The characters of the Ramayana are world-famous as the Hindu epic itself. Not only does the story talk about the love between Rama and Sita, but the book also explains all shades of emotions that one is put through. Shurpanakha is one such strong character of the Ramayana who has played a part in the outset of the ultimate war between Rama and Ravana.
Better known as the sister of Ravana, Surpanakha is described as a thin, curved woman having beautiful brown eyes graced with thick, long hair and a melodious voice in the epic. 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 whose fingernails are 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 who was the Danava prince of 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 the wishes of his sister.
During the time of 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 and that 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 an immense amount of 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 was accidentally killed by Lakshmana.
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 rather politely refused. Rama expressed his loyalty towards his wife, Sita which enraged Shurpanakha. She then proposed Lakshmana but he wasn’t as polite as Rama due to which he cut her nose off in belligerence.
This escalated Shurpanakha’s acrimony and she pledged to take revenge on the young brother for the insult. She first went to Khara and told all that happened with her and explained how the brothers insulted her. She pleaded to avenge them and hence, Khara decided to attack the princes along with fourteen thousand Rakshasas. All of them were killed and only one was able to survive who ran off to Lanka.
She finally seemed help from Ravana, the king of Lanka, and her elder brother for help. She put forth her love for Rama and also instigated 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 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 thereafter Vibhishana started ruling Lanka. It is also partially believed that after some years she alongside Kumbini, her half-sister was found to be dead in the sea.
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 a plotted plan of her to kill Ravana and end the monarch for a long time. After getting to know that Rama had killed Thataka and Subahu, she felt that Rama was unbeatable and was 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 a lot of 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 to 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 really well and became friends.
- As per Brahmavaivrata Purana, it is 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 was accidentally killed by Lakshmana in the jungle.