The First Verse
Two cranes, devoted to one another, lived by a river near the sage Valmiki's hermitage.
One day as Valmiki watched the couple mating, a hunter shot an arrow from the bushes. One of the cranes fell to the ground, dead, and his mate screamed in grief as she gazed at his blood-spattered corpse.
In anger and sorrow for the birds, Valmiki cursed the hunter in verse:
O Hunter, because you killed one of these birds
In the midst of their love, you will be infamous forever.
This was the first poem in the world, and Valmiki was the first poet.
In addition to being the first poet in the world, Valmiki also composed the first version of the Ramayana. Here is a link to the Sanskrit of the verses that Valmiki spoke to the hunter; there's even audio you can listen to.
Rama, Son of Dasharatha
As King Dasharatha of Ayodhya conducted a sacrifice in order to obtain a son, the devas beseeched Vishnu in heaven.
"The lord of the rakshasas, Ravana, persecutes us," they cried, "and he torments the earth."
Brahma explained how Ravana won protection from devas, asuras, rakshasas, yakshas, and gandharvas. "But in his arrogance," Brahma added, "he did not request protection from humans."
The gods then made their request. "We beg you, Preserver-of-the-Universe: take birth as Dasharatha's son in order to save the world from Ravana."
Vishnu agreed, and thus he was born on earth as Dasharatha's son: Rama, Prince of Ayodhya.
The backstory of how Ravana got that boon of protection comes in the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana, a book added on at the end which gives backstories for many of the main characters.
The Kheer from Heaven
As King Dasharatha completed the sacrifice, a celestial being appeared, bearing in his hands a bowl of kheer. Dasharatha gave the bowl to Kaushalya, chief among his three wives.
"We must share it," she said. So Kaushalya ate half, and gave the bowl to Sumitra.
Sumitra ate half, and gave the bowl to Kaikeyi, Dasharatha's favorite.
Kaikeyi ate half, and then gave the bowl back to Sumitra, who ate what was left.
And so Kaushalya gave birth to Rama, Kaikeyi to Bharata, and Sumitra had two sons: Lakshmana, who was devoted to Rama, and Shatrughna, who was devoted to Bharata.
You can usually find kheer, which is a sweet rice pudding, on the menu of most Indian restaurants. It is called by different names in different parts of India: kheer, payasam, firni, etc. Find out more at Wikipedia.
Baby Rama's Cosmic Form
Kaushalya left Rama in his cradle and then went to offer prayers. She was amazed to find him there, eagerly eating the burfi and other puja sweets! "How can he be both here and there?"
As she stared, Rama displayed his cosmic form: infinite beings, millions of universes contained in every part of his body. All of time, all of existence radiated from him.
Kaushalya bowed her head. "O Lord, I beg you to let me forget you have shown me here."
So Kaushalya forgot, and in obedience to his mother Rama never revealed his true form to her again.
This episode does not occur in Valmik's Ramayana, but it does appear in Tulsidas, and it such a great scene! Krishna makes a similar revelation to his foster-mother Yashoda, who sees the cosmic manifestation of Krishna when she looks inside the baby's mouth. Vishnu's cosmic form is called Vishvarupa, All-Form; learn more at Wikipedia.
Tataka was once a beautiful yakshini on whom Brahma bestowed the strength of a thousand elephants.
When the sage Agastya killed her husband, Tataka vowed revenge, and Agastya in turn cursed Tataka, turning her into a monstrous rakshasi. Enraged, Tataka and her sons, Maricha and Subahu, attacked every sage and defiled every sacrifice. That is why Vishvamitra brought Rama into the forest.
"You must kill Tataka and her sons!" he commanded, and Rama obeyed. Rama killed Subahu, and he killed Tataka, but Maricha escaped.
Later Maricha would take from Rama what he loved most. Could that be Tataka's final revenge?
Bibliography. Since I've already read the regular reading for class, I decided to read the new ACK Ramayana, where each of the Kandas is a book of its own (notably missing, though, is the Uttara Kanda). For this assignment, I read pp. 1-57.