Rama and Lakshmana set out in search of Sita

Illustration to the Ramayana
Kangra, Punjab Hills, India, c. 1830
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper
30 x 43.5 cm

The Hindu epic of Ramayana—the story of Vishnu’s seventh avatar, is replete with wondrous episodes that have fuelled the imagination of artists all across India. Not only is there religious merit in recounting these stories, the fanciful tales are equally entertaining. This folio corresponds to the sombre scene following the abduction of the Rama’s wife Sita. Using a demon in the guise of a golden deer as decoy, the evil Ravana had managed to get her vulnerable enough to capture, and carried her back to his kingdom. The whole plot was formulated in retaliation to the humiliation of his sister Surpanakha by Rama and Lakshmana, but ultimately led to his own downfall in the ensuing battle that forms the cusp of this legendary tale.

Rama and Lakshmana carry weapons as kshatriyas or warriors. Princes by birth, they have swords, shields, bows and arrows, but instead of being dressed in fine fabrics they wear simple garbs made of leaves, and flowers instead of precious jewels. Exiled from their kingdom, Rama, his wife and younger brother spent fourteen years living in the forest, far from the luxuries of their palace in Ayodhya.

When Rama discovered the deceit of the golden deer, he returned to their home in the forest in a hurry, only to find Sita absent. Sinking into despair he “lamented on and on as he ran from

wood to wood—rushing on impulse from one place to scour another compulsively, or wandering like a madman—obsessed with the search for his beloved.” (58.30) Unable to contain his emotions, he asked each animal, bird and tree if they had seen his wife, not knowing the events that had transpired. Though the epic exalts him as an incredible warrior and king, in this moment Rama is simply a husband distraught over the absence of his wife. His face and body language express his pain, and the anguish that he feels is depicted with great poignancy by the artist. Similarly, Lakshmana is disappointed by his own failure to have protected Sita, and looks away in shame.

The mournful landscape becomes part of the development of the story both in the text and in this painting. As Sita was being carried away “the mountains also seemed to wail, their craggy arms outstretched and waterfalls staining their faces with tears”(50.35), the entire natural world reacts to Ravana’s despicable act, mirroring the melancholy of the protagonists. Additionally, the flowering trees and curvy rocks divide the composition into individual, successive moments. The two figures appear three times as the narration unfolds from left to right. Starting from the empty hut, they search the forest many times over, down to the river Godavari and up the nearby mount. In the second ‘frame’ they come across Ravana’s broken chariot, drawn by donkeys. Still unbeknownst to them, Jatayu the vulture king had destroyed it in his failed attempt to save Sita from the king of Lanka.

The fallen white garlands are strewn across the landscape to create a trail for Rama and Lakshamana that leads them through the forest as their search continues into the next folio of this series [Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (2015.40)], in which they meet the injured Jatayu who tells them about Sita’s abduction.

Despite being separated from the rest of the set, every carefully thought-out detail of this painting offers plenty of information to the keen viewer even without any textual clues. Those familiar with the epic can easily recognise the personages and identify the scenes, picking up on every literal and symbolic reference to the fascinating story of the Ramayana.

Provenance
Mohan Singh Collection, India, 1965.
Private Collection, New Zealand.

Reference
Pollock, Sheldon I., trans. Ramayana – Book Three: The Forest. New York: NYU Press, 2006.

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