Poetry at Sangam



THE ADBHUTA RĀMĀYAṆA by Saudamini Devi, translated by Arjun Chaudhuri

Translator’s Note

The Adbhuta Ramayana occupies a very singular place in the history of Ramayana renditions both in India and other parts of the world where a plausible Ramayana culture has existed at some point of time in the past, or does even now in the present. The clear reason for this is the unique twist in the plot that this text incorporates, different and distinct from the usual Rama-kills-Ravana plot of the mainstream Ramayana narrative. In the narrative of the Adbhuta Ramayana, there are two Ravanas, one of them the Ravana we all know, the ten headed demon king of Lanka. The other one is a Ravana more capable and powerful than this ten headed demon, a thousand headed demon king who lives in the mystical land of Pushkara. It is this thousand headed demon who defeats and renders Rama immobile, along with his brothers, beneath a mountain peak. And it is this Ravana whom Sita slays, engaging him first in combat and then assuming a terrifying, destructive form as the dark goddess Kali. During her assumption of this mystical aspect of feminine power usually identified with the more warlike goddess-partner of the god of destruction, Shiva, Sita identifies herself as Shivaa, the feminine aspect of Shiva, and the inherent power in all created things, animate or inanimate. Rama does not see her greatness until she allows him to behold her capabilities and her greatness. In the end, this demi-god hero so widely known as being all-powerful and mighty in arms succumbs before his wife, the seemingly demure Sita, who, as the narrative goes, is not all that she seems to be. In Saudamini Devi’s poetic rendition in Bengali, this entire discourse between Rama, Sita and a few other characters like Hanuman and Shiva happens in between the seventeenth and twenty sixth sarga of the narrative.

Of all ceremonially performed-narrated texts and renditions of the Ramayana, the most widely used versions are the Ramacharitmanas of Tulsidasa and the Ramayana of Valmiki. The narrative of the Adbhuta Ramayana, in spite of existing in a number of languages, is not known to be recited ceremonially at all. The question as to why this is so may not be answered univocally – there may be several reasons behind this, authorship, censorship, paternalistic attitudes and what not. One can never be sure. But this is true that the representation of Sita in this narrative as different from the usual weeping, demure, suffering kidnapping victim and is subversive in ways more than one. The epic is still called Ramayana in this form as well. It does not, in spite of the fact that Sita becomes a martial character in this version, become a Sita-yana in any way. For a more insightful introduction to Sita’s role in this narrative, please refer to Ruth Vanita’s essay “The Sita Who Smiles: Wife as Goddess in the Adbhut Ramayana” published in Manushi, No. 148.

However, the Adbhuta Ramayana still retains its importance as a narrative that seeks to tell a different Ramayana story, one in which Sita, usually relegated to the meekest roles in other mainstream narratives, assumes a more central and active role. The edition from which the present section-translation has been extracted is Saudamini Devi’s later nineteenth century Bengali verse edition of the Sanskrit version of the Adbhuta Ramayana, which, again, is attributed to the sage-poet Valmiki himself. And this is also an important reason, this rewriting of a woman-centric version of a traditionally male-centric epic by a woman herself, why this text must be read again, in these times, through the reading lenses of a different social-cultural perspective.

About the translation itself, a few things need to be added here. The original text of the Bengali Ramayana uses a number of different verse forms like the payāra, the maha payāra, the tripadi, and the chatushpadi (only to name a few). It is not only fairly difficult to render that sort of rhyme scheme and metric into contemporary English, but, it is also evident that attempting such a transcreation stands to risk two things – first, the resultant translation, as I have seen it myself during experimenting preliminarily, often ends up to be archaic in appeal and expression, because the syntax of the English language as we know it now is simply not as flexible as early modern Bengali verse. Manoeuvring around subject-verb agreement, and adjective phrases that simply make no sense if split up in the same way as Saudamini Devi does with her Bengali phrases is indeed very difficult. The net result is that the whole thing becomes very awkward, and not a little cumbersome. Also, maintaining the visual arrangement of certain forms like the chatushpadi and the tripadi, and in the same lyrical mode as seen in the Bengali original is not at all something that can be attempted in a contemporary English translation because of the previously mentioned reason. And then comes the difficulty of turning certain tatsama words (Sanskrit words adopted into Bengali) like common and collective nouns into English. Either they have to be turned into phrases, or they have to be retained as they are. This contributes further into insinuating more unwieldiness into the English version. This is the reason why I have adopted a more or less non-stringent free verse form throughout the entire text, and parts of it that have been produced here.

From the Eighth Sarga



Rāma said then:
“How will these seas
my numerous armies
cross over?”

“As many warriors
in four cars will hold –
Jāmbavān, Hanumān,
Sugrīva, Vibhīṣaṇa.”

“Four more cars in which
we four brothers will ride.
Four other cars and what
men in those will bide.”

Hearing Rāma’s words
Janaka’s daughter said,
“I will accompany you
to witness this war.”

Hearing Sītā’s words,
Rāma angrily replied,
“What you say, Sītā,
will undo things once more.”

That one time when
you came with me
disaster happened.
Now you will do
the same, have you
then no shame!

How dread was it
slaying the ten headed one!
Do you not recall then
how I rescued you?

Womankind, terrible
indeed, faithless
they are all.
How, being a woman,
can you go to see the war?

Do you have no fear?
What heresy is this!
Knowing woman’s wont
grips my heart with terror.

Never say thus again,
I say, and if you will do,
know that a just award
will soon then follow.

Woman must not be killed
and therefore I shall forbear.
But if you do the same again,
I will amend this for sure”.

Śrī-Rāma’s words then
shamed Sītā so.
Her face was downcast,
her heart was in pain.

To Śrī-Rāma Jānakī then
said these words:
“The son of the Wind God
will remain by my side.”

Leaving then the Wind-son
to guard Sītā well,
Rāma and his brothers four
rode into battle.

Sugrīva, Jāmbavān,
and Vibhīṣaṇa too
went forth together
to the milk ocean’s shore.

Endless, vast, deep
and terrible to behold,
the four cars rode then
the milling water waves!

A little further on
the cars were stilled.
The steeds in the waves
were nearly drowned.

Neither ahead nor turning back
seemed to be the way.
Nearly engulfed were they
in the rolling waters.

The swirling deep then
cast into their cars.
The four brothers there
were nearly immersed.

Seeing not a way out,
their lives surely periled,
the wheels of their cars not
moving even a bit,

Lakṣmaṇa, the calm one,
seeing this danger,
advised the Raghu-lord,
“Invoke Jānakī our Mother!”

Rāma, indignant, said,
“I’d rather die than this,
invoking a woman,
If you want to then do
invoke her as you will.”

At this Lakṣmaṇa did
then recall Janaka’s daughter.
“Aid me, Mother,
O slayer of troubles!
Or the Sun dynasty
will destroyed be.

Be merciful now,
you who reside
in Rāma’s heart.
Primal power incarnate,
mother of three worlds!”

Pleased with Lakṣmaṇa’s words,
Jānakī then knew
of his troubles and said to

“The four brothers
in their cars go and save now.
Trapped in the deep seas,
Lakṣmaṇa now invokes me.”

At Sītā’s behest, Hanumān
then smiled to himself
and in one leap, to the sea
he reached in but a trice.

Four cars in two hands
he clasped and dragged
to Ayodhya city, and then
returned to Jānakī.

The four descended
from their cars.
Rāma sat desolate
on his throne.

Jānakī said then:
“Rāma how is it that
you could not even cross
that ocean of milk!

They say that you are
the one who helps all cross
the ocean of this world.
Then why could you not
cross this small sea yourself?

You were the one who wanted
to slay that Rāvaṇa,
but I think it is not your place
to slay that brave one.”

To Sītā’s sharp words
Rāma then made reply:
“If I cross the sea then
will I slay the night-walker.”

Sītā said
there is the car
named Puṣpaka,
in the blink of an eye
it can rise to the skies.

Why did you not then
call for that car?
Easily would you have
crossed the sea
and killed Rāvaṇa.

Sītā’s lord at Sītā’s words
was reminded thus of
the flower chariot.
Recalling the car
soon brought it there
giving joy to Raghu’s son.

From the Twenty Fifth Sarga



Recalling his slaying
of the great Rāvaṇa
Rāma, proud, spoke
then of his might

All of you have seen
how by my power
with ease did I destroy
Rāvaṇa that wretch.

In this creation
who is mightier than me,
I who slew the demons
by my own hand.

The daughter of the earth
could not bear this more,
smiling, she asked Śrī-Rāma,
how did you slay him then

when, Lotus-eyed one,
all the four of you
under a mountain
had been gaoled by him?

Trapped beneath a mountain,
O Son of Raghu’s race,
how did you end Rāvaṇa,
do tell me if you will.

Hearing this Śrī-Rāma
uttered not a word
and Janaka’s daughter
spoke of what had occurred.

“It was I who had killed
the night-walker, don’t you see?”
Raghu’s son asked Sītā
“How is this so when
softer than butter
are your body’s contours?

How could you then
have killed that warrior?
You do not know war,
O lady who is housed,
how did you kill him,
with weapons in hand?

I do not believe
in your doubtful tale,
only if I see it
will my disbelief fail.
Jānakī turned
to Hanumān
at Rāma’s tirade.

Mischief wide,
that warrior said
“To those unknowing,
Mother, do tell all along.”
Saudāmini Devi sings
this Rāma’s song.