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HOME GENER A L TH E C H AN DRAVATI RAM AY AN A: A STO RY O F TW O W O M E N

BY VIBHASHETIY A

The Chandravati Ramayana: A Story of Two


Women by Vibha Shetiya
BY V I B H A S H E T I Y A on J A N U A R Y 1 0 , 2 0 1 7 ( 9 )

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Although 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 Krittibasas Ramayana in Bengal, Kambans Tamil
Iramavataram in South India, notably in the state of Tamil
Nadu, Tulsidass 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 Chandravatis sixteenth century
Bengali Ramayana, for its author was a woman. Even more fascinating is the double-
toned nature of the narrative through Chandravatis 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 womens lives the theme of sorrow. Born the daughter of a poor
fisherman, legend has it that on the eve of her wedding, her fianc 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 Ramayana
that 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 Ramas conception and birth,
Chandravatis Ramayana starts with the back story to Sitas birth. With this beginning,
Chandravati intertwines the lives of two wronged women Sita and Mandodari.
Mandodari is the wife of Ravana, Sitas 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. Mandodaris 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
Mandodaris 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 Sitas birth ends with Ramas birth, the traditional beginning of
the Ramayana. It is in Part 2 that we get to Sitas ordeals. Chandravati has Sita recount
in her own words the twelve months of her captivity by Ravana. An example of
Chandravatis 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 Sitas
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 Sitas 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 Sitas 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 Sitas banishment by Rama over doubts as to whether she had remained
chaste while in Ravanas captivity: Unlike other writers and commentators who couched
their disbelief over Ramas 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 anothers 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 Sitas 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 womens inescapably tragic lives.[6]

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

Chandravatis Ramayana was rejected not because it was incompetently crafted or


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

Chandravatis 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 womens 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, Ravanas brother, who had fought on the side of
Rama during the battle between Rama and Ravana. From A Womans Ramayana:
Candravatis Bengali Epic. Translated by Mandakranta Bose and Sarika Priyadarshini
Bose. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013. EBL Ebook, 72.

[3] A Womans Ramayana, 74.

[4] A Womans Ramayana, 79-80.

[5] A Womans 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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9 replies

wandasncredible
January 10, 2017 1:20 am

Reblogged this on Wanda D. Jefferson.

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senlowes2013
January 10, 2017 2:23 am

Loved this! I first read the Ramayana on the plane coming back to the UK from Mumbai
and was struck by Ramas 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 Sitas rescue rather than
her banishment. I wonder whether I did right now, in sanitising the story like that. On the
other hand, knowing childrens sense of fairness, I knew they would find his behaviour in
rejecting her impossible to comprehend. Says a lot about our adult values, doesnt it?!

Like

Joyce Zonana
January 10, 2017 2:12 pm

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

Liked by 1 person

Vibha Shetiya
January 11, 2017 8:04 am

senlowes, you are following the tradition of the Ramayana throughout its 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

Hrishikesh Deshmukh
May 26, 2017 11:32 am

Thanks for sharing such great history

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Carol P. Christ
January 10, 2017 11:27 pm

What an amazing find.

Chandravatis Ramayana was rejected not because it was incompetently crafted or


incomplete, but because it was not a traditional text. It is a womans text, an atypical
retelling of the Rama tale in which Rama is first marginalised and then criticised from a
womans 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

Juliana Lightle
January 15, 2017 1:43 pm

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

Mimi Niles
January 23, 2017 10:35 am

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

Vibha Shetiya
January 24, 2017 7:27 pm

Thank you, Mimi. Its actually amazing how there are so many proto-feminist
stories coming out of India!

Liked by 1 person