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Sita’s fire ordeal from Kamban’s Iramavataram


Sita’s fire ordeal

(Summoned by Rama, through Hanuman, Sita arrives at the battlefield.)

 

She saw him: his body leaf-green,

his mouth coral-coloured,

His great bow in his hand. And she

who was unblemished, thought,

‘My body is polluted, bereft of life;

what is there left for me to desire?’

 

Surrounded by celestial beings

she arrived in her chariot.

As if a false body, deprived

of dearest life, seeing it again

reaches out, so she went to him,

her face unveiled.

 

‘Now that I worship my lord – my husband

through all time, my husband beyond rebirth—

were I to forget, fall down and die,

or whatever else befall me,

yet all shall be well,’ she said,

free of sorrow at last.

 

The lord of all life gazed at her:

queen of faithfulness, safeguard of womanhood,

beauty of all beauties, essence of all fame

the very image and embodiment

of dharma’s grace.

 

Tears streaming down her breasts

like rivers, she bowed to him,

lovely as a peacock,

chastity’s self.

And he watched, outraged,

like a cobra rearing his head.

 

‘You enjoyed your food! Though disgraced

you did not die! Fearless, you lived

in the great city of the lawless rakshasa,

entirely submissive! So why come here

now? Did you imagine

I should still want you?

 

‘It was not to save you

that I bridged the sea,

cut down to their root these rakshasas

with their lightning-bright swords,

destroyed them utterly—

only to clear my self of blame

I came to Lanka.

You who left me have lived so long

eating the flesh of living things

—sweeter to you than amrutam—

drinking plentifully of toddy.

Answer me now: what feasts

will you prepare, fit for us?

 

‘All virtues—precious as gemstones

set into jewels—have fled you;

now you fulfil the auguries of your

low birth: not of a noble clan

were you born, but base as a worm

out of the earth.

 

‘Womanhood, greatness and noble birth,

the steadfastness of chastity,

good conduct, clarity, excellence,

truth—all these have perished

because you, woman, appeared on earth:

vanished like the fame of a king

who did not know to give gifts.

 

‘High-born women contain their five senses;

constant in their virtuousness,

their hair unbound, they offer up

their vows of faithfulness.

They wipe out a single scandal

with their very lives.

 

‘What more should I say?

Your conduct cuts at the very root

of understanding. What can you do now

but die? Or go your own way,

wherever you choose,’ said Rama,

wisdom of the wise.

 

Sages and immortals, multitudes

of men gathered there, besides all

the rakshasas, all monkeys

and the entire animal world

raised a great cry of despair.

 

Sita, lotus-seated Lakshmi incarnate,

looked earthwards, eyes streaming blood

and tears, as if a wound within her

were stirred with a stick.

Almost unconscious, her senses slipping,

she gave a great sigh.

 

Like a deer in a desert waste

wheeled about by kites

tortured by thirst to the point

of death, who sees a lake

but cannot reach its waters—

so she saw, in shocked distress,

the obstacles ahead of her.

 

First she addressed the world, stunned,

wide eyes red-streaked, raining tears,

‘So this much, it seems, is all

I am to gain, for all the years

I have lived: today

my store of merit ends.

 

‘When Maruti came, he assured me

you, my lord, were hastening here

to rescue me. He who is most upright,

did he not tell you of my state,

how I was slowly dying of despair?

Was he not a true messenger?

 

‘All my discipline, all my good deeds,

the chastity I safeguarded

for so long, so arduously

—all this seems but madness,

a futile and mistaken waste

since you, most excellent one,

cannot intuit it in your heart.

 

‘Foolish as I am, the whole world knows

I am a pattini: I would not change my mind,

not even for Brahma, He of the lotus.

But if my lord, who is the world’s eye

denies it, then what god is left

to convince him otherwise?

 

‘He of the lotus, He who rides the bull

and He who carries the conch,

Dharmamurti himself—all three

may perceive all things in the universe

like the nelli fruit in the palm of the hand.

But can they see into a woman’s heart?

 

‘Now, therefore, to whom should I

protest my innocence further?

the noblest thing for me is to die:

your command, who are the Veda’s word,

is fitting. And this is my fate.’

 

She summoned Lakshmana. ‘Light the fire,’

she said, the bangles clamouring

against her wrists. He, heavy-hearted,

bowed to Rama, world’s refuge,

who gave his permission,

speaking with his eyes.

 

Weeping bitterly, as if his own life

had left him, the young prince

arranged the pyre

as the sacred rules prescribed.

And she, Lakshmi incarnate,

stepped forwards and stood by the fire.

[verses 80 – 83 describe the world crying out in horror]

 

Her jewels heavy upon her breasts and arms,

she called out, ‘Lord Agni!

If I have erred in thought or deed

let your fury burn me!’

She turned and bowed to her husband,

He who wears the tulasi garland.

 

As if she were returning

to her palace upon the lotus

which rises above deep waters

she leapt within. At once

the fire itself was scorched

like milk-white cotton instantly ablaze

by the flames of her chastity.

 

Agni rose up, lifting in his hands

she who had plunged into his flames,

himself burnt by her fire.

Distressed, crying out in pain

Agni bowed in worship

to the source of all wisdom.

 

‘Her anger at your rejection

drew beads of sweat upon her body—

look, they have not dried yet. Bees surround

the flowers in her hair; they drip honey

as though newly steeped in water.

What more need I say?’

 

The three worlds, so rudely shaken

stood upright again;

all living things grief-stricken

let go their fear. Arundati and others

danced, casting away modesty

as they rejoiced.

 

‘Were you not aware you would destroy

my power through the divine flames

of her high and pure chastity?

Why, were you furious with me too,

I who am blameless?’

Agni made his complaint.

 

In an instant Rama retorted,

‘And who are you? What is it

you say, rising from the fire?

You refuse to destroy this wicked woman,

praising her instead. Who

instructed you? Answer me.’

 

‘I am Agni. I stand here

because I could not withstand

the burning flames of this lady’s

chastity. After all you have seen,

can you still doubt her, you

who are witness to all things?’

 

‘Marriages are made before me; women

who have erred are questioned

in front of me; in my presence

many doubts on many matters

are cleared. The Vedas, source of all truth

have decreed this, bright -shouldered warrior.

 

‘You have doubted Maruti’s words,

who never lies. But my witness can remove

all taint of doubt, and reveal

like a nelli fruit in the palm of the hand

the entire truth. Will you not listen

and reclaim her?

 

‘When the gods and sages

and all that stands and moves

in all the three worlds struck their eyes

with their hands, screaming,

did you not hear? Did you abandon

dharma, seeking instead

disorder and pain?

 

‘If her anger is roused

will it rain, ever?

Won’t the earth split apart

unable to bear its burden?

Will dharma follow the right path?

Can the world itself survive?

Were she to curse him

even Brahma himself must die!’

 

These words Agni, the burning one,

spoke. Then, surrounded by the gods

and all living creatures,

who danced and rejoiced,

brought her, lovely as a peacock

to stand at her lord’s side.

And at last Rama answered.

 

‘You, Agni, are indestructible witness

to all the world: I cannot dismiss

your words. You have said

she is entirely free of blame.

Declared blameless, henceforth

she is not to be rejected,’

said Rama of the compassionate heart.

 

Iramavataram, Book VI (Yuddakaandam), patalam 37, verses 57 – 97

(Kamban translated by Lakshmi

Sita’s fire ordeal

(Summoned by Rama, through Hanuman, Sita arrives at the battlefield.)

 

She saw him: his body leaf-green,

his mouth coral-coloured,

His great bow in his hand. And she

who was unblemished, thought,

‘My body is polluted, bereft of life;

what is there left for me to desire?’

 

Surrounded by celestial beings

she arrived in her chariot.

As if a false body, deprived

of dearest life, seeing it again

reaches out, so she went to him,

her face unveiled.

 

‘Now that I worship my lord – my husband

through all time, my husband beyond rebirth—

were I to forget, fall down and die,

or whatever else befall me,

yet all shall be well,’ she said,

free of sorrow at last.

 

The lord of all life gazed at her:

queen of faithfulness, safeguard of womanhood,

beauty of all beauties, essence of all fame

the very image and embodiment

of dharma’s grace.

 

Tears streaming down her breasts

like rivers, she bowed to him,

lovely as a peacock,

chastity’s self.

And he watched, outraged,

like a cobra rearing his head.

 

‘You enjoyed your food! Though disgraced

you did not die! Fearless, you lived

in the great city of the lawless rakshasa,

entirely submissive! So why come here

now? Did you imagine

I should still want you?

 

‘It was not to save you

that I bridged the sea,

cut down to their root these rakshasas

with their lightning-bright swords,

destroyed them utterly—

only to clear my self of blame

I came to Lanka.

You who left me have lived so long

eating the flesh of living things

—sweeter to you than amrutam—

drinking plentifully of toddy.

Answer me now: what feasts

will you prepare, fit for us?

 

‘All virtues—precious as gemstones

set into jewels—have fled you;

now you fulfil the auguries of your

low birth: not of a noble clan

were you born, but base as a worm

out of the earth.

 

‘Womanhood, greatness and noble birth,

the steadfastness of chastity,

good conduct, clarity, excellence,

truth—all these have perished

because you, woman, appeared on earth:

vanished like the fame of a king

who did not know to give gifts.

 

‘High-born women contain their five senses;

constant in their virtuousness,

their hair unbound, they offer up

their vows of faithfulness.

They wipe out a single scandal

with their very lives.

 

‘What more should I say?

Your conduct cuts at the very root

of understanding. What can you do now

but die? Or go your own way,

wherever you choose,’ said Rama,

wisdom of the wise.

 

Sages and immortals, multitudes

of men gathered there, besides all

the rakshasas, all monkeys

and the entire animal world

raised a great cry of despair.

 

Sita, lotus-seated Lakshmi incarnate,

looked earthwards, eyes streaming blood

and tears, as if a wound within her

were stirred with a stick.

Almost unconscious, her senses slipping,

she gave a great sigh.

 

Like a deer in a desert waste

wheeled about by kites

tortured by thirst to the point

of death, who sees a lake

but cannot reach its waters—

so she saw, in shocked distress,

the obstacles ahead of her.

 

First she addressed the world, stunned,

wide eyes red-streaked, raining tears,

‘So this much, it seems, is all

I am to gain, for all the years

I have lived: today

my store of merit ends.

 

‘When Maruti came, he assured me

you, my lord, were hastening here

to rescue me. He who is most upright,

did he not tell you of my state,

how I was slowly dying of despair?

Was he not a true messenger?

 

‘All my discipline, all my good deeds,

the chastity I safeguarded

for so long, so arduously

—all this seems but madness,

a futile and mistaken waste

since you, most excellent one,

cannot intuit it in your heart.

 

‘Foolish as I am, the whole world knows

I am a pattini: I would not change my mind,

not even for Brahma, He of the lotus.

But if my lord, who is the world’s eye

denies it, then what god is left

to convince him otherwise?

 

‘He of the lotus, He who rides the bull

and He who carries the conch,

Dharmamurti himself—all three

may perceive all things in the universe

like the nelli fruit in the palm of the hand.

But can they see into a woman’s heart?

 

‘Now, therefore, to whom should I

protest my innocence further?

the noblest thing for me is to die:

your command, who are the Veda’s word,

is fitting. And this is my fate.’

 

She summoned Lakshmana. ‘Light the fire,’

she said, the bangles clamouring

against her wrists. He, heavy-hearted,

bowed to Rama, world’s refuge,

who gave his permission,

speaking with his eyes.

 

Weeping bitterly, as if his own life

had left him, the young prince

arranged the pyre

as the sacred rules prescribed.

And she, Lakshmi incarnate,

stepped forwards and stood by the fire.

[verses 80 – 83 describe the world crying out in horror]

 

Her jewels heavy upon her breasts and arms,

she called out, ‘Lord Agni!

If I have erred in thought or deed

let your fury burn me!’

She turned and bowed to her husband,

He who wears the tulasi garland.

 

As if she were returning

to her palace upon the lotus

which rises above deep waters

she leapt within. At once

the fire itself was scorched

like milk-white cotton instantly ablaze

by the flames of her chastity.

 

Agni rose up, lifting in his hands

she who had plunged into his flames,

himself burnt by her fire.

Distressed, crying out in pain

Agni bowed in worship

to the source of all wisdom.

 

‘Her anger at your rejection

drew beads of sweat upon her body—

look, they have not dried yet. Bees surround

the flowers in her hair; they drip honey

as though newly steeped in water.

What more need I say?’

 

The three worlds, so rudely shaken

stood upright again;

all living things grief-stricken

let go their fear. Arundati and others

danced, casting away modesty

as they rejoiced.

 

‘Were you not aware you would destroy

my power through the divine flames

of her high and pure chastity?

Why, were you furious with me too,

I who am blameless?’

Agni made his complaint.

 

In an instant Rama retorted,

‘And who are you? What is it

you say, rising from the fire?

You refuse to destroy this wicked woman,

praising her instead. Who

instructed you? Answer me.’

 

‘I am Agni. I stand here

because I could not withstand

the burning flames of this lady’s

chastity. After all you have seen,

can you still doubt her, you

who are witness to all things?’

 

‘Marriages are made before me; women

who have erred are questioned

in front of me; in my presence

many doubts on many matters

are cleared. The Vedas, source of all truth

have decreed this, bright -shouldered warrior.

 

‘You have doubted Maruti’s words,

who never lies. But my witness can remove

all taint of doubt, and reveal

like a nelli fruit in the palm of the hand

the entire truth. Will you not listen

and reclaim her?

 

‘When the gods and sages

and all that stands and moves

in all the three worlds struck their eyes

with their hands, screaming,

did you not hear? Did you abandon

dharma, seeking instead

disorder and pain?

 

‘If her anger is roused

will it rain, ever?

Won’t the earth split apart

unable to bear its burden?

Will dharma follow the right path?

Can the world itself survive?

Were she to curse him

even Brahma himself must die!’

 

These words Agni, the burning one,

spoke. Then, surrounded by the gods

and all living creatures,

who danced and rejoiced,

brought her, lovely as a peacock

to stand at her lord’s side.

And at last Rama answered.

 

‘You, Agni, are indestructible witness

to all the world: I cannot dismiss

your words. You have said

she is entirely free of blame.

Declared blameless, henceforth

she is not to be rejected,’

said Rama of the compassionate heart.

 

Iramavataram, Book VI (Yuddakaandam),

patalam 37, verses 57 – 97

(Kamban translated by Lakshmi Holmström )

 

Lakshmi Holmström is a writer and translator who was born in India, studied at Madras and Oxford universities, and now lives in England. She is the author of Indian Fiction in English: the Novels of R. K. Narayan), editor of The Inner Courtyard: Short Stories by Indian Women, and co-editor of Writing from India, a collection of stories from India for readers aged 14‑16.

Her re-telling of the fifth-century Tamil narrative poems Silappadikaram and Manimekalai was published in 1996. Her main work has been in translating the short stories and novels of the major contemporary writers in Tamil: Mauni, Pudumaippittan, Ashokamitran, Sundara Ramaswamy, Ambai, Baama and Imayam. In 2000 she received the Crossword Book Award in India, for translation of Karukku by Bama.

This poem first appeared in The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry, edited by Lakshmi Holmström, Subashree Krishnaswamy and K Srilata. Penguin Books India 2009