Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Epic 'Ayodhya' born of Indian mythology

By Jeff Suess
The Cincinnati Enquirer

From J.R.R. Tolkien to Robert Jordan, the fantasy genre has typically drawn on western legends and Celtic, Norse and Greco-Roman myths.

But Indian author Ashok K. Banker instead turned to his own Hindu culture to adapt The Ramayana as an epic fantasy.

The term epic is bandied about a great deal in fantasy lit, but rarely is it as apt as it is here.

The Ramayana is an Indian epic recorded in Sanskrit couplets by the poet Valmiki, probably around the fourth century B.C., though the story may date as far back as 2000 B.C.

Prince of Ayodhya is book one of Banker's series retelling the entire tale.

Rama is the eldest son of the Maharaja Dasaratha and his first wife, Kausalya. One night, he has a vision of the rape and destruction of his beloved city Ayodhya, an image that haunts him and guides his destiny.

Dasaratha is dying, so he names Rama his heir, but his second wife, Kaikeyi, schemes to put her own son in power.

Meanwhile, a war is brewing. The Asuras, demonic anti-gods, have amassed an army of mishmash monsters to invade Ayodhya. This threat has brought the great seer-magi Vishwamitra out of his centuries-long retreat to enlist the aide of Rama.

He wants Rama to stand alone against the hoards, but Dasaratha refuses to give up his eldest son despite what his dharma - sacred duty - demands.

Prince of Ayodhya can be read on different levels: as a straightforward archetypal fantasy adventure; as a crash course in one of the world's oldest civilizations; or as both.

While the story is not long or complicated, it is rich with details: the gruesome 10-headed Ravana; the tang of mangos with salt; and the sensuous Kamasutra. Banker recreates a lush and beautiful world of exotic scents, powerful magic and honored traditions.

Some of the tongue-tying Hindu and Sanskrit terms may cause the reader to stumble, but the author provides an extensive glossary.

He is sometimes overly descriptive and the order of events is off a bit. Some readers may object to recasting a culture's history as fantasy, but Banker does it with obvious reverence to the source material.

E-mail: jsuess@enquirer.com

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