Shurpanakha was the sister of Ravana, the king of Lanka. Shurpanakha is a powerful character in the Ramayana who causes the final war between Rama and Ravana. She was responsible for instigating her brother to abduct Sita, the wife of Rama. Shurpanakha was slain by Lakshmana when she tried to attack Sita.
Better known as the sister of Ravana, Surpanakha is described as a thin woman with beautiful brown eyes, thick long hair, and a melodious voice in the Ramayana.
She is the youngest child of Rishi Vishrava and Kaikesi, his second wife. She was named “Minakshi Diksha” at birth which later changed to Shurpanakha, meaning ‘one with fingernails like winnowing fans.’
While some texts speak of her remarkable beauty, Valmiki describes her as an ugly woman.
सुमुखम् दुर्मुखी रामम् वृत्त मध्यम् महोदरी || ३- १७ –९
विशालाक्षम् विरूपाक्षी सुकेशम् ताम्र मूर्धजा
प्रियरूपम् विरूपा सा सुस्वरम् भैरव स्वना || ३- १७- १०
तरुणम् दारुणा वृद्धा दक्षिणम् वाम भाषिणी |
न्याय वृत्तम् सुदुर्वृत्ता प्रियम् अप्रिय दर्शना || ३ –१७ –११
शरीरज समाविष्टा राक्षसी रामम् अब्रवीत
Meaning – She that demoness who is facially unpleasant one with that pleasant-faced one, pot-bellied one with the broad-eyed one, coppery-haired one with the neatly dressed one, ugly featured one with the charming featured one, brassy voiced one with the gentle-voiced one, deplorably oldish one with the youngish one, crooked talker with the pleasant talker, ill-mannered one with the well-mannered one, uncouth one with couth, abominable one with amiable Rama spoke, besieged by Love-god. [Valmiki Ramayana 3- 17- 9b, 11, 12a].
Surpanakha grew into a beautiful lady like her mother and her grandmother. She secretly married Vidyutjhiva, the Danava prince of the Kalkeya Danava clan. Rakshasas and Danavas were mortal enemies; hence Shurpanakha’s marriage to the Danava prince infuriated Ravana. He wanted to punish Shurpanakha, but upon Mandodari’s appeal, he respected his sister’s wishes.
During the conquest of Rasatala (the underworld), Ravana decided to pay a visit to his newly married sister. Upon reaching there, he became aware of Vidyutjihva’s wicked intentions behind marrying Shurpanakha, which was to kill Ravana. In the absence of Shurpanakha, Vidyutjihva took his chance and attacked Ravana. In self-defense, Ravana killed Vidyutjihva, his brother-in-law. This incident led Ravana to earn immense displeasure and bitterness from his sister. It is said that Shurpanakha was so angry that she cursed her brother. She said that she herself would be the reason for Ravana’s death. This did come true as it was her instigation, due to which Ravana abducted Sita and ultimately led to the ultimate war.
The widowed woman then left Lanka and started living with her Asura relatives, Khara and Dushana, as per Ravana’s instructions in the woods of Southern India. She also gave birth to her son, Shambhri, who Lakshmana accidentally killed.
As written by Valmiki, it so happened that Shurpanakha met Rama, the prince of Ayodhya (who at the time was in exile along with Sita and Lakshmana) in the forest of Panchavati and immediately got smitten by his charm. Sheer liking for the prince made her forward a proposal to Rama, which he kindly and instead politely refused. Rama expressed his loyalty towards his wife, Sita, which enraged Shurpanakha. She then proposed to Lakshmana, but he wasn’t as polite as Rama, so he cut her nose off in belligerence.
This escalated Shurpanakha’s anger, and she pledged to take revenge on the young brother for the insult. She first went to Khara and told all that happened to her and explained how the brothers insulted her. She pleaded to avenge them; hence, Khara decided to attack the princes along with fourteen thousand Rakshasas. All of them were killed, and only one was able to survive and ran off to Lanka.
She finally seemed help from Ravana, the king of Lanka, and her elder brother for help. She puts forth her love for Rama and also instigates Ravana to abduct Sita to take revenge for herself. She further added how beautiful Sita was and that she deserved to be his queen. Shurpankha was still bitter about Ravana being the murderer of her husband, and she grabbed this opportunity to take revenge on her brother, too, through Ram.
Eventually, after Ravana abducted Sita, a war was waged between Lanka and Rama along with the Vaanar Sena. After this scene in the epic, Shurpankha hasn’t been mentioned much. It is believed that she later apologized to Sita and was forgiven. She later returned to Lanka and lived after Vibhishana started ruling Lanka. It is also partially believed that she, alongside Kumbini, her half-sister, was found dead in the sea after some years.
Here are some of the interesting facts about Shurpanakha:
- She is believed to be one of the most misunderstood characters in the epic. Some say that she was extremely dark and ugly. While most of them believe her to be a succubus, just like her mother.
- She didn’t intend to marry either of the Ayodhya princes. This was her plotted plan to kill Ravana and end the monarch for a long time. After learning that Rama had killed Thataka and Subahu, she felt that Rama was unbeatable and the only one who could kill Ravana.
- Shurpanakha didn’t have a lot of Rakshasa instincts. She was thirsty for love and valued feelings, unlike many other Rakshasas. Some readers sympathize with her as having a liking to someone was natural, and the brothers mocked her feelings in return which wasn’t fair to her.
- In one of the versions of Ramayana, it is believed that Shurpanakha met Sita after Rama had exiled her. Shurpanakha was still bitter with Sita; regardless, she didn’t hurt her. Shurpankakha said that Rama did the exact same thing that Shurpankha had dealt with. However, after some time, the two bonded well and became friends.
- Brahmavaivrata Purana said that Shurpanakha offered prayers and penanced Brahma to get Rama as her husband in the next lifetime. She was later reincarnated as Kubja, who had sincere devotion for Krishna ( 8th Incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and was among 16108 wives of Lord Krishna.
- When Shurpankha acquainted Rama, she was a middle-aged woman and wasn’t as charming as young Sita.
- She had a son called Shambri, who Lakshmana accidentally killed in the jungle.