Prince Ram, with his faithful wife Sita Devi and his loyal brother Lakshman, left the kingdom of Ayodhya for fourteen years of exile. They roamed the lush forests of Chitrakut and Dandakaranya, visited the serene ashrams* of many renowned sages and eventually built themselves a little cottage in the picturesque grove of Panchavati.
They enjoyed a simple and peaceful life until Surpanaka, a demoness, chanced upon them and caused a great deal of mischief. She became enchanted with handsome Lord Ram and was infuriated when he refused to marry her. Feeling insulted, she huffed back to her brother Ravana, the mighty king of the ferocious demons. He promised to take revenge by kidnapping Sita Devi and keeping her for himself.
Ravana hatched a devious plan forcing his kinsman Mareech to use magical trickery to transform into a beautiful golden deer. The deer pranced by the cottage and charmed Sita Devi, who sent Lord Ram chasing after it. Once she was alone, Ravana came disguised as a sage begging for food. In one swift move, he abducted the princess and took her off in his flying chariot. Stricken with fear and grief, Sita Devi cried out for help.
“Oh trees, rivers, animals, birds, please tell my lord that this evil demon has stolen me away. Please help me escape from this cowardly thief. Can anyone help me?”
Deep below in the trees, a black-feathered bird jolted. It was Jatayu, king of the vultures. He was an honourable creature and outraged to see Sita Devi being kidnapped. Jatayu was bent with age, for he was sixty thousand years old, but that didn’t stop him from dashing up to Ravana and challenging him to a duel.
“Cowardly demon, stop! How dare you steal Sita Devi?” Jatayu screeched. “She is the virtuous wife of the Lord of the world, give her back now, you evil knave!”
“I am king of the universe and you are just an old bird – how dare you try to stop me!”
Ravana was incensed and seized his weapons. He showered hundreds of piercing arrows on Jatayu who gashed the demon’s body with his sharp claws. Unafraid, the vulture swooped down and broke Ravana’s mighty bow, stripped his of his armour and killed the mules that pulled the chariot in the air.
When he saw Sita Devi in tears, Jatayu roared with anger. Summoning incredible strength, he utterly destroyed Ravana’s glittering chariot of gold and forced the demon to the ground. Demigods watched with wonder and praised the courageous bird.
However, Jatayu was getting tired. Seeing this, Ravana took to the skies again, with Sita Devi in one arm.
“This will be your ruin, wicked Ravana!” shouted Jatayu.
He soared again and stabbed and tore at Ravana using his magnificent wings, sharp beak and piercing claws.
Ravana replied with thunderous kicks and punches, for he was furious to be equalled by an old bird. Exasperated, the demon king unsheathed his gleaming sword and in one terrible strike, hewed off the vulture’s wings.
Jatayu fell to the ground, trembling with pain. Sita Devi rushed to his side, weeping bitterly. Seizing his chance, Ravana carried Sita Devi off to Lanka, his city of gold, while brave Jatayu suffered helplessly until Lord Ram and Lakshman found him a while later.
Overwhelmed by Jatayu’s awesome efforts, Lord Ram held the bloody bird to his chest and wept over his body. Jatayu told him all he could about Sita Devi’s abduction before peacefully dying. Appreciating the bird-king’s courage and might, Lord Ram lovingly awarded him the highest honour before continuing on his quest to find his beloved wife.
*An ashram is traditionally a hermitage in the forests or wilderness where inhabitants live a simple life of spiritual practice, meditation and scriptural study.