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Surpanakha (Sanskrit for "sharp, long nails"; Malayalam:shurppanakha Indonesian: Sarpakenaka; Khmer: Surpanakhar; Malay: Surapandaki; Tamil: Curppanakai; Thai: Sammanakkha) or Shurpanakha is a pivotal character in Valmiki's epic, the Ramayana, and is the sister of the main antagonist, Ravana, King of Lanka. Valmiki comes close to claiming that if there had been no Surpanakha or Kaikeyi (the hero Rama's stepmother), then there would have been no story. She is thus considered the catalyst of the chain of events leading directly to her brother's demise, and like Kaikeyi is often blamed by Hindus for causing the Battle of Lanka.
Description and biography
Valmiki describes Surpanakha by the time of the Ramayana's events as generally ugly (gora mukhi):
- Pot bellied
- Thinning, brown hair
- A grating voice that is harsh on the ears.
- Oversized breasts; this can be translated to mean a heart full of wickedness.
The youngest child of Rishi Vishrava and his second wife, Kaikesi, Surpanakha was given the name of Minaksi at birth. As beautiful as her mother Kaikesi and her grandmother Thataka had been before her, Surpanakha grew up to marry the Asura Dushtabuddhi. Initially, Surpanakha's husband enjoyed high favour with her brother Ravana, and they were privileged members of his court. The three eventually had a falling out with Ravana due to Dushtabuddhi's scheming for more power, driving Ravana to have Dushtabuddhi killed. This earned Ravana his sister's great displeasure, and the widowed Surpanakha then split her time between Lanka and the woods of Southern India, sometimes visiting her forest-dwelling Asura relatives.
According to Valmiki, she met the exiled Prince Rama of Ayodhya, during one such visit to the Forest of Panchavati, and was instantly smitten by his youthful good looks. Rama meanwhile spurned her advances, telling her that he was faithful to his wife Sita and thus would never take another wife. Rejected, Surpankha then approached his younger brother, Lakshmana, who reacted in a similar manner and said she was not what he desired in a wife. Eventually seeing that the brothers were making fun of her, the humiliated and envious Surpanakha attacked Sita but was thwarted by Lakshmana, who cut off her nose and breast and sent her back to Lanka.
Surpanakha first went to her brother Khara, who sent seven Rakshasa warriors to attack Rama, who easily dispatched them. Khara himself then attacked along with 14,000 soldiers, all of which were killed except for Akampana, who fled to Lanka. She then went straight to Ravana's court and enticed her brother to abduct and wed Sita by extolling her virtues and beauty. Despite opposition from their brother, Vibhishana, Ravana kidnapped Sita, triggering the Battle of Lanka.
Although Surpanakha receives no further mention from Valmiki, it has been suggested that she continued to live in Lanka after Vibhishana succeeded Ravana as king. She and her half-sister Kumbini are supposed to have perished at sea a few years later.
Some versions of the Ramayana claim that Surpanakha had no real romantic interest in the brothers, engineering Ravana's death in revenge for Dushtabuddhi's murder. After many years of plotting his downfall, she realised that Ravana had more than a match in Rama, who had killed both her grandmother, Thataka, and her uncle, Subahu. Her cousins were terrified of Rama, so Surpanakha decided to pit her brother against Rama, knowing only he was powerful enough to slay her brother.
Kamban's description of Surpanakha
The Tamil poet Kamban offers a kinder description of Surpanakha than Valmiki's, describing her instead as a very beautiful woman with long, beautiful, fish-shaped eyes (validating her birth name of Minakshi), a slender figure and bewitching personality. In addition, she possessed magical powers and could assume any form, an ability which Kambar asserts that she used in trying to seduce Rama. The prince was able to see past Surpanakha's ruse and decided to play with her for a while before declining her marriage proposal. In any case, Surpanakha was at least middle-aged when she met the young Rama, and would have appeared as "old" and "haggardly" to the prince.
In popular culture
- In the film Raavan, the act of cutting off Surpanakha's nose is taken to be the metaphorical equivalent of disgracing and insulting her.
- Ramayana, A condensed prose version of the epic by C. Raja Gopalachari. Published by Bhavan's Book University
- Valmiki. Ramayana: Aranya Kandha