Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XX: The Puṣpaka air-vehicle

Bijoy Misra

August 14, 2017


The skills of story-telling sometimes can let a writer embellish in words of description to capture the interest of the reader. Writers tend to use superlative artificial constructs to make them look realistic. The poet can say “millions” to describe a large crowd; a building “reaching the sky” where one just looks upwards from eyelevel to the top; a river can be as large as a “sea”. Storytelling can indeed be fanciful. But in all situations a physical object or event remains at the root of exaggeration. The qualities of an object get amplified in shape and size. A man can look like a “lion” or be a “fifty- foot tall monster”.


While we see stories of forceful resilience and truthfulness creating miracles and eventful expectations, we also see strong analysis of ballistics in archery, and in airflow technology. To guide the arrow in sensing a sound source is doable in principle. Arrows can be propelled to draw water from the rain clouds or create fire out of the forest woods. We read about the invocation of mantra which could be a technique to keep the mind and body concentrated on the task to apply one’s full potency. The arrows with extra maneuverability can be rare depending on their construction and the material used.


The above logic becomes difficult to handle when Vālmīki introduces an aerial vehicle to the story. We need air-transport when the distances are large. Air-transport could be convenient, but an air-vehicle is an engineering feat. The engineering demands choice of material, aerodynamic design and the application of a lift and steer mechanism. Vālmīki claims that one such vehicle was created by the richest man of the time for his private use. The man was Kubera, the king of the yakṣas, the people who controlled the earthly resources. The vehicle named Puṣpaka was forcefully taken away by Rāvaṇa, the villain of Rāmāyaṇa. Rāvaṇa had the aim of acquiring anything interesting anywhere in the world!


Vālmīki describes Puṣpaka as a vehicle that can go anywhere one likes. Apparently, it could take to the air easily and could be propelled by a “charioteer” somewhere above the tree line. It was pure mechanical in design and did not depend upon fuel or water for its motion. It was a large artificial “cave” like structure, which might connote to its buoyancy. Vālmīki does not talk about its ascent or descent except that mechanical “mules” were used to steer and move it in air. It is possible that the “mules” were regulated by the charioteer by using mechanical handles.


The air-vehicle could easily be damaged by impact with the birds. The vulture Jaṭāyu could block Rāvaṇa by “attacking” the ‘mules” and letting the craft grounded. It possibly needed all mules in motion to create stability, local malfunction of any of the “mules” disabled the lift. While the concept of mules and the chariot is borrowed from the Vedic compositions dealing with mythical celestial motions, calling the mechanical propulsion as “drive by mules” may not be too inappropriate. These “mules” were not live objects, the word is used as a metaphor. The “mules” mechanically helped in moving the vehicle.


Hanūmān saw the large vehicle parked next to Rāvaṇa’s palace. He saw rows of buildings and structures like a massive civil engineering project. He saw artificial trees, mountains, rivers and lakes, all man-made, all beautiful. He saw artificial birds planted on the trees, and he saw artificial flowers with studded gems that glittered the space. Golden horses and gilded silver snakes gave the space an out-of-the-world appearance. The carefully constructed aerial path led to the massive vehicle that appeared as a “beacon in the path of sun.”


Approaching the vehicle, Hanūmāna saw colorful pictures of clouds, stars and the sky, beautifully painted on the vehicle set with minerals and pearls. Everything was picturesque, everything was meticulously crafted. The design of the vehicle was special, the material used were special and the craftsmanship was special. The mountain-like vehicle had a cavern-interior with crevices and passages. There was nothing casual about the engineering or the finish. In search of Sita, Hanuman “wandered freely from area to area inside the huge space, that had its own fragrance!”


Vālmīki does hint that the vehicle was not meant for all and only for extremely few specially “qualified” people, who had earned the “merit” to ride an air-vehicle. Rāvaṇa qualified himself to ride because of his long years of penance and the boons he received for his austerities. This connection was possibly made to rationalize the free steering of the vehicle through the wish of the rider. While the lift of the vehicle would need directional ascent, the multiple “mules” could help navigate the vehicle through the principles of aerodynamics.


At the end of the war, Vibhīṣaṇa noticed Rāma’s anxiety to reach home. He offered Rāma to take a ride on the Puṣpaka to get to Ayodhyā faster. Rāma accepted the offer without any hesitation showing that the air-travel with the vehicle was safe and reliable. He also invited Sugrīva and his entire platoon of vānaras along with Vibhīṣaṇa with all his ministers to go along. This could have been a massive payload for the aircraft. Valmiki does not elaborate if the load caused any instability!


True to Valmiki’s style, the vehicle gives an opportunity for Rāma to show to Sītā an aerial view of various eventful locations on the path returning home. One can infer that the vehicle was not flying too high from the ground in that landmarks on the ground could be clearly discerned. After traveling over Laṅkā, the vehicle took a break at Kiṣkindhā with the goal of picking up Vālī’s widow Tārā, Sugrīva’s wife Rumā other vānara-wives. Though not explicit, the break can be considered as a desirable relief in a long journey! After making one more halt at the hermitage of Bharadvāja, Rāma and party finally reached Ayodhyā. At Ayodhyā, Rāma let the vehicle return to its owner Kubera.


In this essay, we have tried to create a rationale for the possibility of an aerial vehicle during the ancient times. The assumption we work on is that the story of Rāmāyaṇa is a historical legend and Vālmīki only creates description in connecting the events, and does not create new events. From the drama point of view, we need the aerial vehicle for the abduction to succeed. It also fits in with the engineering of operating in an island isolated in the sea for easy movement to the main land. Imagination of the launch pad and the description of careful fabrication do add some realism to the story. The principal question does remain that we don’t see any continuity of the technology or any other physical evidence of authenticity. The only point we might surmise is that the events were so old that no trace has remained except the legend!


Let Sai bless all.