The Chandravati Ramayana: A Story of Two Women by Vibha Shetiya


vibpicAlthough “the” Ramayana is a fluid narrative, scholarship has traditionally recognized the Sanskrit Valmiki Ramayana as the most authoritative of Ramayanas. But recent studies have brought to light the hundreds of regional stories of Rama and Sita which are more popular with the masses. These would include Krittibasa’s Ramayana in Bengal, Kamban’s Tamil Iramavataram in South India, notably in the state of Tamil Nadu, Tulsidas’s Ramcharitamanas among the Hindi-speaking belt of northern India, and so on. But even here, a pattern seems to emerge; all the above-mentioned authors are male. Within this scenario, a rather unique text stands out, and that is Chandravati’s sixteenth century Bengali Ramayana, for its author was a woman. Even more fascinating is the double-toned nature of the narrative – through Chandravati’s own voice and through the voice of its tragic heroine, Sita.

Chandravati (ca.1550-1600) was born in a village in eastern Bengal, today in Bangladesh. It is impossible to ignore the tragedy of her own life which perhaps played a role in her re-fashioning a well-loved epic; her Ramayana is built on a recurring theme that defines women’s lives – the theme of sorrow. Born the daughter of a poor fisherman, legend has it that on the eve of her wedding, her fiancé ditched her for another woman. A devastated Chandravati vows to never marry, instead becoming a devotee of Shiva, and at the urging of her father, takes to re-writing the Ramayana. But rather than simply recount the traditional tale, Chandravati, through the Ramayanathat symbol of Hindu patriarchy – turns the story into one lamenting the pitiful lives of women by centering it on Sita. That it is a story by a woman and for women is evident in the fact that Chandravati addresses her narrative with the vocative, “Suno Sakhijana!” or “Listen, my girlfriends!” rather than to members of the court as was the traditional salutation for stories involving mythological characters.

Unlike normative accounts which begin with Rama’s conception and birth, Chandravati’s Ramayana starts with the back story to Sita’s birth. With this beginning, Chandravati intertwines the lives of two wronged women – Sita and Mandodari. Mandodari is the wife of Ravana, Sita’s abductor, and against whom Rama wages a mighty battle to reclaim Sita, although he later discards for her “sullied” reputation as a result of her abduction by Ravana.  Mandodari’s own life is one of sorrow and neglect as her husband, Ravana, is more interested in spending time making love to the hundreds of women who make up his harem than with her. Chandravati links Sita and Mandodari’s fate together by presenting them as mother and daughter; Mandodari begets Sita through a special potion which leads to her giving birth to Sita.[1]

Part 1 which began with Sita’s birth ends with Rama’s birth, the traditional beginning of the Ramayana. It is in Part 2 that we get to Sita’s ordeals. Chandravati has Sita recount in her own words the twelve months of her captivity by Ravana. An example of Chandravati’s mastery over the symbolism of language is evident in the way she juxtaposes the month of ashadha which signals the arrival of the monsoons with Sita’s own heavy sense of being:

The month of ashadha brought in heavy rains, the clouds rolling in with roaring thunder. Yet no cloud held as much water as the tears in Sita’s eyes. I drenched the ground under the ashoka tree, at a loss to know if I should seek death by poison or by drowning, consoled only by the good Sarama.[2]

Chandravati ends Part 2 by summarizing that “Sita’s calendar is nothing but a tale of sorrow, a tale of twelve months of pain.”[3] It is in Part 3 that we hear of the events leading to Sita’s banishment by Rama over doubts as to whether she had remained chaste while in Ravana’s captivity: Unlike other writers and commentators who couched their disbelief over Rama’s actions towards the blameless Sita by apologizing on his behalf or by pointing to “fate” to explain his harshness, Chandravati openly castigates Rama for giving in to unsavory hearsay:

To heed another’s gossip is to bring ruin upon oneself. Says
Chandravati, “Oh Rama, you have lost your senses!”[4]

She then begins her lament:

O Sarayu, flow slowly.
Sita, daughter of a king and wife to Rama is being sent into exile
today by Rama, the jewel of the Raghu clan. Oh, Sun, do not rise,
hide your face in the clouds. Do not witness the anguish of Sita, she
who was born to suffer. Oh god of winds, do not cease to blow, for how would
you be able to bear the affliction of so blameless a person, Pavana?
Today the sky weeps, the wind weeps, weeps too the water in the river,
and the stars in the sky have passed the night in tears. Alas!
To which land will Sita go, with whom will she stay? O Sarayu, flow slowly.[5]

Interestingly, Chandravati is careful not to criticize Rama through Sita’s voice, preferring to censure him herself. Her Sita still remains devoted to Rama, but nevertheless, as Mandakranta Bose says, “What was traditionally a celebration of manliness, is thus turned into a depiction of women’s inescapably tragic lives.”[6]

Although she wrote it sometime in the sixteenth century, Chandravati’s Ramayana has never been taken seriously by the literary world. Nabaneeta Deb Sen offers the following reason as to why that may be so:

Chandravati’s Ramayana was rejected not because it was incompetently crafted or incomplete, but because it was not a traditional text. It is a woman’s text, an atypical retelling of the Rama tale in which Rama is first marginalised and then criticised from a woman’s point of view. In fact, Chandravati’s Ramayana was never even properly read for what it actually was: the story of Sita’s journey from birth to death. Instead of praising Rama, Chandravati often intrudes into the narrative to comment on Rama’s foolishness, to advise and guide him and to accuse him of the devastation that awaits Ayodhya.[7]

Chandravati’s Ramayana may focus on Sita, but its remarkability lies in the fact that it is just as much a story about Chandravati, and about the sorry state of women’s lives at the hands of a man-dominated society.


[1] In traditional accounts, Sita is the daughter of King Janaka but not by birth. He finds her amid the furrows of the earth, which accounts for her name, Sita, “furrow” in Sanskrit.

[2] Sarama is the wife of Vibhishana, Ravana’s brother, who had fought on the side of Rama during the battle between Rama and Ravana. From A Woman’s Ramayana: Candravati’s Bengali Epic. Translated by Mandakranta Bose and Sarika Priyadarshini Bose. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013. EBL Ebook, 72.

[3] A Woman’s Ramayana, 74.

[4] A Woman’s Ramayana, 79-80.

[5] A Woman’s Ramayana, 80.

[6] Mandakranta Bose, “Reinventing the Ramayana in Twentieth Century Bengali Literature,” in Ramayana Revisited, ed. by Mandakranta Bose (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 110.

[7] Nabaneeta Deb Sen, “Rewriting the Ramayana: Candravati and Molla,” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 24-2/3 (1997): 171.

 

Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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Categories: General, Hinduism, Women's Voices

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8 replies

  1. Loved this! I first read the Ramayana on the plane coming back to the UK from Mumbai and was struck by Rama’s sheer ungratefulness. I also had to teach the story to a class of non-Hindu 7 year olds each year and I always ended it with Sita’s rescue rather than her banishment. I wonder whether I did right now, in sanitising the story like that. On the other hand, knowing children’s sense of fairness, I knew they would find his behaviour in rejecting her impossible to comprehend. Says a lot about our ‘adult’ values, doesn’t it?!

    Like

    • What a fascinating account, Vibha! It’s heartening to see that women have been revising traditional tales in all times and places. This reminds me of Christine de Pizan’s THE BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES, in which Christian and “pagan” stories about women are rewritten.

      Liked by 1 person

    • senlowes, you are following the tradition of the Ramayana – throughout it’s two thousand year history, people have adapted the story according to the needs of the times and audiences. That is the beauty of the Ramayana. I can totally see why you would want to end on that note – the Ramayana has always had a didactic purpose, and so it would make sense to be cautious as to what you want to teach 7-years-olds!

      Like

  2. What an amazing “find.”

    “Chandravati’s Ramayana was rejected not because it was incompetently crafted or incomplete, but because it was not a traditional text. It is a woman’s text, an atypical retelling of the Rama tale in which Rama is first marginalised and then criticised from a woman’s point of view.”

    Oh and now shall we talk about how “canons” are created and who determines which works of literature are so “great” that they must be studied by others?

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    Although I do write many original blog posts, many times I see something that I think needs to be shared with others, something new, enlightening. This post tells a story I had not previously heard, an important story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, Vibha! As an Indian woman searching for an empowered voice and rightful place in the vastness of our seemingly vast patriarchal Hindu corpus – I need to read more stories like this. And it is also important to me that this is coming from an Indian woman – writing our own histories and stories is so critical. Thank you and bows.

    Liked by 1 person

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