Reading Guide. When Rama asks about an abandoned hermitage, Vishvamitra tells him the story of the sage Gautama and his beautiful wife, Ahalya. The god Indra fell in love with Ahalya and disguised himself as Gautama in order to seduce her. In some versions of the story, Ahalya was fooled by the disguise, but in other versions, she realized she was sleeping with someone who was not her husband. When Gautama found out what happened, he cursed both Indra and Ahalya. In the version of the story you will read here, he cursed Ahalya to become invisible; in other versions of the story, he cursed Ahalya to take the form of a stone. Ahalya's story is connected to Rama's own life: the arrival of Rama will end her curse, bringing her back to life. You can read more about Ahalya and the different versions of her story at Wikipedia.
Image: The illustration depicts the end of the story, after Rama has freed Ahalya; she is offering hospitality to Rama and his brother Lakshmana. You can see that the gods are rejoicing, too, and they throw flowers down as a sign of joy.
Source. Valmiki's Ramayana, translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1870-1874). [800 words] As you can see, this section is in verse; I would strongly recommend reading it loud or listening to the audio: poetry always sounds better out loud.
Close, in the city's neighborhood,
O'ergrown, deserted, marked by age,
And thus addressed the mighty sage,
"O reverend lord, I long to know
What hermit dwelt here long ago."
Then to the prince his holy guide,
Most eloquent of men, replied,
"O Rama, listen while I tell
Whose was this grove, and what befell
When in the fury of his rage
The high saint cursed the hermitage.
"This was the grove — most lovely then —
Of Gautam, O thou best of men,
Like heaven itself, most honored by
The gods who dwell above the sky.
"Here with Ahalya at his side,
His fervid task the ascetic plied.
Years fled in thousands.
On a day
It chanced the saint had gone away,
When Town-Destroying Indra came
And saw the beauty of the dame.
The sage's form the god endued
And thus the fair Ahalya wooed.
'Love — sweet! — should brook no dull delay
But snatch the moments when he may.'
"She knew him in the saint's disguise,
Lord Indra of the Thousand Eyes,
But, touched by love's unholy fire,
She yielded to the God's desire.
'Now, Lord of Gods,' she whispered, 'flee!
From Gautam save thyself and me.'
"Trembling with doubt and wild with dread,
Lord Indra from the cottage fled,
But fleeing in the grove he met
The home-returning anchoret,
Whose wrath the gods and fiends would shun,
Such power his fervent rites had won.
"Fresh from the lustral flood he came,
In splendor like the burning flame,
With fuel for his sacred rites
And grass, the best of eremites.
"The Lord of Gods was sad of cheer
To see the mighty saint so near,
And when the holy hermit spied
In hermit's garb the Thousand-Eyed,
He knew the whole; his fury broke
Forth on the sinner as he spoke:
'Because my form thou hast assumed
And wrought this folly, thou art doomed
For this my curse to thee shall cling,
Henceforth a sad and sexless thing.'
"No empty threat that sentence came.
It chilled his soul and marred his frame;
His might and godlike vigour fled,
And every nerve was cold and dead.
"Then on his wife his fury burst,
And thus the guilty dame he cursed:
'For countless years, disloyal spouse,
Devoted to severest vows,
Thy bed the ashes, air thy food,
Here shalt thou live in solitude.
This lonely grove thy home shall be,
And not an eye thy form shall see.
When Rama, Dasharatha's child,
Shall seek these shades then drear and wild,
His coming shall remove thy stain
And make the sinner pure again.
Due honor paid to him, thy guest,
Shall cleanse thy fond and erring breast,
Thee to my side in bliss restore
And give thy proper shape once more.'
Thus to his guilty wife he said,
Then far the holy Gautam fled
And on Himalaya's lovely heights
Spent the long years in sternest rites."
Then Rama, following still his guide,
Within the grove, with Lakshman, hied.
Her vows a wondrous light had lent
To that illustrious penitent.
He saw the glorious lady, screened
From eye of man and God and fiend,
Like some bright portent which the care
Of Brahma launches through the air,
Designed by his illusive art
To flash a moment and depart,
Or like the flame that leaps on high
To sink involved in smoke and die,
Or like the full moon shining through
The wintry mist, then lost to view,
Or like the sun's reflection, cast
Upon the flood, too bright to last:
So was the glorious dame till then
Removed from gods' and mortals' ken,
Till — such was Gautam's high decree —
Prince Rama came to set her free.
Then, with great joy that dame to meet,
The sons of Raghu clasped her feet;
And she, remembering Gautam's oath,
With gentle grace received them both.
Then water for their feet she gave,
Guest-gift, and all that strangers crave.
The prince, of courteous rule aware,
Received as meet the lady's care.
Then flowers came down in copious rain,
And, moving to the heavenly strain
Of music in the skies that rang,
The nymphs and minstrels danced and sang,
And all the gods with one glad voice
Praised the great dame and cried, 'Rejoice!
Through fervid rites no more defiled,
But with thy husband reconciled.'
Gautam, the holy hermit knew —
For naught escaped his godlike view —
That Rama lodged beneath that shade,
And hasting there his homage paid.
He took Ahalya to his side.
From sin and folly purified,
And let his new-found consort bear
In his austerities a share.
Then Rama, pride of Raghu's race,
Welcomed by Gautam, face to face,
Who every highest honour showed,
To Mithila pursued his road.