The four princes grew up to be strong and handsome. Under sage Vashishta’s guidance, they excelled themselves in archery, riding and hunting. They also learnt about the holy books and how to look after the welfare of the people. They respected their Gurus and the elders and gained the love and affection of people of Ayodhya. The brothers loved each other very much. Lakshmana was a very close companion to Rama. Bharata and Shatrughna were the other two inseparables.
King Dasharatha was very proud of his sons. One day he was discussing with sage Vashishta about finding suitable brides for bis sons. At that time a great sage called Vishwamitra came to the court of Dasharatha. The king was very happy to welcome him to Ayodhya. After extending a warm hospitality, he asked Vishwamitra, “O great sage! Your visit has made me very happy. Pray, tell me the purpose of your visit. I shall deem it a great honour to abide by your wish.”
Vishwamitra, pleased with the king’s words told him, “King Dasharatha! I am pleased with your hospitality. I have heard that you always keep up your word; that’s why I am here. I am about to perform a Yagna, but two Rakshasas— Mareecha and Subahu, pour blood and throw human flesh into the fire pit and pollute the Yagna. I cannot cast any curse on them as I am involved in a sacred work. But I cannot.perform the Yagna till these demons are killed. Rama, your son, is the only valiant person who can kill them. Hence, please send him with me for ten days. As soon as the Yagna is completed, I will send back Rama to Ayodhya.”
When the aged king heard this request, he felt nervous about sending his young son to fight against the demons. “Respected Sage,” he pleaded with Vishwamitra, “My dear son Rama is still very young. How can he fight against the Rakshasas? Instead of Rama, I will send my entire army to help you in conducting the Yagna. I cannot bear to be separated from Rama and hence please spare me this agony.”
Vishwamitra was angry at Dasharatha’s words. “O King, you are going back on your word. I do not want anybody except Rama.” So saying, he decided to walk out of the court. At this juncture, Vashishta pacified him and told Dasharatha, “Do not hesitate to send Rama. It is not a difficult task for Vishwamitra to kill the Rakshasas because he himself is very powerful. He wants to take Rama with him so that your son can learn to fight the Rakshasas even at this young age. Do send Rama with him.”
Without any more hesitation, King Dasharatha blessed Rama and also Lakshmana, who wanted to be with his brother, and sent them with Vishwamitra.
Vishwamitra and the two princes travelling barefoot, first crossed the river Sarayu and then the river Ganga. Rama and Lakshmana did not mind the hardship at all as this was their chance to learn about many things from Vishwamitra. After many days of travelling, they entered a thick forest where a Rakshasi called Taraka lived. She had terrorised all the sages in the forest and hence Vishwamitra instructed Rama to kill her. Rama drew out his arrow and aimed it at Taraka. The ugly looking demoness charged towards him but was killed by Rama’s arrow. Vishwamitra was very pleased with Rama and gifted him many powerful weapons. Rama accepted them gracefully and learnt from Vishwamitra about their use.
The trio continued their journey and reached the spot where Vishwamitra was to perform the Yagna. The Rishis of the Ashram were happy to have Rama in their midst. The princes rested for the night and from the next morning, protected the Yagna against the Rakshasas. Everything went on smoothly till the last day.
On the last day of the Yagna, suddenly, pieces of flesh and blood fell into the sacred fire. When Rama looked up, he saw Mareecha and Subahu rushing towards the fire pit. A horde of Rakshasas followed them. Without a moment’s delay, Rama drew out his arrows and killed Mareecha and Subahu. The weapons were so strong and powerful that Mareecha was thrown into the sea hundreds of miles away while Subahu was engulfed in a ball of fire. All the Rishis were relieved that these evil demons were destroyed by Rama and they joyously completed the Yagna. After conducting the Yagna, Vishwamitra and the other Rishis left for the city of Mithila. Rama and Lakshmana accompanied them.
Mithila was ruled by King Janaka, who was loved and respected for his goodness. He had a beautiful daughter by name Sita. Janaka had found her in a ploughed field and had brought her up as his own daughter. Sita was lovely and was also renowned for her strength of character. When she was of a marriageable age, Janaka announced that whoever could string the Siva Bow would wed her. This bow was not an ordinary bow—it was a very huge and powerful bow given by Lord Shiva himself. Sage Vishwamitra knew about this bow and had purposely thought of taking the young princes to .Mithila.
On their way to Mithila, they halted at an Ashram where Gautama, a sage, had once lived. Gautama had a wife called Ahalya who was extremely beautiful. Indra, the King of the Heavens, desired her and in Gautama’s absence, deceived her. The enraged Gautama cast a curse on Indra. He also cursed Ahalya, “ May you turn into a stone. You will be rid of this curse only when Sri Rama touches you.” So saying, Gautama had gone away to the Himalayas to observe penance.
Vishwamitra narrated Ahalya’s tragic story to Rama and instructed him, “Ramachandra! Rescue Ahalya from this curse and give her a new life.” Rama followed this advice and as soon as he touched the stone statue, Ahalya came to life. At that moment Gautama also returned to the ashram. Thus, Gautama and Ahalya were reunited.