One day when the three of them had finished all their small chores and done pooja and eaten their simple meal, they sat outside, under the
shade of a beautiful champaka tree. Rama and Sita were sitting close together and he was teasing her about her fear of a small bear which they had seen when they went for a bath that morning. Lakshmana was sitting a little further off and whittling a piece of wood he had picked up from the river.
At that time, a rakshasi called Shurpanekha who was the sister of the demon king, Ravana, happened to be passing by and she spied the two extraordinarily handsome men sitting under the tree. She was fascinated by the beauty and virility of Rama's body. Though he wore the matted locks of a sage, he had the stature of a Kshatriya and the nobility of a king. She gazed and gazed at him with delight. She could not bear to tear her eyes away from him, even though he did not notice her and seemed to be engrossed in talking to the girl beside him. Shurpanekha decided that this was the man for her. The rakshasas were a race of cannibals and their morals were also quite heterodox. What they desired, they took, regardless of the consequences and the rightness of such behaviour. It did not even cross her mind that he might find her ugly.
She was enormous, with flaming red hair and small cruel eyes. She had mottled, yellow, horny skin, like a toad, a belly like a cauldron with a protruding navel, flapping, elephant ears and talons on her fingers and toes. She had just killed and eaten a rabbit and blood was dripping from her fangs. Throwing away the leg of the rabbit which she had been gnawing, she went towards Ram. She did not care about the fact that he was sitting with another woman who might well have been his wife. She was determined to have him and she approached him with her elephantine gait and spoke in a harsh and raucous voice.
"Who are you? 0 handsome one! You are dressed as a rishi yet your looks belie your appearance. Moreover you have weapons at your side. How did you happen to come here"?
Rama replied politely, "I am Rama, the son of king Dasaratha. That is my brother Lakshmana who is sitting there and this is my wife Sita, the princess of Videha. Now tell me who you are and what I can do for you".
She replied, "I am a rakshasi called Shurpanekha and I am the sister of Ravana. I happened to be passing by and saw you and fell in love with you. You are a fitting mate for me. Look at this puny little creature beside you. She is certainly not fit for you. I will gobble her up in a trice and your brother too and we will roam around happily in this beautiful forest".
Saying this, she stood before him with arms akimbo, drawing herself up to her full height so that she towered like a mountain above them. Sita shuddered and crept closer to her husband. He put his arm reassuringly round her and laughed. He really could not believe that this woman was actually soliciting him in broad daylight, in front of his wife and brother. He was sure it was a joke.
Laughingly he said, "My dear lady, I am quite honoured by your offer but you must understand that I am a married man. Moreover, puny though she is, I happen to love my wife very much, even though it might surprise you. Sharing a man with another woman will not appeal to one like you I am sure. Look over there at my younger brother, who is fair and handsome and does not have his wife with him. Why not approach him"! Shurpanekha thought this over and decided that he spoke the truth, so she approached Lakshmana and requested him in the same way, to be her husband.
Lakshmana was also amused by her and decided to keep up the joke. He replied, "My dear lady, I am only a servant of Rama. How can a princess like you be happy with a servant? You say that you can change your form at will. Why not take a beauteous form and press your suit with Rama with increased vigour? I am sure he can be persuaded to leave his ill-favoured wife and marry a beautiful woman like you".
Shurpanekha was not used to this particular brand of humour. She returned to Rama and said, "I see that you are not interested in me only because this ugly woman is sitting beside you. I wi11 gobble her up in a trice and thus you can be rid of her and we will be able to consort together without any fear of this creature".
With this ultimatum, she turned her eyes, like burning hot coals,
on the trembling Sita and rushed towards her. Sita screamed and clung to Rama. He stood up and put her behind him and spoke to Lakshmana.
"It was wrong on our part to sport with such people. Look how frightened my Sita is. Please punish this woman and send her away, 0 Lakshmana. We will not kill her, since she is a woman but we should teach her a lesson, so that she will go away and leave us in peace. Or else she might come back when we are not here and harass poor Sita".
Lakshmana immediately took his sword and sliced off the tip of Shurpanekha's nose and ears. Roaring with rage and pain and swearing revenge, she ran off into the forest. The whole ground shook with the weight of her steps and the birds flew off with shrill cries of fear. She ran to the rakshasa settlement, called Janasthana, where her cousin Khara lived, and poured out her whole story. Of course, she omitted to say that she was responsible in the first place for having invoked the wrath of the Kosala brothers.
Khara swore to take revenge and called fourteen of his best soldiers
to go and make an end of the intruders who had dared to harm his sister. Shurpanekha led them to the ashrama. The three of them were sitting and discussing the extraordinary events of the day, when the rakshasas arrived. Rama turned to Lakshmana and said, "It looks as if we are in for a bit of fighting. Guard Sita while I go and finish them off".
So saying, he went towards them and killed them in no time as he
had promised to do. Shurpanekha could not believe her eyes. She had never seen human beings who could stand up to even one rakshasa, let alone fourteen. She ran back and stood, howling like a jackal before Khara.
"What's upsetting you now"? he enquired. "I have sent my men as I promised and by now Rama must have been devoured by them".
Shurpanekha said scornfully, "You are a disgrace to your race. I think you are frightened to go and face them yourself. Your men are all lying in a lake of blood, killed by Rama, single-handed"!
Khara was amazed by this and ordered his commander Dhushana to lead fourteen thousand warriors, to fight with this man. The army poured out of the fortress, armed to the teeth, in order to kill two puny humans.
Far away in the ashrama, Rama saw many omens and heard the roaring sound of the approaching army, coming like a tidal wave.
He told Lakshmana, "I am afraid I'll have to deny you the chance of using your weapons, 0 brother, but I think it is better for you to take your weapons and go to that cave with Sita. I dare not leave her alone even for a minute. That woman may come and devour her while we are both engaged in fighting. So please do as I tell you".
Lakshmana reluctantly took Sita and left his brother to fight alone. Rama saw that they were safely inside the cave, then he strung his bow and prepared himself for battle. He twanged the string of his bow and challenged the rakshasas to battle. Khara drove his chariot right up to where Rama stood, ready for battle and let loose hundreds of arrows and tridents, sickles, axes and many different types of weapons at him, while the rest of the army did the same. Rama stood like a rock, unmoved by the onslaught. Though hurt in many places, he fought on calmly, ably resisting the attack. The dexterity with which he was handling his bow evoked the admiration of even his enemies. His arrows charged with mantras were so painful that the first onslaught of rakshasas turned tail and ran back, screaming with pain. Again and again Khara sent his warriors, only to be decimated by Rama's deadly arrows. At last, only a few remained to tell the tale. He began to feel really worried when he saw that his brave commander, Dhushana had been killed. Then he sent Thrishiras, who was another great general, who managed to wound Rama on the forehead. Rama admired his prowess but was forced to kill him in the end. At last Khara began to worry if he would also be killed. He advanced towards Rama in his chariot.
Rama, who was fighting from the ground, broke the demon's chariot and said, "No one who has been perpetrating such cruel deeds like you has a right to live. How many innocent rishis have you killed? This is your last day 0 Khara! Prepare to die".
Khara rushed at him with mace upraised and flung it at him but Rama splintered it into a thousand pieces with his arrows. Next Khara uprooted a huge tree and flung it at Rama. He warded it off easily. Blind with rage, Khara rushed towards Rama, determined to throttle him with his bare fists. Rama invoked the power of Indra into his arrow and sent it hurtling at Khara. It entered his chest and he fell down dead. Seeing their leader fall, the rest of the rakshasa army, including Shurpanekha fled in terror. Sita's peaceful and beautiful garden was totally devastated and strewn with arms, legs and heads - blood and bones.
Lakshmana now returned with Sita and congratulated his brother. Sita rushed towards Rama and embraced him. She was so happy to see him alive. Tenderly she wiped off the droplets of blood from his face and body with her upper garment. Her voice was choked with emotion and she could not speak a word. Though proud of her husband's prowess in combating so many rakshasas, single-handed, yet she had some foreboding that this was not the end of the affair and that their peaceful days were over.
Thus ends the third Canto called "The Night Rangers" of the Aranya Kanda in the glorious Ramayana of the Sage Valmiki.