The Ramayana is the story of Rama, Prince of Ayodhya, and his birthplace in Ayodhya is a holy site in India today. You can read more about Ayodhya at Wikipedia.
[Notes by LKG]
This story is part of the Ramayana unit. Story source: Indian Myth and Legend by Donald A. Mackenzie (1913).
The Birth of Rama
Valmiki Invents Poetry
Be it told that when Valmiki came to know of the adventures and achievements of the great prince, he went towards the river to bathe, musing the while. It chanced that two fond herons disported on the bank, when suddenly a passing huntsman shot the male bird, which at once fell dead in a pool of blood. Great was the grief of the female heron, and Valmiki's heart was so deeply moved by its cries of distress that he gave utterance to his emotions in a stream of metrical speech. In this manner was the sloka metre invented.
Then came towards the brooding poet the supreme god Brahma, who smiled and commanded him to celebrate the story of Rama in the poetic measure which, involuntarily, he had invented.
Valmiki prepared himself accordingly to fulfil the desire of Brahma. He sat upon a carpet of Kusa grass, sipped holy water, and became absorbed in thought, until visions of the story were revealed before his eyes. Sloka by sloka and book by book, he composed the Ramayana, and as long as mountains endure and rivers run towards the sea, so long will it be repeated by the lips of mankind.
Valmiki's Epic Poem: The Ramayana
Valmiki sang that in days of yore there were two mighty kingdoms in sun-bright Hindustan, and these were Kosala, whose King was Dasaratha, father of Rama, and Mithila, which was ruled over by Janaka, the father of beauteous Sita.
Now the capital of Kosala was Ayodhya, which shone in splendour like to Indra's celestial city; it had wide streets with large dwellings, richly decorated temples, towering like mountains, and grand and noble palaces. In the palace gardens there were numerous birds and flowers, shady groves of fruit trees, and lakes gemmed with bee-loved lotuses; the soft winds were wont to beat back the white water-blooms from the honey bees as coy maidens are withheld by the impulses of modesty from their eager lovers. Birds disported on the gleaming lakes, kingfishers were angered to behold themselves mirrored in the depths, thinking they gazed upon rivals, and ruffled the waters with their flapping wings. . . . The city of Ayodhya was full of prosperous and happy people.
Maharajah Dasaratha, who was of the Solar Race, dwelt in a stately palace; it was surrounded by strong walls and guarded by a thousand warriors fierce as flames of consuming fire and ever watchful like to mountain lions which protect their dens. Eight sage counsellors served the monarch with devotion, and he had two family priests, Vasishtha and Vamadeva.
But although Dasaratha was mighty and powerful and prospered greatly, his heart was full of sorrow because that no son had been born to him by either of his three queens, Kausalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. . . . At length he resolved to perform the Aswamedha (horse sacrifice) so that the gods might be prevailed upon to grant him an heir who would perpetuate his race. When his will was made known to the queens, their faces brightened as the lotus brightens at the promise of spring.
Dasaratha's Horse Sacrifice
So it came to pass that a black horse was let loose on the night of the full moon of the month of Choitro. A Brahman accompanied it, and, after wandering for a full year, the animal returned again to the kingdom.
Many rajahs attended the ceremony which took place on the north bank of the Sarayu river. Twenty-one sacrificial posts were set up for the birds, and beasts, and reptiles, which were to be offered up besides the horse, and there were eighteen Homa pits. When the fire was kindled upon the altar, Kausalya, the chief queen, slew the horse with the sacred scimitar, while the Brahmans chanted mantras. . . . All night long Kausalya and Kaikeyi, wives of the Maharajah, sat beside the horse's body, as was needful in performance of the rite. . . . Portions of the flesh were duly given to the fire, and when the ceremony was completed, Dasaratha awarded great gifts of kine and treasure to the Brahmans.
The Gods Attend
An oblation was afterwards offered to the gods, who came to the place of sacrifice with the music-loving Gandharvas, the Celestial saints, the Siddhas, and seven Deva-rishis. Brahma came with Vishnu and Shiva, and Indra came also with the hastening Maruts. Ere they departed, the gods promised that four sons would be born to Dasaratha.
After this, Indra and the other gods journeyed to the heaven of Brahma, and spake regarding Ravana, the monarch of demons, who had his dwelling in Lanka.
Now Ravana had performed such great penances that Brahma rendered him invulnerable to gods and demons, with the result that the demon made Yama, god of death, his slave, and put Agni and Vayu, and the sun and moon, under subjection; indeed, he oppressed all the gods and obstructed sacrifices and despoiled the Brahmans. So Indra and other minor deities entreated Brahma to deliver them from the sway of Ravana.
Brahma heard the gods, and then conducted them to Vishnu's dwelling in the Ocean of Milk. Indra and the others honoured the Preserver, and cried: "O Lord of the Universe, remove the afflictions which press heavily upon us. Brahma hath blessed Ravana, nor can recall his gift. Save us, therefore, from the oppression of the demon king."
Vishnu spake and said: "Be not afraid, for I shall deliver you all. Ravana entreated Brahma for protection against all beings save the apes and men. Go therefore towards the earth, ye gods, and assume the guise of apes, and lo! I will divide myself into four parts and be born as the four sons of Maharajah Dasaratha. When I shall battle against Ravana, you will hasten to mine aid."
Rama is Born
It came to pass that the wives of Dasaratha, who had eaten of sacrificial food, became the mothers of sons: Kausalya of Rama, Kaikeyi of Bharata, and Sumitra of Lakshmana, and Satrughna. The people of the kingdom rejoiced greatly; they danced and sang and decked Ayodhya with streamers and flower garlands.
Image source: Birth of Rama