To discuss the portrayal of women in The Kamba Ramayana, I’m going to discuss the characters of Mandodhari, Sita and Surpanakha because I believe that these three women in The Kamba Ramayana are somehow connected with patriarchy.
The portrayal of women in the Indian epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata has always been a highly debatable topic. There exist numerous versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the portrayal of the characters in different versions differs as per different traditions. Here, I’m going to discuss the portrayal of women in The Kamba Ramayana. There exist numerous female characters in The Kamba Ramayana, where Sita is the female protagonist. Characters like, Surpanakha, Kaikeyi and Kuni are portrayed as a kind of female antagonists. Apart from this, Mandodhari is portrayed as a toxic woman, who proves the notion that it’s not just men who are a product of patriarchy, but women too are a product of patriarchy. She, in a way, proves that the well – known saying “a woman is a woman’s worst enemy” is completely correct. She sees all what her husband does to Sita, but instead of opposing her husband, in The Kamba Ramayana, she supports him and considers Sita to be the real harmful person. She turns blind to all her husband’s faults. If she had opposed him, then there might have been some change in his character. It’s possible that then he might have tried to become a better person. But in The Kamba Ramayana, Mandodhari never considers Ravana to be wrong.
She considers Sita to be a deadly “venom”. When Indrajit gets killed in the war, she says, “I am afraid the same fate awaits Lanka’s king tomorrow, all because of Sita, that venom in the form of ambrosia!” (p.253) With her venomous words, she even provokes Ravana to kill Sita. Out of his rage, he says, “All this grief has befallen us because of Sita. With my sword I will at once slay that treacherous and stone-hearted woman.” (p.253) But it’s Ravana’s general, Mahodara’s words, which tame his anger. He says, “O king! This act will bring you infinite disgrace and tarnish your name forever and ever. If overcome by anger you rashly kill this royal tapaswini, Siva, Vishnu and Brahma will clap their hands and mock you, calling you a low-born wretch, unworthy of your race.” (p.253) This should have been done by Mandodhari, as a wife is always supposed to stop (or at least try to stop) her husband from committing something wrong. But here, it’s the opposite. Rather than trying to control his rage, Mandodhari ignites his wrath even more.
Apart from this, when Ravana dies, she behaves like a typical wife. Her behaviour reflects that she’s just a stereotypical “angel in the house” kind of figure. She cries, “What a dreadful fate that I should survive my lord, my firm resolve to die a sumangali, a blessed wife, dashed to pieces?” (p.263) She further says, “I was deluding myself when I thought that one stronger than the gods and the diggajas, one mightier than Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, could never die…I didn’t think that it’d be a man who would one day destroy the fortress of safety your boons had secured for you. Taken in by the might of your penance, I never thought that there could ever be a diminution of your prescribed life of three and a half crore years.” (p.263) After saying all this and ululating to the extreme, she “called out his (Ravana’s) name, sighed deeply and died”. (p.264) Here, it can be said that in The Kamba Ramayana, the author has portrayed Mandodhari as a complete product of patriarchy. Her world comes to an end with the death of her husband. She is portrayed as a weak woman who believed that she has no identity apart from being the wife of Ravana, the king of the rakshasas.
Another female character in The Kamba Ramayana, which although completely differs from the character of Mandodhari, but is too a product of patriarchy is Sita. Sita, the wife of the Primal Lord, Rama, is portrayed as an epitome of beauty and chastity. In The Kamba Ramayana, she is referred to as a “stainless model of what a wedded wife should be” (p.264) and “the jewel of womanhood” (p.268). This is because she always behaves in the so-called “angel in the house” manner, the manner according to which every wife is generally supposed to behave. When Rama refuses to accept her after killing Ravana, she instead of opposing him or trying to justify herself, simply chooses to die. All she says is, “This, I suppose, is what I have earned through my past good deeds.” (p.266) She further says, “All my penance, good deeds and chastity have proved meaningless, never having impressed your mind! Here I stand, a model wife! A woman whose mind even Brahma cannot change for all the world. But if you, the eyes of the world, cannot see this, what god can help me now? To whom shall I declare my spotless chastity? There is nothing better for me than to die. That is what you have ordered too.” (p.266-267)
Rama insults Sita in the worst possible way in which any virtuous man is supposed to behave with his wedded wife. He says, “You stayed content in that sinner’s city, enjoying your food and drink. Your good name was gone but you refused to die. How dared you think I’d be glad to have you back? I didn’t come to Lanka, bridge the sea, and uproot the rakshasa race and destroy all my enemies in order to rescue you. It was but to save myself from being known forever as one who spared my wife’s abductor. You ate the flesh dear to animals, that is theirs by right. You drank toddy and enjoyed yourself. Do you propose to feed us too in the same way? All the good in you that should have shone forth like gems has gone. Solely because of the birth of one like you, womanhood, dignity, high birth, chastity, virtuous conduct, propriety and truth have all been destroyed, like the fame of a king without generosity.” (p.266)
When the flames of the fire went as white as cotton and Sita’s chastity gets proved and Agni himself appears to speak for Sita’s chastity, Rama cool-headedly says to him, “You are the upright witness to the world. You have, in words of the highest praise, declared her faultless. That absolves her in the eyes of the whole world. She shall not be discarded by me.” (p.267) His words, “She shall not be discarded by me” reflect his pride. Instead of apologizing to Sita for insulting her publicly, he comments in a highly arrogant manner. Despite all this, Sita without even questioning Rama a little bit, in The Kamba Ramayana, happily goes with him. If in her place, there would have been any woman of dignity, she wouldn’t have tolerated her husband’s such arrogance. But Sita, who in The Kamba Ramayana, is portrayed as a human incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, behaves worse than any ordinary woman would behave in such an unfortunate situation. Here, it can be said that in The Kamba Ramayana, the author has portrayed the main female lead too as a complete product of patriarchy. She too just like Mandodhari is portrayed as a weak woman who believed that she has no identity apart from being the wife of her husband.
Apart from this, in The Kamba Ramayana, Sita has been portrayed as an extremely beautiful, yet foolish woman. For describing her beauty, the author has stated, “Poets from Brahma down, seeking hard to define beauty, take Lakshmi who dwells in heaven as a paragon. But with Lakshmi herself now incarnate Sita, who shall we look to for comparison?” (p.41) The author further says, “Seeing her beauty, bright-eyed Menaka and all other nymphs, much sought after by the gods above, became sick at heart, their moonlight killed by her perpetual day!” (p.41) But her character defies the “beauty with brains” belief. Sita, although is a woman with beauty, she lacks brain in The Kamba Ramayana. Being a virtuous woman, she has often amused the readers with her foolish behaviour. A perfect example of her foolishness is present in the Aranya Kandam, where she desperately desires to get that golden deer. The author states, “she only coveted it for its beauty” (p.109) On seeing it, she determines to possess it, and thinks, “I will ask him (Rama, who couldn’t refuse her anything) to catch it.” (p.109) She tells Rama, “I saw a stag of the purest gold, most beautiful to behold, ears stiff, legs set with rubies, shining bright.” (p.109) She says, “If, my lord, you catch it quickly, we can take it back to Ayodhya with us. It is such a rare thing to play with.” (p.110) When Lakshmana doubts the golden deer to be some trap of some rakshasa, she shows her tantrums to Rama, and persuades him to get that deer. The author states, “the swan-girl sulked”. He further states, “Normally parrot-like and sweet, her words now were tearful and harsh. “My lord, you won’t get it for me?” she cried out, and went into the hut in a temper.” (p.110) Here, Sita instead of trying to understand the seriousness of the situation, behaves like a stubborn child.
In addition, she behaves even more stupidly when “that grievous cry from Maricha’s cavernous throat reached her ears”. (p.111) She although realizes her fault of forcing Rama to chase the golden deer, yet behaves in an even more reckless and obstinate manner. One moment, she cries, “Like a fool I asked him to catch me that deer and have now destroyed the very reason for my existence” (p.111). The other moment, she blackmails Lakshmana to go and look for Rama. When he hesitates in leaving her alone as he was already suspecting the upcoming disaster, she says, “I shall throw myself in the fire at once and end my life right here.” This is her second most stupid act in The Kamba Ramayana. She, deep down in her heart, knew how stupid she has been. In the Sundara Kandam, there’s a proof of this. While wondering that why Rama hasn’t rescued her yet, she asks herself, “Has my husband abandoned me because of the thoughtless words that I, like a fool, spoke to his brother?” (p.163) She knew that she has made a grave error. So, this justifies that in The Kamba Ramayana, Sita is portrayed as a beauty with no-brains kind of woman.
The character of Surpanakha is a kind of opposite of Sita’s character in the matter of “beauty with brains”. Although Surpanakha lacked beauty, unlike Sita, she had brain. No matter she never used it in the constructive direction, she possessed enough intelligence. In The Kamba Ramayana, the author introduces her as “a fell disease from her birth, born to destroy root and branch the rakshasa clan”. (p.93) Before appearing in front of Rama, she knew that “a rakshasi fanged he will reject at once as one who gobbles up all life” (p.93), so she appears before him as “a lisping koel and a pretty peacock”. (p.93) In The Kamba Ramayana, Surpanakha is a very powerful female character. Unlike Mandodhari and Sita, Surpanakha is a strong character. She knew well that how to mend her tattered pride. Also, she knew it very well that how should she take her revenge.
Although she’s an overall strong personality, she weakens in front of love. Even after being insulted to the extreme, she again offers her love to Rama. Her lines like, “If you will look upon me with grace, I’ll give you everything a woman can give.” (p.98), “If you accept my love, my very life is yours.” (p.98) and “You have done no wrong and I know it. My love for you is now doubled, for I am no fool!” (p.98) reflect her soft side. To convince Rama, she even proposes to aid him in destroying the rakshasa clan. She says, “King of a land well-watered and fertile, you claim to want to destroy the rakshasas. Very well then, if you can ignore my gaping mouth and fangs and accept me, I will teach you to master their tricks and sorcery and help you win the war against them. If you wish to defeat those strong and treacherous demons by using their own magic and witchcraft against them, I can help you. I am familiar with all of them and know well how to prevent the effect they will have on you. It is said that only a snake knows the ways of a snake, and surely you are aware that one must set a thief to catch a thief?” (p.98) All this reflects that although for merely a momentary period, Surpanakha does get blinded in attraction.
Surpanakha’s character shares a little similarity with Mandodhari’s character as just like Mandodhari, she too proves the notion, “a woman is a woman’s worst enemy”. She provokes Ravana to abduct Sita without even sympathizing with her a little by thinking that they share the same sex. Instead, she orders Ravana to possess Sita. She says, “Take Sita, the doe with fragrant locks and narrow waist, and enjoy her; and with the might of your arms get me Rama for my pleasure.” (p.106) She further provokes him, “Go forth and seize that dark-tressed woman.” (p.107) This reflects that the author has portrayed Surpanakha too as a product of patriarchy. Although she doesn’t directly get suppressed by any man, her act of being an innocent woman’s enemy and to envy her reflects that how patriarchy is ingrained in the heads of women.
In conclusion, it can be said that in The Kamba Ramayana, the author has tried to portray women as the products of patriarchy. Where Sita and Mandodhari are presented as weak women, who are mentally as well as physically and emotionally dependent upon their husbands, Surpanakha is presented as a strong woman. Although she is momentarily shown as weak, she gets back her mental strength, and rebels. She fights for her mortified pride, and proves that a strong-willed woman can move even the hardest of the mountains. However, she never uses her wits in the constructive direction. But one can say that Surpanakha is the strongest female character of The Kamba Ramayana.