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Long ago in the realm of the gods, Garuda’s elder brother Aruna had two sons –
Jatayu and Sampati. Like their father & uncle, they were raptors, that is, birds of
prey. Unlike their father & uncle, they were mortals.

The fact that their father was the Sun-god’s charioteer, and the personification of
the first rays of the dawn, made them very lustrous, and fearsome to behold. This
caused them to be named Bhaasa, or the shiny ones.

All creatures are born with a set of knowledge, skills and abilities, which may or
may not be unique. It is their mode of employing these KSA’s that decide whether
they are truly distinguished, or as the saying goes, run of the mill.

Jatayu and Sampati were better than the average raptor – they had a larger
wingspan, and unparalleled digestive powers – the latter being a special gift from
the Sage Agastya, who was known to have similar powers.

But it is their unprecedented wingspan that brought upon them the curse and the
blessing that would rule their lives and that of their tribe. For with wings as huge
as theirs, they invented a pattern of flight that required very little effort on their
part, yet allowed them to scale heights which no mortal bird could scale. Modern
aeronautical engineers call it “riding the thermals”.

And so it happened that one day the young brothers decided to race each other to
the very boundaries of the sky. Up and up they flew, heeding not the warnings of
the other airborne mortals. Up and up they flew, till they neared the realm of their
father, which was also the realm of the Sun.

Being mortal birds, the sun’s scorching rays soon started affecting their wings. In
his youthful overconfidence Jatayu continued to rise, while the elder and wiser
Sampati realized at last the consequences of their hapless sport.

“Fall back, brother”, he called, “I lose, you win. Just don’t go any higher up.” “ Fear
not, brother”, replied Jatayu, “but rise with me.”

Soon Jatayu’s wings started smoking, and he was unable to fold them to be able to
descend. Seeing this Sampati indeed rose higher than his brother, and shielded his
brother’s wings till he was able to make a safe descent. Mistaking this act of
fraternal love to be a product of arrogance, the Sun-god cursed Sampati.

And thus he protected his brother at the cost of his own wings.

Grieved by the condition that he had caused his brother to be in, Jatayu decided
immediately to be a part of his brother’s suffering. “We were fated to share every
curse and every blessing bestowed upon us, brother. Therefore I too shall become
“Be not enslaved by the boundaries of fate,” admonished Sampati, “there are
things you can do, glories you can achieve before the same curse overtakes you.”

“But how can I leave you in the quest of glory? How will you sustain yourself in
your present condition? The people of the three worlds know us as the Grdhra, the
perpetually hungry. How will you satisfy your hunger?”

“The earth has bounties to feed every kind of creature”, said his brother calmly, “If
I can no longer hunt the living, I shall hunt the dead. Blessed as I am with a
digestion comparable to the honourable son of the Kumbha, I am sure I can
partake of dead meat without any ill-effects.”

“Then I shall do the same.”

And so it happened that the highly able raptor clan of the Grdhra renounced their
diet of fresh meat, and became the scourge of the earth, the creatures that are
elsewhere known by the name of vulture and condor.

Years after this incident the brothers became vassals of the human Ikshvaku rulers
of the Kingdom of Kosala, forging a special friendship with the King
Dundubhinada, more famously known as Dasaratha. Sampati had settled himself
on the southern shores of the subcontinent, while Jatayu roamed the skies
between Kosala and his brother’s abode.

It is on one of these rounds that he spotted an airborne chariot drawn by donkeys
with pisacha (ghoul) faces, occupied by a very handsome half- demon and an
equally effulgent, screaming woman.

He soon knew the woman to be the exiled daughter-in-law of Kosala, for she wore
ascetics clothes made of tree bark, and kept screaming her husband’s name. He
guessed from his brother’s descriptions that the half-demon was the King of
Lanka, Ravana.

Why the illustrious regent would stoop to this outdated and much-maligned
tactic of abduction, Jatayu could not fathom. But as vassal and family friend of the
Ikshvakus, it was his duty to prevent such a thing.

And everyone in the three worlds knows how Jatayu finally consummated the
curse by losing his wings in his attempt to rescue Sita. Even as he lay dying, he
fulfilled his duty to his Lord and Regent Rama, by disclosing the identity of his
wife’s abductor. Sampati too was blessed with an opportunity to be a part in the
search for Sita, and pointed out her whereabouts in the city of Lanka to Hanuman
and his depressed search team.

And thus did the brothers fulfill their destiny, becoming partners in every curse
and blessing. This tale is little known, but will forever remain in the minds of the
few that know it, as a paragon of brotherhood, as proof that one’s choices can
defeat even the caprices of fate.
The tale of Jatayu and Sampati has only been outlined in Valmiki’s Ramayana, never
explicitly stated. Only the description of their parentage, the mere fact of Sampati’s
sacrifice and the brother’s involvement in Sita’s search (including the description of
Ravana and his chariot) are authentic in this retelling, the rest of the details being a
work of my imagination.
I tell this story as a tribute to my own younger sister, the comfort of my life, fierce friend
of the sincere and formidable enemy of the cunning. I humbly fill in the gaps of the
Bard Valmiki’s epic, as a prayer to heaven, that I may be able to do for her what
Sampati did for his brother.

Ishita Roy
Gurgaon, 2010