Surpanakha -The story of a woman scorned

The other day we went and saw a nice dance drama at UNC Chapel Hill called Sitayana, wherein a colleague acted as Urmila and a friend acted as Hanuman. Great performances, nice singing and commentary from the background, we were provided a treat of the essence of the Ramayana story. The Stone theater was houseful and the ambiance at UNC great. But then again, this is not a review of the session, but something else that got my mind going.

That ‘something’ was the character of Surpanakha, the much reviled character depicted in many a Ramayana version as an ogress, foul mouthed, hoarse voiced, one with coppery hair, amply endowed on the upper deck and capable of changing forms at will. Before I get to that part of the story and around it, I must tell you that the girl who played that part and got the loudest applause was Bethanie Mickles, a young attorney and a dance + music artist. I was pleasantly surprised when I read her bio and saw that she had studied not just Bharata Natayam but also Kathak, Odissi, African, Hawaiian, Tahitian, Middle Eastern, Flamenco and Samba dance forms and had been performing around the world. Now how do you beat that?

You see, just before the performance, we were eating a desi dinner served by the organizers and as we were standing among the many well attired mamis, behens, confused looking young papas with wailing kids, munching the puris and chana and slurping on the jamuns, a well attired girl walked by, immediately drawing my gaze, as such an event usually would. Dressed in a yellow – orange sari, she was somewhat short, but her countenance provided the shock, for it was not desi, but a local lassie. You know how we desis are, we had to make a comment between ourselves about that, so my wife and I dutifully remarked about her confident strides through the pathway wearing the sari, and it was soon thereafter that we saw her on stage as Surpanakha. Needless to say she acted and danced her way through effortlessly and enthusiastically, to receive much applause. And now with that backdrop, let us get to understand the whole of Surpanakha’s somewhat sad story.

Some days back, I alluded to the story of the meeting between Rama, Lakshmana, Surpanaka and Sita in the Mappila Lamayana article. That was just one version, but one that is very close to the Kampan tradition. So let me now get into Surpanakha’s or Meenakshi’s story and try to make some sense out of some of the stuff we believed in, though I am not sure I will succeed.

She was the dark one with long and sharp nails, stupendous mammaries and a vile countenance. And of course, somebody who is the core of the Ramayana epic, for without her the events that transpired would not have happened. Now , is that really so? Was she really the Helen of Lanka (drawing an allegory to the Illiad)? Is it time yet for us to go the Aranya kanda (forest phase) at the Panchavati and witness what transpired? Maybe not yet, let us first get to her origins to understand her course of life.

It was a difficult task for me as the epic itself has been transformed in text and content and wildly embellished over the many centuries from the original (As it is, the large time gap between Valmiki and the epic is itself many centuries, and then again some say that there were more than one Valmiki) by different authors. It is also mentioned by some experts that the Aranya Kanda and events thereafter were actually described with lesser detail than the rest of the epic and as this points to locales and events in Lanka as well as the south and south central portions of India, which were probably not very well known to the writer, thereby alluding to even more inaccuracy.

The story as is usually told has Surpanakha wandering about the forest whereupon she chances upon the two brothers. Seeing that Rama is indeed worthy of a liaison, she changes form and comes to him as a beautiful girl (In Valmiki’s version she comes as herself, in ugly fashion) and expresses her wish to marry him. Rama indeed shows some interest, but acknowledges that he is married to Sita (and continues that Surpanakha would not like to be a mistress, second to Sita) and forwards her to Lakshmana who he says is more worthy of her, in spite of the fact that Lakshmana is married. Lakshmana however is not interested and sends her back to Rama. Surpanakha gets furious at this behavior and stalks off, to decide later that if she has to get Rama, Sita has to be done away with. Surpanakha thus decides to kill and eat Sita and as she proceeds to do so, Lakshmana attacks her and cuts off her ears and nose (In the Kampan version, her breasts are hived off as well in line with the punishment meted to adulterous women of those times). The disfigured Surpanakha runs away to her brother who later comes with his 14,000 strong army in support of her cause, but those many thousands are killed single handedly by Rama. Then Surpanakha goes to Lanka, explains the problem to her step brother Ravana by changing the story and explaining that Rama has a woman who is better than Urvasi, Menaka and Rambha put together, and that Sita is worthy of being the queen of Lanka. She adds that she was disfigured by the brothers while she was trying to kidnap Sita for Ravana. As we know, this sets off a chain of actions culminating in the Great War.

But we go many years back ( it was difficult for me to get the time line right as devas and asuras seem to have pretty long life times) to find out about previous births and set perspective. To start with, it appears that Sita was in her previous birth a girl called Vedavati who was molested by the same Ravana during her penance in the forest. She decided to commit sati after the event and curses Ravana saying that she will seek revenge in her next birth and ‘Since I have been insulted in the forest by thee who art wicked-hearted, I shall be born again for thy destruction’.

Back to the scene of the next event, the forest. Life has been pretty bad in the southern parts of India from an Aryan perspective and a change of scene is needed. It is now interesting to note that one of the changes the Arya dharma wanted to bring about was a change from wrong practices like the practice of matriarchy which has to be changed to patriarchy (Encyclopedia of Dalits in India: Women - By Sanjay Paswan). Was matriarchy so widely practiced in places other than Malabar? It appears so.

I will now retell the story a little differently, basing it on the Kampan and Kerala folklore versions adopted from various puppet dramas on Ramayana (goes on for 17-26 nights) and enacted in Palghat (read my blog on Kavalappara to get the background), add text from a number of other related tales, introduce you to an unfortunate and little known but important personality named Sambukumaran with all the help of Stuart Blackburn’s brilliant analysis of the event in his book cited under references. Note that similar oral versions depicting Sambukumaran’s role are also sung in many other Bhagavati temples of Kerala (and covers some 1,200 verses from the 10,000 odd verses in kampa Ramayana).Not only are these characters found in Kerala’s folk dramas but also in Andhra and Karnataka.

Curiously the puppet plays base themselves on Kampan’s version of Ramayana until the introduction of Sambukumaran (which is covered in 13 verses) and then gets back after the event. It is established by Stuart in conjuncture that Kampan chose to omit this rather important portion. But what did those 13 verses contain? To know that, let us head back to the Panchavati Dhandaka forests and before that to the origins of Surpanakha.

It is said that Surpanakha (a.k.a Chandranakha) was born to Kaikesi (daughter of Tataka and Sumali) and Vishrava (grandson of Brahma) after an untimely sexual union. In some books, it is said that Suprpanakha was the daughter of Raka, one of the 3 wives of Pulastya and her twin brother was Khara, Ravana being a step brother. This makes more sense for Surpanakha is later seen first running off to Khara for help, not Ravana. The daughter of Raka is thus called a Rakshasi. Surpanakha marries a fella with lightning on his tongue called Vidyujjihva. In some books his name is Kharadushana. Astute Ramayana enthusiasts may recall here that Surpanakha’s husband was killed before the event, so I cannot continue without telling you that part of the story to set perspective.

The puppet play also introduces in some places, the husband of Surpanakaha named Vidyujjihva who was killed by Ravana during his victory march. In one story Vidyujjiva’s brothers Kalakeyas were defeated by Ravana and killed after which a battle ensued between Ravana and Vidyujjihva in which the latter was killed (in some others he is accidentally killed) and to cut that story short, Surpanakha was irate. In Uttara Ramayana, it is stated that the jungles were thence allocated to Surpanakha in order to pacify her and make amends and the rights over all males in the forest were also accorded to her. She then goes through the three worlds in search of a new husband and thus chances on Rama at Panchavati in Dantaka aranya (forest). Some variants states that the whole Sita abduction came about following Surpanakha’s scheming in revenge of her husband’s death, for she wanted Ravana killed. It is even said that with that purpose, she assumed the form of Mantara and got the brothers sent for vanvas.

Back to the forest - And so the brothers Rama and Lakshmana reach the forest home to the five varieties of fine trees, with an intent to eradicate the five types of crimes (lying, cheating, drinking, killing and abusing ones guru – also maybe matriarchy) during their vanavas. The serene astute forests of nasik now have to bear testimony to the sudden arrival of a startled Surpanaka. She arrives here in search of her lost son ( in some versions she is bringing food as usual to her son), who was last seen deep in penance, praying since the last 12 years to Lord Siva after being antagonized by his uncle Ravana (who killed his father), hung upside down from a tree. This son bears the name Sambukumaran, born to Surpanakha after many months of penance.

Jambukumaran after praying to Indra (some say Siva) gets a powerful killer sword ‘Suryahasa’ as a boon, but is mollified and is not interested in such things. Indra assures him that it will be of help (as you can see later, some help it was!!), but Sambu does not accept it and it is hanging in the air above his tree where he continues his penance. Lakshmana who is wandering around, sees it and drawing it, he cuts the bamboo bushes down to get wood for their new home, accidentally killing Sambu in the process. Then again, there is this other version which states that Sambukumaran actually saw Sita while taking a break from his penance and fell in love with her. In order to continue to spy on her, he took the form of a tree opposite their place of stay. This tree was felled by Lakshmana while cutting trees to strengthen their hut. Lakshmana in despair after the event, decides to kill himself, but Narada comes along and tells him that it was an asura he killed, not a holy sage or a Brahman, so the matter is forgotten.

And so as we see, Sambukumaran (a.k.a Jambukumaran) is killed by Lakshmana, and Surpanakha not knowing who did it is crying out to Siva (or Indra) asking if that was the reward for his penance and how unjust it all was. She cries bloody revenge of the perpetrator, be it Siva, Indra, Brahma or Narayana and promises death of the killer at the hands of her brother Ravana.

But then she espies Rama on the banks of the Godavari and is smitten. Immediately she carries out a Lakshmi puja (she is an ardent devotee of Lakshmi) and transforms herself into a bewitching damsel (recall the Mappila version? Where she painfully applies make up to reach the same conclusion?). She later explains to Rama that she is a Kamarupini meaning one who can change herself to any form (not Kama as lustful as some others translate, according to experts).

In the Kampan version which is popular in South India, Rama is indeed taken aback seeing this beautiful lady and says to himself that he must check her out and believes that it is his ardent penance that has provided him an opportunity to meet such a lovely damsel. Surpanakha however explains that she is a Rakshasi and that is when Rama replies that he cannot marry her (he may have otherwise?) and suppresses his desire for her. Surpanaka continues stating that she is there not of her own will, but is driven by Kamadeva’s actions. Surpanakha says that her problem at that point of time is the acute feelings of desire, magnified tenfold by the influence of Kamadeva, explaining that the red lotus arrow of his is the one that makes her feelings for Rama unbearable. In fact she even believes that this form of Rama is Kamadeva when she makes her advances and eventually proposes a gandharva wedding for lovers, which Rama rebuffs.

Her mistake at this juncture probably was her honesty and because she added authority to her demand (but of course if you recall, she was provided the authority over all males in her forest by Ravana) by citing her relation with Khara, Ravana, Kumbhkarana and other Rakshasas. Now this of course raised the heckles of Rama. And so Rama goes on to ridicule her by passing her on to Lakshmana, saying ‘Here is my heroic brother Lakshmana. He is young, leading a celibate life, young and a good match for you. Take him as your husband and lover."

But Lakshmana was not interested, he says he is merely a slave to Rama and that she must try again with Rama, thus he passes her back to Rama. In fact in some other versions, Lakshmana takes offense at the adulterous nature and her demands to choose her partner herself much against the norm, for which he punishes her with the prescribed mutilation. But again there is added confusion for certain Jain versions mention that Lakshmana went looking after Surpanakha, after Sita tells him to marry her so that she can have some female company in the dark and dreadful forest. But all that did not work out though some Indonesian Ramayana versions marry them off too.

There is even a story in Brahmachakra that Surpanakha had two daughters whom Lakshmana killed, as they were on guard in the Kishkinda forest, but I could not find any further details on this angle. Most other sources mention only the lone son of Surpanakha and not any daughters.

After the mutilation of Surpanakha, she goes off to Khara for help, who goes to fight the two brothers with another 14 chiefs (most accounts say 14,000) but they are killed by Rama. Then she goes wailing to Ravana. To get his interests up, she uses the beauty of Sita as bait. Ravana swallows it hook, line and sinker and goes on to kidnap Sita after which the Great War occurs and Ravana is defeated and killed as Vedavati wanted.


One completely different account is provided by Ramaswami Chaudhri in Suta Puranamau where he explains that Surpanakha as an old woman goes in search of her son in the forest where Lakshmana instigated by Brahmin sages has just killed Sambukumaran. Surpanakha goes to Rama for an explanation and gets a callous reply that he was the enemy of sages and gets furious. She tries to attack Rama with her knife, but is restrained by Lakshmana who is then ordered by Rama to cut her ears and nose off (see temple picture). She runs off to Ravava for help and Ravana kidnaps Sita only to teach Rama a lesson without any erotic feelings attached to either of the two events.

Anyway after the events above, some accounts put the Surpanakha story to rest, with her living a lonely life in Vibhishana’s court at Lanka, but another source mentions that she continued to play a role and was the reasoning behind many other events and Rama’s continued distrust for Sita. That is also an interesting aside. Let us take a look.

It appears that Surpanaka goes to Ayodhya and spreads false news that Rama has been defeated and killed, following which Bharata and Shatrugna almost commit suicide. Then again she had once asked Sita to make a sketch of ravana, but as a devout wife, she never looked up from the floor and only draws Ravana’s toe, which Surpanakha picks up and uses to complete Ravana’s image. Rama seeing it gets suspicious (this story is also mentioned otherwise while at the vavavas, where Surpanakha brings the Ravana image to life and Rama thinks Ravana was in Sita’s bedroom). So as you can see the rakshasi has been a reason for fertile imagination in various minds.

I cannot leave this story without giving you what we call here a kicker.

Why should we attach any importance to the above story as they sing it in Palghat, one which has been an oral tradition for many centuries and continued even now? What has it got to do with Palghat or Kerala? Or does it have anything to do with it? Well, friends, if you go to the Pollachi – Parambikulam border area in Palghat, you will come across a hill tribe named the Kongu Malayans or malasars. According to old tales, they are the descendants of Surpanakha, the half sister of Ravana. While she was in the forests, a wild elephant attacked her; and so she created a boy who took the elephant deeper into the forest, where the boy tamed the animal. Surpanakha then settled the boy in the forest and he is the ancestor of the Malasar (Parthasarathy 1988) tribes. And there is yet another strange phonetic connection for Surpa or Surparakha is another ancient name for Kerala. Was the western ghat forests perhaps the abode of Khara?

Now as you know these stories cannot end abruptly. We have heard that the scorning and mutilation of a woman is a great sin, so something has to happen in Surpanakha’s next birth to balance it all, right? Well, in the Bhramavaivrata purana, it is mentioned that Surpanakha goes to the sacred lake Pushkara and prays to Brahma, after which she gets a boon that she will marry Rama in her next birth. Accordingly she is reborn as Kubja, the hunchbacked woman who becomes one of the wives of Lord Krishna as whom Rama is reborn.

That was not the end, for Surpanakha had to even up with Lakshmana, so she becomes Lakshmana’s wife as well. For that story, read this blog, it takes you to Rajasthan where the popular story is told as the story of Pabuji and Phulvanti. The detailed story can also be found in many scholarly books (last two references).


Hopefully this gave you the full account of Surpanakha in addition to what we know from the usual sources. Next time, somebody tells you the regular tale, you will have a better perspective, understanding of the character, the motives, the events and reactions and so much more to counter with. Of course all of which or none of which may have any relation to the actual events or characters of the story, as you may see mentioned in disclaimers on inside cover pages of all novels.

And you can infer the moral of the story - Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned…

References
Inside the Drama-House -Stuart Blackburn
Encyclopedia of Dalits in India: Women - Sanjay Paswan
Ramayana stories in modern South India: an anthology -Paula Richman
The Bedtrick: Wendy Doniger
Kambans Surpanaka
The Mutilation of Surpanakha – Kathleen Erndl (within - Many Rāmāyanas: the diversity of a narrative tradition in South Asia - Paula Richman)
Encyclopedic Dictionary of Puranas, Swami Parmeshwaranand
The encyclopedia of Dravidian tribes - Volume 2
Encyclopedia Indica: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Volume 100
Valmiki Ramayana – Aranya kanda
Rethinking India's oral and classical epics - Alf Hiltebeitel
The epic of Pabuji - John D. Smith (Ph. D.)
Maddys Ramblings – Mappila Lamayana
Historic Alleys – Kavalappara

Comments

Anamika said…
Fantabulous!!!!
Nerambokx said…
Interesting read
Happy Kitten said…
So many versions?

but why was matriarchy feared? and what was so wrong with life back then? any idea?

Life has been pretty bad in the southern parts of India from an Aryan perspective and a change of scene is needed. It is now interesting to note that one of the changes the Arya dharma wanted to bring about was a change from wrong practices like the practice of matriarchy which has to be changed to patriarchy (Encyclopedia of Dalits in India: Women - By Sanjay Paswan). Was matriarchy so widely practiced in places other than Malabar? It appears so.
Maddy said…
Thanks Anamika

appreciate your comments
Maddy said…
thanks nerambokx..
that took me a while to figure out..the x at the end sort of threw me off at first..
Maddy said…
thanks HK..

It is said in many an old book that matriarchy practiced by the South Indian peoples or tribes were frowned upon by the people up North..The Aryan or Manu's varna concepts that came thereafter and applied through the ages effectively changed a number of those old practices.

One other allusion to this is the Bhagawati or goddess cult (Pattini cult).The goddess cult was a remnant of the Buddhist times according to some historians and is also connected to the Kannagi story. but the topic is very complicated and an article is in the works, so hang on...
R K Singh said…
very nice narration of various sources of Rama.

I read that surpnakha was very beautiful by birth and hence she had name Minakshi (beautiful eyes like fish).
I was wondering if there is any source that confirms that indeed she was beautiful but something hapened and she became Surpnakha (sharp nails) from Minakshi.
Maddy said…
Thanks RKS..
I am not too sure about that. you should note here that parents do name children with the most inappropriate names at times, mainly due to deep affection.I have not read anywhere about Surpanakha's change of appearance over time, but let me check. perhaps she had lovely eyes all the time...
raveendra... said…
wow !!! good research !!!
kumaradasa'n said…
hi, it is great article on surphanakha, it helped me to as a theatre director from India. I was thinking about make a theatre production on Surpanaka. Hope it will start on coming september in Kerala, titled A black talcum powder project"
https://www.facebook.com/kumaradasn.nadhakumaran

www.perafin.com
Maddy said…
thanks kumaradasa'n..
glad it was of help
rgds
nanmai said…
Thanks a lot, Maddy! I often make fun of Ramayana and Mahabharata for belittling women. Now, I have some ax to grind! Just for your reflecting mind: Ahalya was punished by Gautama Muni for her sheer gullibility. that she could be deceived by the disguised Indra. But, the Muni himself was so gullible that he could not see the tricks of Indra, who comes in the form of Cock and sends the Muni for his morning rites to the river. Not only that, Indra takes the form a cat and crosses the path of the Muni who sets off to the river. The Muni never gets punished for being gullible! He punishes Indra for the sin. But, soon he modifies it. But poor Ahalya waits for eons to regain her identity, losing which is as good as death! Discrimination against women! The same is true of Tataka and Subhahu, they were cursed by Agastya Muni and they lose their identity! He cursed Tataka's husband Sumali and her father suketu to death just for making fun of him as a dwarf! Agastya Muni could have cursed Tataka and Subhahu, but he chose to punish them with a greater punishment than that namely, loss of identity. Discrimination again!
Maddy said…
thanks nanmai..
i am working on the ahalya story, but more in relation to suchindram
will cover it soon.
rgds
according to valmiki's ramayana ahalya knew that the person disguised as her husband was indra
Maddy said…
thanks uday sen..
two stories can be found conflicting each other in the case of ahalya, in fact an article about her is on the way .. so keep an eye out for it..
rgds
jk47 said…
I always found Ramayana absolutely infuriating due to the double standards present in it. I found that there was also an enthusiastic villification of Kaikeyi. I have always argued with my amma regarding Rama. I mean, come on, the man dumped his pregnant wife in a forest, based on some petty reason & yet he was referred to as "Maryada Purushottam". I never had the patience to read Ramayana (i mean, the translations. do u know any trustworthy ones ?). And there has always been a distortion of Asuras, especially in North; Rama is not that much of a popular god in the south and the Ahalya curse was totally ridiculous. How could he punish her for Indra's crimes ? Why does Vishnu always lend help to these creepy Devas who do nothing other than womanizing, drinking & wasting time ? And the hard working Asuras are always punished according to the whims and fancies of that moronic Indra !!! I still cannot understand the need for sending Mahabali to Paathala, he was an exceptional ruler, good and kind (atleast according to the myth). so why ? I know, my comments look childish but nobody have answered my questions & i was labelled a rebel 4 asking such questions !!!
Once during Annual Day function in my college, cultural programmes were organized & i remember a girl (forgot her name) reciting a poem by Vayalar Rama Varma called "Thadaka Enna Dravida Rajakumari". It was so beautiful; the girl who gave the performance had a divine voice, the poem was so touching as well. Have you read this poem Maddy ? It was another take on another detested character from Ramayana. I consider Ramayana as nothing more than female bashing, but i do admire Mahabharata. Sorry, I am not saying this to hurt any one's feelings.......
Maddy said…
thanks jk47
most of the epics are likethat - stories meant to propogate something - a belief, an event and so on..they are just that, not usually connected with reality, but woven around some event that happened at that time. one other person who had strong views about the ramayana was Aubrey menen.
http://maddy06.blogspot.com/2013/04/aubrey-menen-tribute.html
I will cover Ahalya soon and more such stories..I had written about mahabali already
http://maddy06.blogspot.com/2011/09/mahabali-and-his-story.html
Maddy said…
jk47,
i forgot to reply your question, yes i have listened to the lyrics..
for those interested, it is here
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnfFmSh82bc
Maddy said…
Thanks vaishali..
You mentioned - In one of version ram and laxman in sexual relation ( with Surpanaka) ,refused to marry when
asked and when she threaten lax man abuse her -

The mention of Lakshman and Surpanakha can be seen in the article, in fact in certain myths, Sita herself suggested it. But remember that in those days the concept of marriage etc was vague
Enjoyed reading the essay. Well researched, and analytical as well. Small problem, however. Most sociologists and anthropologists today would agree that matriarchy has never been known. There have been and still are matrilineal societies though. bj
Maddy said…
Thanks BJ..
Yes, you are right that we had a matrilineal society in the old times and not matriarchial. In this particular instance, I followed the inferences of the author of the book quoted, and I did not want to change it, and used it as such, but only to provide a general direction...

You may also be interested in
http://maddy06.blogspot.com/2011/01/mappila-lamayana.html
SUMAN SAHU said…
Well researched essay on Surpanakha. I just want to know the sources from where you got this: "It appears that Surpanaka goes to Ayodhya and spreads false news that Rama has been defeated and killed, following which Bharata and Shatrugna almost commit suicide." as I have not heard about this incident. Please cite the book's name where it is available.
Maddy said…
Hi Suman
The story comes from Ramabhadra’s seven act play titled 'Janaki Parinaya'.Towards the end of the play, Surpanakha disguised as a pious hermitess appears before Bharata and gives a false report of Rama's death and Bharata who is preparing to die, is saved by the timely arrival of Rama.
SUMAN SAHU said…
Thanks Maddy for the timely response. I must appreciate the hard work that you have put in and the efforts you made to research a lot on this character of Ramayana. I wish if you could write more and more of such types.
SUMAN SAHU said…
Thanks Maddy for the timely response. I must appreciate the hard work that you have put in and the efforts you made to research a lot on this character of Ramayana. I wish if you could write more and more of such types.

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