Was Urmila the real ideal wife? Shweta Ganesh Kumar on the heroine who slept through 14 years of the epic..
The first time I read about Urmila was in a Malayalam novel of the same title. And even then it was not like the book was my first choice. It was a compulsory textbook for ninth standard students that told a familiar story through an unfamiliar perspective. Though I started to read it under compulsion, soon enough I was drawn to the character the story revolved around.
The voice was that of a woman who has barely been given three to four lines in Valmiki’s Ramayana. This was Urmila, Sita’s sister and wife to Rama’s devoted brother Lakshmana. A woman who was asked to stay back to take care of her in-laws by her husband who was leaving for the forest for fourteen long years. As the story follows Rama, Lakshmana and Sita, Urmila is left behind, unseen and unheard.
By all standards, Urmila is a minor character. One amongst the four daughters of Janaka and the four daughters-in-law of Dashratha, she does not have a major role to play. Yet the untold story of her sacrifice is one that has fired many a poet’s imagination and inspired many a writer to make her their muse. After all, in the few lines dedicated to her, even Valmiki categorically states her sacrifice as unparalleled. Rabindranath Tagore classified Urmila as one of the forgotten heroines of Indian literature. She was also made the central character of Hindi poet Mythili Sharan Gupta’s version of the Ramayana, Saket. In Telugu literature Urmila occupies as important a role as Sita, even vying with her for the position of the ‘ideal wife’, according to the epics. Urmila Devi Nidra or The Sleep of Devi Urmila is one of the most celebrated Ramayana ballads in the language.
The legend referred to in this ballad is an interesting one. It takes off from one of the lesser-known tales from the epic. The story goes that, impressed by Lakshmana’s unwavering devotion towards his brother and sister-in-law, the goddess of sleep appears in front of him. She tells him that he can ask for any boon and Lakshmana says that he has all he needs and he would rather she blessed his wife instead. The goddess of sleep then goes to Urmila in Ayodhya who tells her that the only boon she wants is that Lakshmana stay steadfast in his service and dedication and therefore he should not remember her even once during his exile.
Another version of the legend states that Urmila asked to be given all of Lakshmana’s sleep for the fourteen years of exile, so that he could remain awake and ever attentive to Rama and Sita’s needs. The tale goes on to say that the devoted wife remained asleep throughout the fourteen years, waking up only when Lakshmana returned to Ayodhya.
In Urmila Devi Nidra, Sita asks Rama to tell Lakshmana to go meet Urmila who is still fast asleep. The sleeping Urmila senses Lakshmana enter her bedchamber but does not recognize him. She thinks he is a stranger and reproaches him for coveting another’s wife. The ballad goes on with Lakshmana apologizing profusely and later on everyone rejoicing at Urmila’s awakening and her reunion with her husband. For once, Urmila is the most celebrated woman in the room.
For someone who remains asleep throughout the action of the epic, Urmila seems to have a fleshed out character, albeit through the quills of others who felt she was a tad too neglected. In some versions, she is said to be a great scholar and a talented painter. They go on to say that she not only spent the fourteen years alone serving her mothers-in-law Sumitra, Kaushalya and Kaikeyi, but also painting a resplendent piece on Rama’s wedding to Sita. The fourteen-year-long slumber is dismissed as a symbolic representation of the stupor a married woman sans her husband is supposed to sink into. She lived out the fourteen years almost as if she were asleep, tending to her duties but without the slightest bit of spirit. The last detail we get of Urmila’s life is that she had two sons, Angad and Chitraketu. And then she fades into the crowd of minor characters that populate the Ramayana, living out the rest of their lives unseen to readers.
Today an Internet search with the terms ‘Urmila’ and ‘heroine’ or ‘leading lady’ brings up results of a completely different kind. For, as the epic is interpreted in newer ways, it is safe to say that a woman forced to put her life on hold till whenever her husband deems fit to remember her is no longer the epitome of an ideal wife. And this is perhaps why Urmila has truly joined the ranks of forgotten leading ladies.
Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a bestselling author and freelance travel journalist. Before dedicating her life to writing, she was Communications Officer with Greenpeace India and Correspondent with CNN-IBN. The New Indian Express, One Philippines and Geo (Indian edition) have published many of her travel columns. Her non-fiction pieces have been featured in Chicken Soup for the Indian Spiritual Soul, Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul – On Friendship and also in CBW’s India’s Top 42 Weekend Getaways eBook. Her short fiction has been published in Indian Voices: An Anthology, Australian Women Online, Single Solitary Thought, Pothiz, Damazine and the Asia Writes Project. Her first novel Coming Up on the Show… The Travails of a News Trainee sold more than 10,000 copies within the first two months of its release in April 2011. She blogs on life as it happens at http://simplyspeaking.blogspot.com/ You can read more about her life and work at www.shwetaganeshkumar.com