That 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. 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 Iliad)? 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 is a difficult task 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, thereby alluding to even more inaccuracy.
Surpanakha was the youngest child of Rishi Vishrava and his second wife Kaikesi; Ravana being her stepbrother. She was actually named “Minakshi” (one-eyed fish). She was as beautiful as her mother and her grandmother. She grew up to marry the Asura Dushabuddhi. Initially, Surpanakha’s husband enjoyed the high favor with her stepbrother Ravana, the king of Lanka. They were the privileged members of Ravana’s court. But the three fell out eventually due to Dushabuddhi’s scheming for more power. Ravana had Dushabuddhi killed, an act which was a displeasure for Surpanakha.
As widowed Surpanakha (who had nothing to do at that apart from visiting her Asura relatives who lived in the forest of Southern India and Lanka) 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.
Here comes another contradictory point. Rama indeed showed some interest but acknowledged that he is married to Sita. But as he knew Surpanakha won’t agree to be a mistress after Sita, he gently told her to approach Lakshmana. 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). She then ran to her brother Khara, who comes with 14000 soldiers of which almost were killed by Rama single-handedly. Surpanakha had no other option left but to seek help from her stepbrother Ravana. (Thereby she gets a chance to take the revenge for her husband’s death). She praised the overwhelming beauty of Sita in front of her brother and added the fact that Sita would be the perfect woman to be the queen of Lanka. And later this sets off a chain of actions culminating in the Great War.
But the beginning of this Great War was related to Sita’s previous life, where she is referred to as Vedavati who was molested by the same Ravana. Vedavati cursed Ravana; “Since I have been insulted in the forest by thee who art wicked-hearted, I shall be born again for thy destruction”
As we know, Ramayana was written by Valmiki, but there are many versions of it. According to the Kampan version of Ramayana, it is said that Suprpanakha was the daughter of Raka, one of the 3 wives of Pulastya and her twin brother was Khara. 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. 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 one’s guru – also maybe matriarchy) during their banavas. 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.
Sambukumaran (a.k.a Jambukumaran) was killed by Lakshmana, and Surpanakha not knowing who did it was 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 makeup 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 the 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 (Did Rama think of Marrying Surpanakha? ) 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.
One completely different account is provided by Ramaswami Chaudhri in Sita 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. 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. 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.
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.
Author’s Note: 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.