Introduction

The Panchakanyas or the five iconic heroines of Hindu epics have been extolled in hymns, and one of them is Mandodari, the consort of Ravana, King of Lanka. The other four are Sita, Draupadi, Ahalya and Tara. In some legends, the name of Sita has been replaced by Kunti. Traditional Hindu wives remember them in their daily morning prayers as chanting their names is said to dispel sin and confer merit. The well known Sanskrit hymn is as follows-

ahalyā draupadī sītā tārā mandodarī tathā 
pañcakanyāḥ smarennitya mahāpātakanāśinī 

Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari
One should forever remember the panchakanya, who are the destroyers of great sins.

Panchakanya as five elements

For centuries, it has been observed that Indian culture and religion has been inexorably entwined with nature and man’s relationship with the environment. Thus, the Panchkanya have been associated with the five elements. Sita was found while ploughing and hence is associated with the Earth element. Ahalya is associated with the wind element. Tara is associated with the space element. Draupadi emerged from the Yajna and hence is associated with the fire element. Mandodari is associated with the water element.

Birth and Early life

Mayasura was an ancient King of the Asuras and the son of Sage Kashyapa. He was their chief architect and he designed and built great cities of prosperity and power. At a later age, on the behest of Lord Krishna and Arjuna who saved him from the Khandava forest fire, he constructed the famous palace hall with its beautiful reflective floors for King Yudhishtira at Indraprastha which was known as Mayasabha. His wife was the apsara Hema, and they had two sons. As they longed for a daughter they began penances to propitiate Lord Shiva. Their wish was soon granted, and when a daughter was born to them they named her Mandodari. Unfortunately when she was born, her mother returned to heaven after deserting her and her father. In the absence of her mother Mayasura brought up Mandodari with great care and showered her with love and affection. Some legends state that she was an Apsara who was cursed to take birth as a frog in a well for twelve years at the end of which she regained her original form and was adopted by Mayasura and his wife who were doing penance nearby.

Marriage and later life

Once when Mayasura was moving in the dense forest with Mandodari, Ravana, the King of Lanka saw her and greatly attracted by her matchless beauty and grace wished to marry her. Mayasura agreed and at an auspicious moment with due Vedic rites, the marriage took place. Mayasura gave Ravana many gifts which included divine and powerful weapons. In the course of time, they had three sons Atikaya, Akshaykumar and Meghnath. Though Ravana had other queens and children from them, Mandodari was said to be his favourite Queen.

Sita’s kidnapping

Mandodari was a chaste and pure woman and was aware of the faults of her husband, Ravana. However, she loved him and repeatedly advised him to follow the path of righteousness. When Ravana forcibly brought Sita and kept her prisoner, she tried to advise him to return Sita to Rama as she knew that Rama was not an ordinary man but an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. When Ravana removed his sword to slay Sita in a fit of anger when she refused to marry him, Mandodari restrained him by advising him that it was a heinous sin to kill a helpless woman. She begged him to return Sita and warned him of the annihilation of the race. She would use encouraging words of love and try to stir Ravana away from evil. Ravana had other wives but he is said to have loved Mandodari the most, and hence tolerated her words of advice, as he knew she always wished for his highest good.

Further Events

When Hanuman entered Ravana’s palace, he was stunned to see the beauty of Mandodari and initially mistook her for Sita. Mandodari being a pious woman, could forsee many ill omens and realised that Ravana’s passion would result in ruin for all. But in spite of all her efforts, she did not succeed in averting the path of doom and destruction. She advised her sons too, but they were obedient to their father and the call of duty and could not follow her advice. It is said that when Ravana organised a yajna to assure his victory after the death of his sons and many brave generals, Rama sent Angada who disturbed the Yajna. Mandodari knew that this signified ill omen and warned Ravana accordingly but he refused to pay heed.

Death of Ravana

In the battle that followed, Rama killed Ravana. According to Valmiki Ramayana, Ravana could not be killed by the ordinary arrows of Rama and Indra gave Rama a magical arrow that finally killed him. Some other legends state that the magical arrow was hidden under Mandodari’s bed in her chambers. In order to retrieve it, Hanuman went to her in disguise as a Brahmin while she was engrossed in the worship of Goddess Parvati for the well being of her husband Ravana. Hanuman won her confidence and managed to get her to reveal the secret location of the arrow. He then seized the arrow and gave it to Rama who used it to kill Ravana. When Mandodari appeared at the scene of the death of Ravana, she was inconsolable in grief. This has been explained lucidly in the Yuddha Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana. She recollected the power and strength of Ravana and his exemplary qualities, one whom even Indra could not destroy. She lamented that as the brother of Kubera, he had no equals in terms of power and riches, but he did not heed the warnings of his kin and wise men of his kingdom.  She recognised that Rama was none other than Lord Vishnu at the very beginning when he had killed Khara and Dushana and when she saw that a mere monkey with great prowess could cross the ocean to enter Lanka. She regretted the sinful deed that Ravana did in abducting a chaste and pure woman like Sita and stated that though he was a great conqueror of the three worlds, he had been unable to conquer his senses. Rama then called upon Vibheeshana and requested him to perform the last rites of Ravana and console the grieving womenfolk.

Legends

Some legends state that in order to prevent Mandodari from entering the funeral pyre after the death of Ravana, Rama requested Vibheeshana to marry her in order to enable him to rule Lanka wisely. Yet another legend states that Sita was none other than the first born of Mandodari who was prophesied to be the destroyer of the clan, hence was abandoned and buried under the earth. Numerous other legends give different accounts of how Sita could be the daughter of Mandodari.

Conclusion

Mandodari was the personification of beauty and grace and always walked the path of truth and righteousness. She stood by her husband in times of defeat and disgrace and endeavoured to change his vain and arrogant nature. She restrained him from committing the sin of killing Sita and exhorted him to return Sita to her lawful husband Rama. On many occasions she faced her husband’s wrath but never lost hope and continued her unflinching devotion towards him advising him on the path of truth and duty. Her name has always been taken in reverence and praise as an epitome of womanhood.

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