Iramavataram (patalam 5)
Kampan's Ramayana , written in Tamil in the twelfth century, is a poetic work renowned for both its aesthetic and religious merit. That it was greatly influenced by Vaisnava devotional (bhakti ) movements is evident even from its Tamil title, Iramavataram , which means "Rama, the incarnation [of Visnu]." There are a great many differences between Valmiki's and Kampan's
tellings of the Rama story, and not surprisingly the Surpanakha episode is no exception. In fact, Kampan's portrayal of Surpanakha is unique among Hindu Ramayanas . It is so compelling that Rajagopalachari, while largely following Valmiki in his English retelling, chose to append Kampan's version of this particular episode as well. One immediately striking difference between the Sanskrit and Tamil tellings is that while in Valmiki the episode is a single encounter related in 51 slokas , Kampan dwells lovingly upon the scene, which now extends over a two-day period, in 143 verses of various metres. Unlike Valmiki, Kampan not only describes Surpanakha's appearance as beautiful but expresses considerable sympathy for her plight. I cannot hope to reproduce the beauty of his language here, but will be content to provide a summary with occasional quotations from the excellent translation by George Hart and Hank Heifetz.
The episode begins with a description of Rama, Sita, and Laksmana settling in the beautiful Pancavati grove near the Godavari river. Into this idyllic scene wanders Surpanakha, whom the poet describes immediately as the one fated to bring about Ravana's destruction. Seeing Rama alone, she falls in love with him at once, captivated by his beauty, and wonders how to approach him.
As the love in her heart swelled higher than a flooding river or even the ocean, as her wisdom disappeared, her purity waned like the fame of a man who hoards up wealth and gives nothing with love as his reward for praise! (26.2854.)
Purity (karpu , also translated "chastity") is a significant quality for the Tamils, for it is believed to provide women with great power. Kampan's introduction of the concept here reinforces the foreshadowing he has already employed: if Surpanakha lacks purity, then all her other powers will ultimately fail.
Knowing her own appearance to be forbidding, Surpanakha visualizes the goddess Sri seated on a lotus, utters a magic spell (mantra ), and becomes a radiantly beautiful woman:
Beautiful as Sri on her flower flowing gold,
like a streak of lightning
fallen, never to vanish, out of the sky,
with her jewelled chariot
fresh as that of a young girl
and softly clothed,
and her shining face, the swords of her eyes,
like a lovely myna bird,
she came as if a peacock were coming,
with eyes like a deer,
of a sweet, abundant beauty, with a perfumed
honey of words
that would draw out desire for her who had taken
a body just like the valli,
glowing vine of heaven, given its life by the tall
and fragrant Wish-Granting Tree.
In this beautiful form she introduces herself to Rama as the virgin Kamavalli, granddaughter of Brahma and sister of Kubera and Ravana, whereupon Rama asks her how she can have such a form even though she is a demoness and why she has come there alone. She replies that her beauty was a result of her good character and penances and that she has spurned the company of unvirtuous raksasas . She then proposes marriage to Rama, who meets her proposal with several objections. First, he argues, a Brahmin woman cannot marry a Ksatriya, to which she replies that she is not really a Brahmin, since her mother is of royal descent. Deciding to have some fun, Rama says that it was not fitting for a human man to marry a raksasi . She replies that she has managed to cast off that unfortunate birth. Rama then says that he will take her only if her brothers will give her to him in marriage, but she insists that they have a gandharva rite, as is prescribed by the Vedas when a man and woman fall in love. Her brother will assent after it has taken place, she tells Rama, adding that with her as his wife, he will no longer need to fear harassment from the raksasas . Rama laughs, saying that would be a blessing indeed.
At that moment Sita returns from her bath. Surpanakha, seeing Sita's beauty and not thinking that Rama, in his ascetic garb, would be accompanied by a wife, wonders who she is and warns Rama that Sita must he a shape-shifting raksasi who has come to deceive him. Rama teasingly agrees. When Sita becomes frightened, Rama senses danger and, sending Surpanakha away, enters the hut with Sita.
Surpanakha spends the night pining for Rama, almost dying with the intensity of her love:
When the water she bathed in began boiling, she was terrified
in fear of the flames burning away her life and
the body that she so cherished and she thought,
"Where can I hide from the roaring ocean
or the cruel arrows of love?"
Wondering how her suffering will ever vanish, she contrasts herself with Sita: "Would he look at me as well, I who am so impure? . . . That woman is all purity, she is beautiful, and she is the mistress of his broad chest" (87.2915-88.2916). In the morning, seeing Sita alone, she approaches her with the idea of snatching her, hiding her away somewhere, and taking on her form, but Laksmana, who did not witness the previous day's exchange, pushes her down and cuts off her nose, cars, and nipples. As Surpanakha lies writhing in pain, crying out to her brothers to take revenge, Rama appears and asks who
she is. She says that she is the same woman who appeared the day before, but "when a woman has lost her nipples, her cars with their earrings, her nose like a vine, . . . . isn't her beauty destroyed?" (119.2947). When Laksmana explains that she was about to attack Sita, Rama orders her to leave.
Surpanakha still does not give up, saying that if she were to tell her brother what had happened he would destroy Rama and his race, but that she will save him from this fate if he accepts her. She argues that a strong woman like herself, who could protect him in battle, is better than the delicate Sita. She also accuses Rama of having her nose cut off to make her undesirable to other suitors, but offers to create it again, if he wishes. Rama replies that he and his brother are capable of slaying the raksasas without her help. He tells her to leave, but she persists until Laksmana asks Rama for permission to kill her. At this point she goes to find Khara.
The attack of Khara and Dusana proceeds as in the Va1miki Ramayana . However, even after their defeat, Surpanakha cannot rid herself of her love for Rama. She goes to Ravana and describes Sita's beauty in such detail that he hallucinates an image of her and falls in love with her. Surpanakha confesses her love for Rama to her brother, saying that when Ravana takes Sita as a wife, she will have Rama to herself.
Besides the differences in tone mentioned above, there are a few details of plot on which Kampan's Ramayana differs from Valmiki's. In this version, although Rama still jokes with Surpanakha, he does so in a gentler and more urbane fashion. He does not crudely suggest that she approach Laksmana, as he does in Valmiki's telling. Furthermore, Laksmana bears full responsibility for her mutilation: Rama only finds out about it afterward. All this is in keeping with Kampan's generally more "chivalrous" approach to Sita's abduction, in which Ravana picks up the earth around her rather than subject her to the indignity of having her body touched. On the other hand, Laksmana cuts off her nipples as well as her nose and ears. In Tamil culture, the breasts are symbolic of a woman's power, so mutilation of them is a harsh indignity. On the whole, then, Surpanakha, like Ravana, is portrayed in a far more sympathetic light than in Valmiki, even though the tactics she employs arc far more devious.