in her direction and it did not seem like he was going to. Might as well have some fun then, she ventured with a smirk and tugged at the end of the string in her hands.
Just about to turn himself in pursuit of the shadow once again, Ram heard a faint tinkling of anklets from the opposite end of the garden. Why would she suddenly decide to wear anklets today, he puzzled but he couldn’t refuse the beckoning of her anklets. When the noise grew fainter, he began jogging and then running to stay on track of it. He was drawing deep breaths by the time he finally saw them–delicate gold anklets, stuck between the branches of a shrub. The string attached to them was trying to pull them out, without any success. Carefully, Ram detached the anklets from the string, took them in his hand and began following the string. He let it appear as if it was the anklets were still connected to the string. Two can play at that game, he grinned.
From a far off entrance to the garden, an older woman called out for Sita. Ram turned sharply in the direction of the voice and hiding up in the branches of an ancient Banyan, Sita saw him, his face. The older woman’s voice rang out more urgently the second time. On another day, Sita wouldn’t have dared to delay the older woman…only if she could stop herself from staring at the sight in front of her. Blue of skin, with intensely brown lotus shaped eyes, Ram was every bit flawless as the rumours described. Wind ruffled his raven locks but his lean figure stood sharp with a hunter’s poise. Thick brows furrowed in concentration, his senses alert to register the slightest movements; Sita’s anklets reverently safe in his hands. Despite herself, Sita noticed how his upper lip curved with a bend of a perfect bow. He was waiting for her to make a move; and move she couldn’t her gaze from Ram.
It’s rather bewildering how we know certain things without being told or taught. Maybe we always knew these things, lost as they were in the deeper folds of our being; or maybe the universe unfolds itself in purposeful ways leading us to realisations. An ancient joy swelled inside her as she took a long last look at Ram, trying to absorb as much of him as her eyes could.
I’ll be there before you blink, she shouted back, for the older woman. Sita may have won the game, but she had lost herself completely to the blue prince of Ayodhya. She leapt and hopped her way out, blushing furiously.
He is the one.
Ram followed the sound of her voice and reached the Banyan tree as fast as he could. She had just left, he could see her retreating figure. He would’ve called out to her, asking her to stop for just a moment. He really wanted to, but then there seemed no need for it. Where her feet must’ve landed as she jumped down from the tree, Ram smelled a fragrance so incongruous, so familiar. Roses.
Closing his eyes, Ram deeply inhaled Sita’s answer to all his questions.
She was ready.
[i] Pushpa Vatika, the Garden of Flowers. According to the Ramcharitmanas written by Tulsidas in the sixteenth century, this garden is where Ram and Sita met for the very first time.
[ii] Aryavarta is the historic name for the present-day northern Indian subcontinent, as per the classical Sanskrit literature.
[iii] Swayamvara, is the practice of choosing a husband, from among a list of suitors, by a girl of marriageable age. ‘Swayam’ in Sanskrit means self and ‘vara’ means groom in this context.
[iv] Ibid. (i)
[v] Mogra is a type of jasmine native to the eastern Himalayas
[vi] Champa is Magnolia Champaca, or Champak as it is called in English.
[vii] Dhoti is a traditional men’s garment, consisting of a piece of material tied around the waist and extending to cover most of the legs.