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 flightless.”

“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

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