The paper compares landscapes described in Valmiki's Ramayana with existing ones associated with Rama. Textual meanings are decoded followed by an examination of sacred landscapes of Ayodhya, Chitrakut and Kiskindha. In absence of archaeological data establishing the authenticity of the epic tale, it is probable that actual sites were in course of time imprinted with Ramayana's characters and events.
Four facets make up the cultural construct of nature in Ramayana--duality of profane wilderness and sacred tapovana, natural edenic settings in forests reproduced in man-made city gardens, analogies between human and natural world visible in their sharing of aesthetic attributes and psychological states, and nature persona helping or hindering the principal human characters in their course of actions. The facets are not mutually exclusive--animated nature has a sacred or profane dimension and allows the experience of transcendent realm in the human world. Natural settings form a backdrop to the unfolding human (and divine) drama and at times act as catalysts for actions or actively intervene in the plot. Besides its central message of victory of righteousness over evil and an idealized code of conduct, Ramayana is about a culture's relationship with nature--conceptual categories, values and meanings. These too have persisted through time creating religious valorization of sacred landscapes and determining aesthetic preferences.
The transformation of natural landscapes in accordance with textual tradition took place over two thousand years. As pilgrimage destinations, their physical characteristics and role in sustaining belief are worth examining since they throw light on cultural construct of nature. Recent research by Profs. John Malville and Rana P.B. Singh shows how pilgrimage landscapes of Chitrakut and Kiskindha can be read as cosmic geometries in that they connect different levels of the cosmos. They also connect the psychological, inner experience of the pilgrim with outer physical reality. The resonance between inner psychic conditions of pilgrims and the outer environment is constituted by landscape, architecture, rituals, and presence of fellow pilgrims. The belief that the place is holy land blessed by the presence of gods and constitutes the entirety of the cosmos, is sustained and enhanced by topographic features and buildings. Pilgrimage landscapes evoke cosmic time as well. In the circumabulatory routes of chaurasi kos and other yatras, landscapes features and shrines are visited in a certain order. This movement collapses the passage of time reinforcing the idea of the eternal, bringing mythic time and space into the here and now in the consciousness of the believer.
Certain landscape features described in the epic, such as ecologically diverse niches of river valleys, changing course of river, hills aligned with cardinal directions and marking solstices and planetary movement, formed the ideal context for Ramayana legend to grow. Celebrated in oral traditions of the region, they attracted holy men, pundits and their patrons--chieftains and royalty whose building activities facilitated large scale pilgrimage in course of time.