Dasharatha was the king of Kosala, an ancient kingdom that was located in present day Uttar Pradesh. Ayodhya was its capital. Dasharatha was loved by one and all. His subjects were happy and his kingdom was prosperous. Even though Dasharatha had everything that he desired, he was very sad at heart; he had no children.
During the same time, there lived a powerful Rakshasa king in the island of Ceylon, located just south of India. He was called Ravana. His tyranny knew no bounds, his subjects disturbed the prayers of holy men.
The childless Dasharatha was advised by his family priest Vashishtha to perform a fire sacrifice ceremony to seek the blessings of God for children. Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, decided to manifest himself as the eldest son of Dasharatha in order to kill Ravana. While performing the fire worship ceremony, a majestic figure rose from the sacrificial fire and handed to Dasharatha a bowl of rice pudding, saying, “God is pleased with you and has asked you to distribute this rice pudding (payasa) to your wives – they will soon bear your children.”
The king received the gift joyfully and distributed the payasa to his three queens, Kausalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. Kausalya, the eldest queen, gave birth to the eldest son Rama. Bharata, the second son was born to Kaikeyi and Sumitra gave birth to the twins Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Rama’s birthday is celebrated now as Ramanavami.
The four princes grew up to be tall, strong, handsome, and brave. Of the four brothers, Rama was closest to Lakshmana and Bharata to Shatrughna. One day, the revered sage Viswamitra came to Ayodhya. Dasharatha was overjoyed and immediately got down from his throne and received him with great honor.
Viswamitra blessed Dasharatha and asked him to send Rama to kill the Rakshasas who were disturbing his fire sacrifice. Rama was then only fifteen years old. Dasharatha was taken aback. Rama was too young for the job. He offered himself, but sage Viswamitra knew better. The sage insisted upon his request and assured the king that Rama would be safe in his hands. Ultimately, Dasharatha agreed to send Rama, along with Lakshmana, to go with Viswamitra. Dasharatha strictly ordered his sons to obey Rishi Viswamitra and fulfill all his wishes. The parents blessed the two young princes. They then departed with the sage (Rishi).
The party of Viswamitra, Rama, and Lakshmana soon reached Dandaka forest where the Rakshasi Tadaka lived with her son Maricha. Viswamitra asked Rama to challenge her. Rama strung his bow and twanged the string. The wild animals ran helter-skelter in fear. Tadaka heard the sound and she became incensed. Mad with rage, roaring thunderously, she rushed at Rama. A fierce battle ensued between the huge Rakshasi and Rama. Finally, Rama pierced her heart with a deadly arrow and Tadaka crashed down to the earth. Viswamitra was pleased. He taught Rama several Mantras (divine chants), with which Rama could summon many divine weapons (by meditation) in order to fight against evil
Viswamitra then proceeded, with Rama and Lakshmana, towards his ashram. When they started the fire sacrifice, Rama and Lakshmana were guarding the place. Suddenly Maricha, Tadaka’s ferocious son, arrived with his followers. Rama silently prayed and discharged the newly acquired divine weapons at Maricha. Maricha was thrown many, many miles away into the sea. All other demons were slain by Rama and Lakshmana. Viswamitra completed the sacrifice and the sages rejoiced and blessed the princes.
The next morning, Viswamitra, Rama, and Lakshmana headed towards the city of Mithila, the capital of the kingdom of Janaka. King Janaka invited Viswamitra to attend the great fire sacrifice ceremony that he had arranged. Viswamitra had something in mind – to get Rama married to the lovely daughter of Janaka.
Janaka was a saintly king. He received a bow from Lord Siva. It was strong and heavy.
He wanted his beautiful daughter Sita to marry the bravest and strongest prince in the country. So he had vowed that he would give Sita in marriage only to the one who could string that great bow of Siva. Many had tried before. None could even move the bow, let alone string it.
When Viswamitra arrived with Rama and Lakshmana at the court, King Janaka received them with great respect. Viswamitra introduced Rama and Lakshmana to Janaka and requested that he show the bow of Siva to Rama so that he could try to string it. Janaka looked at the young prince and assented doubtfully. The bow was stored in an iron box mounted on an eight-wheeled chariot. Janaka ordered his men to bring the bow and place it in the middle of a big hall filled with many dignitaries.
Rama then stood up in all humility, picked up the bow with ease, and got ready for the stringing. He placed one end of the bow against his toe, put forth his might, and bent the bow to string it-when to everyone’s surprise the bow snapped in two! Sita was relieved. She had liked Rama right at the first sight.
Dasharatha was immediately informed. He gladly gave his consent to the marriage and came to Mithila with his retinue. Janaka arranged for a grand wedding. Rama and Sita were married. At the same time, the three other brothers were also provided with brides. Lakshmana married Sita’s sister Urmila. Bharata and Shatrughna married Sita’s cousins Mandavi and Shrutakirti. After the wedding, Viswamitra blessed them all and left for the Himalayas to meditate. Dasharatha returned to Ayodhya with his sons and their new brides. People celebrated the marriage with great pomp and show.