The first event from Rama’s adult life that we see depicted in Angkor occurred when he had reached marriageable age. The tale is called The Svayamvara of Sita, or sometimes just The Archery Contest. The story is told in the Bala Kanda, Book I of the Ramayana:
Old King Janaka, sovereign of Mithila , is in possession of a massive and divine ancestral bow which no king or minister on earth could wield. As the price for the hand of his beautiful daughter Sita, he sets the task of drawing the bow. For this purpose, a competition is organised: the svayamvara, to which the princes of all the neighbouring states are invited (possibly also Ravana).
Rama, who is in town with his brother Lakshmana and the great Sage Vishvamitra, is summoned by King Janaka to ‘behold’ the mighty ancestral bow. Ornate with flowers and sandalwood, the bow is brought in, with great effort, by 500 men and is displayed in front of the royal crowd.
Rama calmly raises it, and without effort, affixes the bowstring, fits an arrow and draws it back, but in doing so, he breaks it in the middle with the sound of thunder. Everybody is astounded, and thrown to the ground by the reverberations. When calm is restored, the king gives Sita in marriage to Rama and the wedding is arranged. He also orders the royal counsellors to leave at once for Ayodhya on swift chariots, to bring back King Dasaratha, Rama’s father.
Summarised from the Bala Kanda, chapters 66-67.
A svayamvara is a type of marriage from Hindu history where a woman chose a man as her husband from a group of suitors. Svayam in Sanskrit means 'self' and vara means 'groom', so svayamvara literally means 'choosing the husband by a girl by her own choice'.
As we read from the Ramayana above, the The Svayamvara of Sita takes place at the court of King Janaka, who wished to find a husband for his daughter Sita, and had organised a series of trials to test the aspiring young men.
In the original Valmiki text, the main trial consisted of lifting and bending the unrivalled Great Bow inherited from King Janaka’s illustrious ancestors, and believed to be the primordial bow of Shiva.
Rama not only raised the bow with one hand, but bent it effortlessly. His strength was so great that the bow broke in two, with a clap of thunder, dazzling and stunning the surrounding onlookers.
One of the best representations of this event can be seen in the northwestern corner pavilion of Angkor Wat Temple, on the east wall of the southern arm. It is one of only two reliefs in the pavilion to occupy the entire wall space without being broken by a window.
The relief is divided into five registers, and Figure 1 shows the top two of these. The uppermost register takes up fully half the space, with, at its centre, a young man of larger size than any other personage. This is Rama, with his how upraised in his right hand while the left is about to place one arrow into position.
Rama wears a conical crown, jewellery, a richly decorated sampot flapping at the back as well as a thin vest around the shoulders. The position of his right arm and the direction of his gaze take the viewer's eye towards the target at which he is aiming, a wheel on a post with a bird on top, creating a well-defined pyramidal composition.
In this relief, the competition target is a bird perched on a wheel on a tall pole, but such a target is not described in Valmiki’s Ramayana. It seems that the relief represents the episode of Sita’s svayamvara of Valmiki’s Ramayana up to the moment when Rama breaks the bow, but that the sculptors used the local version of the Ramayana, the Reamker, as the source for this telling of the story.
To the left of Rama is princess Sita, depicted wearing the three-pointed mukuta, typical of a lady of royal status. She is seated on a richly decorated throne; to her side there is a large casket in the shape of a lotus. She is adorned with jewellery and her sarong ends in a pointed flap. In her left hand she gracefuly holds a lotus bud. She does not seem to be watching Rama, but instead gazes at the viewer.
On the other side of Rama is the brahmin Vishvamitra, Rama’s personal guru, identifiable by his bun-like chignon and goatee. Behind Vishvamitra are three seated male figures (and a possible fourth, barely visible) wearing crowns and jewellery, and with their hands raised to their chests. It is not possible to be sure which of these is Lakshmana.
All the protagonists of this scene are protected by a multitude of parasols and fans, including one made with peacock feathers for Vishvamitra. In the background are regularly spaced trees.
In the register below, the royal figure seated on a high base is Sita’s father, King Janaka, surrounded by his court. Like his daughter above, he holds a lotus flower (or a piece of jewellery in the shape of a lotus) while in front of him is a decorated casket. Behind him are royal servants with fans and flywhisks, and another important member of the court seated on a plinth (lower than that of the king, however) who may be King Dasaratha, Rama’s father.
To the right is a row of archers in princely costumes, probably the defeated contestants, sitting in pairs. Note that they are the only figures holding bows amongst the multitude of warriors.
As in the register above, parasols protect all of the figures.
In Figure 2 we see the third register, in which is depicted a compact row of seated high-ranking warriors. One of them at the centre holds a ceremonial crook, while all the others hold swords. Curiously, although the warriors to the left and right are seated facing inwards, all of their swords point to the right.
The fourth register is sculpted with another densely packed row of warriors of high rank holding swords or maces. There is no apparent hierarchy amongst them based on costume and armament. They have an interesting symmetry, the ones to the right of the viewer hold their swords with their left arm, and the ones to the left with their right arm.
The comparatively tall lowest register (Figure 3), at eye level, again illustrates a court scene. Several soldiers, without headgear but wearing simple chignons, seem to be involved in many activities: some are carrying a cartwheel, others are attending horses, surrounded by others carrying parasols (some closed) and flywhisks.
Some young soldiers stand with their sword or mace at rest on their shoulder and some kneel on the ground. Their horses are arranged in groups of four.
One such group at the centre of the panel is, because of their location, the most important, and probably destined to pull a royal cart or chariot. In the background are tall widely spaced trees and vines probably denoting a garden.
Please also see: