Arshia Sattar

Ravana Rapes Rambha
Excerpted from Uttara: The Book of Answers (forthcoming in 2016, Penguin Classics, Penguin Books India) Priya’s notes

As the sun set and the moon rose, white as the mountain itself, Ravana saw the mountain made radiant by the moon with its trees, its divine groves of karnikara and thickets of kadamba, its pools of water from the river Mandakini which were filled with blooming lotuses. He heard a beautiful sound, like a bell — it was the sound of apasaras singing in the house of the lord of wealth. Shaken by the wind, the trees rained their flowers upon the mountain, perfuming it with the fragrances of spring time. The pleasant breeze, carrier of the fragrance of honey and pollen from the flowers, increased Ravana's desire. The singing, the abundance of flowers, the cool breeze, the beauty of the mountain and the rising moon all increased his lust. Mighty Ravana was spellbound by the arrows of love. He gazed at the moon and sighed again and again.

At that very moment, Rambha arrived there. She was the best of all the apsaras. Her face was like the full moon and she was adorned with celestial flowers. Decorated with special designs of fresh flowers from all six seasons, she was veiled in a cloth as blue-black as a rain cloud. Her face was like the moon, her brows like beautiful bows, her thighs like an elephant's trunk, her hands like blooming lotuses. Ravana saw her as she passed through the army camp. The rakshasa king, overwhelmed by the arrows of love, rose up and grabbed her by the hand as she walked shyly by. He smiled and said, "Where are you going, my lovely? What have you planned for yourself? Whose lucky time has come, that he gets to enjoy you? Who are you going to satisfy tonight, who shall drink the nectar of your lips fragrant with lotus and lily? Who shall touch these breasts of yours, my pretty, like golden urns and so tightly pressed together? Your hips are lovely, wide as a golden circle themselves and encircled by a golden belt. Who shall mount into these heavens tonight? There is no one more virile than me — not Indra, not Vishnu and not the Ashwins. It's not good, my pretty, that you try to go past me! Rest here, on this beautiful rock, wide-hipped one. I alone am the lord of the three worlds, there is no one that compares with me. Ten-headed Ravana, lord of the three worlds, pleads with you like this, with his palms joined. Accept me!"

Rambha trembled and clasped her hands together. She replied, "I beg you, do not speak to me in this way. You are my elder! You should protect me from others if I am sexually assaulted, for by rights, I am your daughter-in-law. What I am saying is the truth!" As she stood there with her head low, Ravana said to her "You are my daughter-in-law only if you are my son's wife.""It is true," Rambha replied to Ravana."Bull among rakshasas, I am legally the wife of your son. The son of Vaishravana, your brother, is dearer to him than his own life. He is known in the three worlds as Nalakubara. He is like a brahmin in his righteousness, but he is like a kshatriya in valour. He is like the fire when he is angry but like the earth in his patience. I have made an appointment with the son of Vaishravana Kubera, the guardian of the quarters. I have adorned myself in this way with him in mind. He is attached to no one but me and likewise, I am to him. For this truth alone, king, you should release me, scorcher of enemies! Righteous Nalakubara is eagerly waiting for me. Do not come in the way of your son. Let me go! Bull among rakshasas, walk the path trodden by good men. You are worthy of my respect, and I am worthy of your protection!"

Overcome with lust, the mighty rakshasa mocked Rambha's righteous words. Inflamed by passion and desire, he had sex with her. When he let her go, Rambha's flower decorations were torn and she was agitated, like a river in which an elephant had played. Trembling, shamed and terrified, she went to Nalakubara. She fell at his feet with her palms joined. Great Nalakubara saw the state that she was in and he said to her, "What is this, my lovely? Why have you fallen at my feet?" Sighing and trembling, she told him everything exactly as it had happened. "Lord, Ten-headed Ravana is on his tour of the three worlds. He has camped here along with his army. He saw me passing by as I was coming to you. He grabbed me and asked me whom I belonged to, scorcher of enemies. I told him everything exactly as it was but because he was overcome with passion, he did not hear anything I had said. My lord, I pleaded with him saying, I am your daughter-in-law. But he put that aside and he raped me violently. You must forgive me for this transgression, destroyer of pride. A woman's strength does not match up to a man's!"

Vaishravana's son was enraged when he heard that. He put himself into a trance and meditated on what she had told him. In a moment, he saw what had happened. His eyes red with anger, he took some water in his hand. He sprinkled it around, according to custom, and then he unleashed a terrible curse upon the king of the rakshasas.

"My dear, because he took you by violently against your will, he can never approach another young woman against her will. His head will split into seven pieces if he ever sexually violates another woman!" When this terrible curse, which was like a blazing fire, was uttered, celestial drums sounded and flowers rained from the sky. All the gods, with Prajapati Brahma at their head, rejoiced, recognising the destiny of the worlds and the death of the rakshsasa. Ravana lost interest in having sex with women who did not desire him when he heard that hair-raising curse. (26)

Translator’s Note

This passage is taken from the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki's Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic composed probably as early as 500 BCE, that tells the story of Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, and his trials and tribulations during a fourteen year exile in the forest. The most traumatic of these was the abduction of his beloved wife, Sita, by the rakshasa Ravana. Ravana carried Sita away to his island fortress but in all the time that she was in captivity, Ravana never touched her, neither in anger nor with lust. Sita returned to Rama as chaste and pure as the day she had been abducted. The last book of the Valmiki Ramayana, the Uttara Kanda, is filled with stories about characters in the epic, many of these provide explanations for why they behave the way they do. As such, the passage here tells us why Ravana did not force himself upon Sita when she was his prisoner and utterly vulnerable.

Narrated in verse, the Ramayana speaks of itself as the 'adi kavya,' the 'first poem.' Valmiki's imagery is rich, the moon and its silvery light being his favourite companions for moments of heightened sensuality. I chose this passage for this collection because it turns the gentle beauty and seduction of moonlight on its head. Ravana and Rambha are both roused to desire by the moon light. Rambha dresses herself for her beloved, with whom she plans to spend the night. But she is waylaid by Ravana who rapes her, eclipsing the shimmering brightness of mutual sexual desire with the shadowed darkness of lust and violence.

Light and dark are at play in this passage, both inside and outside the characters. For all that moonlight reveals the beauty of the mountain and its lakes and night-blooming flowers, it also casts shadows, not simply on the landscape, but also on the people in this story. Ravana's dark heart is revealed, as is Nalakubara's in the violence of the curse that he unleashes when he learns what has happened to his betrothed. Rambha's bright beauty is veiled in the blue-black cloak she is wearing as she hurries to her tryst with her lover, but it is more cruelly dimmed by the brutal assault on her body, which leaves her flower adornments torn and her person trembling and terrified.

This episode purportedly tells us why Ravana never touched Sita. But the moonlight that shows us Ravana as he really is equally illuminates the way women are conceived in the latterly composed parts of the Ramayana. Their virtue is defined almost entirely by their conjugal fidelity, their sexual desire is suspect and always dangerous. Nalakubara puts himself into a trance and 'sees' what had happened to Rambha. He does not take her word for the fact that she has been raped, that her own desire played no part in the violent sexual encounter with Ravana. Rama's own wife is abandoned in the forest because of gossip about what might have happened to her when she was Ravana's prisoner.

There is much that darkens the inherent beauty of the Ramayana, but as with an eclipse, the shadow passes to reveal the face of the moon shining ever more brightly.

Arshia Sattar

Arshia Sattar holds a PhD from the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. She has worked with the Valmiki Ramayana for 30 years and her translation from Sanskrit of the text was published as a Penguin Classic in 1996. She teaches classical Indian literature at various institutions in India and abroad.