Upon the behest of the king of Kekaya, his maternal grandfather, Bharata went with his uncle Yudhājit to his kingdom. Śatrughna went along with Bharata and King Aśvapati took care of them like his own sons. Back in Ayodhyā, Daśaratha constantly thought about his sons who were away.
Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa treated their parents with immense care and reverence, and carried out their wishes. Rāma was a person who never lost his poise, initiated the conversations, and uttered words that were always pleasing. He always remembered a favour received and never took to heart even a hundred ignoble deeds done unto him. He constantly cared for his people and never lost confidence in himself. Rāma was skilled in worldly affairs and intimately conversant with popular customs. He was the favourite of his people.
Seeing that his son was endowed with exemplary qualities, Daśaratha, now very old, wished to see Rāma coronated. He invited his ministers and the lords of different provinces for a discussion and expressed his wish. Listening to Daśaratha’s words, the assembled men approved his idea with great delight, just as peacocks welcome rain-bearing clouds. The ministers and the subordinate kings knew well the impeccable qualities of Rāma. A delighted Daśaratha asked his purohitas Vasiṣṭha and Vāmadeva to make arrangements for the coronation immediately, as the month of Caitra – the flowering season, was particularly auspicious. He then instructed Sumantra to call for Rāma. As the handsome young Rāma arrived at his father’s court, Daśaratha couldn’t take his eyes off his charming son. Rāma told his own name, touched his father’s feet, and stood with folded hands. The king took Rāma’s folded hands into his own, embraced his son, and got him seated on a magnificent chair. Daśaratha conveyed his decision to Rāma and counselled him about the nature of a good king. He asked him to cultivate modesty even more assiduously and constantly control his senses; he told Rāma to conduct himself well in public and private to win the hearts of his people. Listening to this conversation, a few of Rāma’s friends hurried to Kausalyā and conveyed to her the exciting news. Rāma too reverentially bowed to his father in agreement and left the palace. The citizens too felt as if they had personally realized a long-cherished dream, went home, and worshipped the devas out of immense joy.
Once the people left, Daśaratha decided that the very next day, when the Puṣya-nakṣatra shone would be the most auspicious for Rāma’s coronation. He once again called for Rāma and conveyed his decision. He instructed Rāma about the vrata he was to follow – “Your wife and you should perform upavāsa and sleep on the ground covered with darbhā grass.” He added, “Bharata is away from the kingdom and I deem this the best time to make you the crown-prince. Though Bharata is dhārmic, I deem the minds of men to be inconstant.”
Rāma rushed to his mother Kausalyā’s antaḥpura to inform her of the good tidings, and found her praying with her eyes closed. Sumitrā, Sītā, and Lakṣmaṇa, who had already heard the exciting news were waiting upon her. Upon hearing that Rāma was going to be crowned the very next day, Kausalyā whose cherished desire was being fulfilled, blessed him, and asked him to take good care of her people as well as Sumitrā’s. Rāma told Lakṣmaṇa, who was seated with folded hands, “You are like my second-self and must rule the kingdom with me!”
Vasiṣṭha went to Rāma’s mansion, instructed him in the vrata, and on his way back, observed the entire city of Ayodhyā rejoicing. There were cries of joy heard all over the royal streets, which were well-watered and swept. Waves and waves of excited people, including women and children, who were decked in the best of their clothes, could be spotted all over. In his mansion, Rāma, along with his wife Sītā, performed pūjā to Nārāyaṇa. Early next morning too, there was great celebration in the city. Dancers and actors beautified the city with their art; children too, who played at the threshold of their houses, only spoke of Rāma’s coronation. People from the countryside, who had heard the news rushed to the city from all directions.
Mantharā, a dāsī of Kaikeyī happened to climb up to the top of the tall mansion and saw the city of Ayodhyā decked with colourful banners, its streets sprinkled with sandal-scented water, and excited people moving around. She asked a dhātrī, who stood nearby, “Why are people so happy and why is Rāma’s mother offering so many donations?” The dhātrī, with immense joy, told the hump-backed woman about Rāma’s coronation. Burning with anger, Mantharā quickly climbed down and went to Kaikeyī, who was lying down. Mantharā told her, “Get up, foolish woman! How can you lie down when a dreadful peril threatens you?” Looking at Kaikeyī confused, Mantharā, with an intention to instigate her against Rāma, said, “Daśaratha is going to crown Rāma as the heir-apparent! I am consumed by grief and fear for you! You are born to a royal race and are the Queen – how can you be so ignorant about the ruthlessness of statecraft? You are pure-hearted and don’t see the cruelty in your husband’s heart. Kaikeyi! Act swift – save yourself and your son!”
Kaikeyī, upon hearing Mantharā’s words, got up from her bed with excitement, gifted her a beautiful jewel, and said, “You have told me the most delightful news. I see no difference between my son Bharata and Rāma. Ask for whatever you wish!”
Mantharā sharply reproached her. “Your joy is unwarranted, silly woman! You will soon become a dāsī of Kausalyā.” Kaikeyī, who couldn’t make sense of Mantharā’s words, highly praised Rāma’s noble qualities. She said, “Rāma will be the best ruler, and after he has ruled for a hundred years, Bharata too will get to rule the kingdom.” With a heavy sigh laden with grief, Mantharā said, “You don’t understand your own interests and are plunging into an ocean of sorrow. Once Rāma’s reign as the king comes to an end, his son will succeed him and Bharata will forever be excluded from the royal lineage. I have come here in your interest and you don’t seem to wake up to the reality! Once Rāma comes to power, he will throw Bharata into a foreign land or he may despatch him to the other world! Rāma’s mother has looked down upon you in the past and will naturally wreak vengeance upon you, once her son comes to power! Therefore, think of a way your son may get the kingdom and the other be exiled!”
Hearing Mantharā’s words, Kaikeyī, with her face flaming, declared – “I’ll send Rāma away to the forest this very day and get Bharata installed as the crown-prince. Tell me, Mantharā, how do I achieve this?”
Mantharā said, “Don’t you remember? Long ago in the war between the devas and asuras, your husband, who went to help Indra, took you along with him. Going South towards Daṇḍakāraṇya, you reached Vaijayanta, the city of Śambarāsura. Though Daśaratha fought bravely, he was badly wounded and lost consciousness. You rode him away from the battle-field and saved his life. Pleased, Daśaratha had offered you two boons, which you had said you will seek when the need arises. You had told me about this incident in the past! Seek the two boons now – the first, ask for Bharata’s coronation and the second, ask for Rāma to be exiled for fourteen years. Go to the chamber of anger, lay down on the bare floor with all your clothes soiled. When Daśaratha comes to you, don’t look at him or speak with him, just weep! The king might offer you precious gems and gold, but don’t get tempted by them! Remind him of the two boons he had promised and get up from the floor only when he raises you up! Once he pledges to offer the boons, ask for Rāma’s exile for fourteen years and Bharata’s immediate coronation.”
Thrilled at listening to Mantharā’s advice, Kaikeyī said, “You are the best of all hump-backs on earth! You are as lovely as a lotus bent down by the wind. As you walk ahead of me, you look like a rāja-haṃsa! Your beautiful hump is filled with foresight, wisdom, and magical power. I will now place this gold chain around it. Once Bharata is crowned, I’ll have your hump coated with gold and mark a tilaka on your forehead. I will make all your hump-backs your dāsīs!”
With these words, Kaikeyī went to the chamber of anger, flung her jewellery around, and fell down on the bare floor.
To be continued...
[The critically constituted text and the critical edition published by the Oriental Institute, Vadodara is the primary source. In addition, the Kannada rendering of the epic by Mahāmahopādhyāya Sri. N. Ranganatha Sharma and the English translation by Sri. N. Raghunathan have been referred.]