Mandodari (one of the slender waist).
The name spontaneously first brings to mind Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka who, blinded by passion, spirits Sita away. Only next do we remember it as the name of his wife who counsels him to return Sita to Rama and save himself from certain ruin. Rama is not merely an earthly king, she says, but the lord of the universe.
“Ponder this, dear husband, and give up your enmity with him so that I do not have to don the widow’s garb.” But he dismisses his loyal, sagacious wife who innately knows Rama as brahman (supreme reality) and is devoted to him. Gosvami Tulasidasa, however, does not tell us how Mandodari knows this.
In fact, according to Camille Bulcke – author of Ramakatha: Utpatti aur Vikas – there is no mention in the Valmiki Ramayana of Mandodari’s mediation before her husband is slayed by Rama even though, in the interpolations of the Sundarakanda, she keeps Ravana from killing Sita. In the latter-day Rama sahitya, of course, she gets a position importante.
Who, then, is she? What are her origins? The rich lattice of story-work gives us a fascinating Mandodari, if not a definitive one.
Is she a nymph who descends on earth with the express purpose of destroying Ravana? Or a deva woman turned female frog turned daughter of Maya, the chief of danavas; or Hema, a celestial dancer? Does Vishnu fashion her from the sandal paste of his body to trick Ravana or is she a frog who transforms into the beautiful Mando when blessed by some rishis?
As with her birth, there are numerous versions of Mandodari’s marriage to Ravana. In Uttara Ramayana, as the frog-turned-beautiful-maiden is found by Maya in answer to his prayers, Ravana sees her, gets married to her and takes her to Lanka. In another version, Maya gives her away in marriage to Ravana and gifts the couple the island of Lanka as part of dowry.
The mother of Meghanada, Atikaya and Akshakumara, Mandodari is so beautiful, says the Valmiki Ramayana, that when Hanuman enters Ravana’s chambers in search of Sita, he is amazed to see her and, for a second, mistakes her for Sita.
In some places, Mandodari is the magnanimous wife who denies herself by taking Ravana’s proposal to Sita and even readies to kill her on refusal. In others, following Meghanada’s death, she is coerced by her husband to coax Sita into surrender. Just before the final battle, she proposes to Ravana that she be allowed to take Sita back to Rama.
In order to dissuade Ravana – stung by the insults of Sita – from killing her, Mandodari tries to seduce him away from her, and reminds him of a curse that will make him forget his supernatural attainments such as the akashgamini vidya (the science of flying into the sky) if he so much as touches a virtuous woman. In short, the queen does everything in her power to prevent her husband from committing the heinous sin of killing a defenceless woman.
According to the Kashmiri Ramayana, Ravana entrusts Sita to Mandodari soon after he brings her to Lanka. The latter feels an inexplicable surge of affection towards Sita as her breasts overflow with milk. She recognises Sita as the daughter she gave up at birth and bids her choose death over submission to Ravana.
Elsewhere, the high-minded Queen of Lanka takes Sita to Rama after Ravana is killed. But then, like an ordinary woman bewailing her husband’s death, she also curses Rama’s wife just as she is about to be united with him, “You, who have been the cause of my loss, will see your joy abruptly snatched by sorrow.” (Krittivasa’s Bengali Ramayana)
There is much that we know about Mandodari; and more, that we do not.
It is well known that Mandodari is one of the panchakanyas – five chaste women worthy of remembrance every morning and destroyer of great sins. And yet, not unlike Sita, she must also stand the trial by fire to determine her innocence.
In the Assamese Ganakacharita, Ravana creates a faux Rama and Lakshmana who, he desires, must ask Sita to marry him. At the time, Hanuman, taking the form of a bee, reaches Mandodari’s quarters. She sees a wildcat there and feeds him. But he scratches her breasts and makes off with her necklace. Ravana is intrigued upon seeing a Brahmin in Ashoka Vatika wearing Mandodari’s necklace. Hanuman, in guise, tells Ravana that a Gandharva who has illicit ties with Mandodari gave it to him. The proof: a scratch mark on her body.
Mandodari swears by her chastity and causes an earthquake, halts the sun’s motion, etc. But Ravana rebuffs her and she turns to Narayana. A fire is readied for her to go through when a woman tells Ravana that the charge is fallacious and Mandodari, blameless. It is now Mandodari’s turn to tell her husband, “Hanuman could offend me so because you appropriated Sita. Return her, forthwith, to Rama.”
Mandodari’s role in the Ramayana, though fleeting, is outstanding. Scholar and statesman Pradip Bhattacharya, in an insightful article on Panchakanyas, writes about how she refuses to be boxed into a single narrative. Like the other four kanyas, she is an epitome of chastity and purity but is punished for no fault of hers. She loses husband, sons, and kith and kin, not to mention her own dignity, in the Great War with Rama, knowing all along that the curse of a virtuous woman can ruin the most powerful man.
Mandodari, like the women she represents, perhaps, hides anger and anguish in her heart as she lives a life of duality: the surface made turbulent by varied experiences, and a deep, silent core in her soul where wisdom originates. She has the inherent gift of distinguishing right from wrong. And in a crisis, she knows how to insist on doing what she thinks is right.