Five Holy Virgins, Five Sacred Myths: A Quest for Meaning

This was first published in the print edition of Manushi journal, Issue no. 141 of 2004.

When Vyasa asked Ganesha to become his amanuensis, the elephant-headed god agreed, provided the dictation proceed without pause. Vyasa, in turn, laid down a condition of his own: nothing should be transcribed without comprehension. To wrest breathing space, he often composed shlokas so abstruse that even the elephant-headed god had to pause, before writing them down, to plumb their meaning. It is not only these Vyasa-Kuta in the Mahabharata that challenge comprehension. Even a traditional saying can pose an enigma, raising questions that have no simple answers. We begin a five-part series on the Panchakanyas of the Indian epics, taking as our starting point a Sanskrit verse in praise of these five women, all dancers to a different drum. In their stories, in their choices and the consequences, these led to, we find upheld a pattern of values quite other than is conventionally understood to be the case.

There is an ancient exhortation1 naming five maidens as pratah-smaraniya, urging that they be invoked daily at dawn:

"Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari
tatha Panchakanya smaranityam mahapataka nashaka"

(Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari: constantly remembering these virgins five destroys great failings.)

The verse poses a puzzle worth grappling with. Two things strike us in this verse: the use of the epithet kanya (virgin, maiden), not nari (woman); and the unusual combination of names that redeem, of whom at least two – Ahalya and Draupadi – are ayonijasambhava, “not-of-woman-born”. Of the five kanyas, none quite measure up to the standard of monogamous chastity, commended so overwhelmingly in our culture. Each has had either an extra-marital relationship or more than one husband. Why should invoking these panchakanyas be extolled as redemptive and why, indeed, is the intriguing term kanya applied to them? As we shall see, the key to the mystery of these five ‘virgin’ maidens lies in the type of sexual encounters they have with non-husbands, encounters that are neither rape nor adultery but are, in fact, quite unique.

Of this group three – Ahalya, Tara, and Mandodari – belong to the Ramayana, the epic composed by Valmiki, the first seer-poet. Draupadi and Kunti are celebrated in Vyasa’s Mahabharata. At the outset, we need to keep in mind that Valmiki and Vyasa’s great compositions are designated as kavya, truth perceived by a kavi, a seer-poet. Hence, in evaluating the characters they have created, it is necessary to probe consciously beneath the surface appearance to reach the underlying meaning. When such an exhortation has come down the centuries, it cannot be dismissed as a meaningless conundrum, specially when it combines, as this one does, as many as five myths in one verse. 

Ahalya: Crime and Punishment: It is the nobility of her character, her extraordinary beauty and the fact of her being chronologically the first kanya that places Ahalya at the head of the five virgin maidens. She had been true to her independent nature, fulfilling her womanhood in a manner that she found appropriate, though, finally, she is unable to assert herself.

The name Ahalya itself has a double meaning: one who is flawless; it also means un-ploughed, that is, one who is a virgin. Her origin-myth2 states that, having created this flawless beauty from what was unique and loveliest in all creatures (as was later done to create Tilottama), Brahma handed her over to the sage Gautama for safe custody until she reached puberty. When Gautama handed her back to the Creator, he was so pleased with the sage’s self-restraint that he bestowed Ahalya upon him. Indra, lord of the gods, enamoured of her beauty, had presumed that this loveliest of women was meant for him and resented a forest-dwelling ascetic becoming her spouse. In the Adi (Bala) Kanda of the Ramayana, Vishvamitra tells Rama and Lakshmana that, assuming Gautama’s form in his absence, Indra approached Ahalya saying, “Those craving coitus cannot wait; I crave union, slim-waisted one!”

Though Ahalya saw through the disguise, yet out of curiosity (kutuhalat) – the same impulse that impels Kunti to summon Surya – she granted him sexual favours and said, “I am gratified.

Now leave this place quickly, best of gods! Protect yourself and me from Gautama in every way.” As Indra was leaving, however, Gautama returned. By his curse, Indra’s testicles fell off. Another version in the Mahabharata (12.342.23) states that Indra’s beard was turned yellow by the curse. Ahalya was condemned to perform penance in that terrible forest, hidden from all, fasting (“subsisting on air”), sleeping in ashes, tormented by guilt. Gautama ordained that, purified of delusion (lobhamohavivarjita), by offering hospitality to Rama, she, fairest of all (varavarnini3 ) would be redeemed to rejoin him.

This account is frank regarding Ahalya’s deliberate choice to satisfy her curiosity. Creation’s sole beautiful woman, she is the archetypal feminine responding to the ardent, urgent, direct sexual advances of the ruler of heaven who presents such a dazzling contrast to her ascetic, aged, forest-dwelling husband. A mortal woman welcomes the intimate touch of heaven’s immortal, driven by that irrepressible curiosity for varied and unusual experience, and a willingness to take risks for it, which is said to characterise the feminine.

Although Ahalya already had a son, Shatananda, yet the deepest urges of her femininity remained unfulfilled. The kanya is not just mother but is also beloved, and it is this aspect that had not been actualised in her relationship with Gautama. The first kanya not-born-of-woman, Ahalya has the courage to respond to the call of her inner urge, but does not challenge the sentence pronounced on her by patriarchal society.

The Backlash: The Uttara Kanda4 version is exculpatory, as may be expected of a later addition to the epic. Here Agastya states that, infuriated at Brahma bestowing Ahalya upon Gautama, Indra raped her, thus absolving Ahalya of any active role in the liason. Gautama cursed Indra to suffer imprisonment (by Meghanada), bear half the guilt of every act of rape and lose all peace of mind. As for Ahalya, she would cease to be unique as the only beautiful female – other lovely women would be born. (That is why men fall in love with different women, projecting their anima on to them.) When Ahalya protested that she could not recognise the disguised Indra and was not guilty of wilful wickedness, Gautama relented and said that he would take her back after she had been purified through Rama accepting her hospitality.

In popular retelling of the myth, depicted often enough on stage and in films and television serials, Ahalya is turned to stone. She regains her form only when Ram, reluctantly, places his foot on her head. In Valmiki, however, there is no petrifaction nor does Rama restore the stone-Ahalya to flesh and blood. These are KathaSarit-Sagara innovations. We witness here a male backlash that condemns the woman as soiled even though she may not be at fault, as Rama does with Sita.

Tagore’s Ahalya

“What were your dreams, Ahalya, when you passed Long years as stone, rooted in earth, prayer And ritual gone, sacred fire extinct In the dark, abandoned forest-shram? Earth Merged with your body; did you know her vast Love, did hazy awareness haunt your stone? …And keep you blindly, dimly, half-awake? …When life’s excited zest Rushed along branching paths in numerous forms To conquer the desert, did it rise in outrage, Circle your stone and crush your sterile curse? Didn’t its pounding blows shake you awake?… Did you, long asleep on her breast, enter That place of oblivion, cool as endless night, Where millions sleep forever without fear, Resting their life’s exhaustion in the dust, Where withered flowers fall in the day’s heat, Burnt-up stars and meteors, crumbled fame, Sated pleasure, grief too tired to sting? There, Earth smoothed with her soothing hand Your lines of sin and stress. Today you shine Like a newly woken princess, calm and pure. You stare amazed at the dawn world. The dew Which moistened your stone at night shimmers now On your black, loosely-flowing hair. The mosses Which clothed you with the green mantle of Earth, Thickened and brightened by each fall of rain, Are now a sari lightly placed by a mother’s Loving hand on your glorious naked limbs. The world smiles; you recognise that smile. You gaze; your heart swings back from the far past, Traces its lost steps. In a sudden rush, All round, your former knowledge of life returns… …Like first Created dawn, you slowly rise from the blue Sea of forgetfulness. You stare entranced; The world, too, is speechless; face to face Beside a sea of mystery none can cross You know afresh what you have always known.”

– Extracts from “Ahalya” Rabindranath Tagore (trans. William Radice)


The opposite occurs in the Mahabharata version, told in the Shanti Parva, where the furious Gautama commands his son Chirakari to slay his polluted mother (as Jamadagni ordered Parashurama to behead Renuka), but later regrets his rash command, realising that the fault lies not with his wife but with the lustful Indra. The Brahma Purana5 has Gautama turn Ahalya into a dry stream and disfigure Indra – who, terrified, has become a cat – with a thousand marks of the vulva. When Ahalya pleads her ignorance, Gautama grants her redemption upon her mingling with the Gautami River. By bathing in the same river, the marks on Indra’s body turn into eyes and he becomes “thousand-eyed” like the Greek Argus.

The Shiva Purana6 features Ahalya in an incident said to have occurred in another epoch (yuga). During a hundred-year drought, Gautama’s ascesis resulted in Varuna gifting him an inexhaustible well, because of which his hermitage became a refuge for the distressed, including the Seven Sages. The wives of the Seven Sages abused Gautama’s disciples, insisting on having access to the well first. When Ahalya went to resolve the dispute, they abused her as well and lied to their husbands about what had happened. Blinded by a passion for their wives, these sages turned to Ganesha, the vighna-karta, god of obstacles. They had him turn into an illusory cow that fell dead at Gautama’s touch, whereupon they stoned Ahalya and Gautama, driving them out of the hermitage. Shiva cursed the sages and their wives to be outside the Vedic pale, dooming them to perdition. Here Ahalya is a foil to the wickedness of the sages’ wives, instead of being the ‘fallen’ one. The Shiva Purana being later than Valmiki’s composition, it is probable that here we see a later redactor’s attempt to re-write the Ahalya myth to remove the stigma of adultery.

The Katha-Sarit-Sagara7 version provides a clue to the psychological condition of Ahalya. The story is told to illustrate how evil acts lead to suffering for evildoers. On Gautama’s return, as in the Brahma Purana, Indra flees in the form of a cat and is cursed to be covered with the marks of the vulva he had so coveted. Replying to the sage’s enquiry about who had been in the cottage, Ahalya dissimulates, saying that it was a majjara (in Prakrit meaning both “cat” or “my lover”, because of which a synonym for Indra is Ahalyayaijara). She is punished by being turned to stone, reflecting the social ostracism of transgressing women and their consequent psychological trauma. In the Adi Kanda of the Ramayana, Vishvamitra, who praises Ahalya to Rama, condemns the apsara Rambha to a similar fate for disturbing his ascesis at Indra’s behest. He curses her to become a stone until some sage of great spiritual prowess should redeem her. These are not simply physical transformations (as in the Grimms’ fairy tale of “Faithful John” or Hatim Tai’s “Seven Riddles”), but a deep psychological trauma, in which oppressive guilt virtually throttles the vital spirit, “freezing” the emotions and making the woman socially into a non-person. Ahalya becomes an automaton, denying her emotions, feelings and self-respect, shunned by all. Even as a mother, she finds no fulfilment. Shatananda, her son, abandons her in the forest, despite referring to her as renowned (mama mata yashasvini).

Ahalya’s Redemption: On the other hand, Rama, at Vishvamitra’s behest, regards her as blameless and inviolate, as her name connotes. When he and Lakshmana touch her feet in salutation, this recognition restores her self-respect and her status in society, so that she truly lives again. (It is ironic that though Rama’s visit redeems Ahalya, it is because of his suspicions that Sita decides to suffer fire and later enters exile and oblivion.) Vishvamitra repeatedly refers to Ahalya as mahabhaga, most virtuous and noble. In the eyes of this mighty rebel who proved that a kshatriya could transform himself into the greatest of seers, who presented the world the Gayatri mantra, saved Sunahshepa from being sacrificed and created a second heaven for the outcaste Trishanku, Ahalya was not a fallen woman. Valmiki’s description of Ahalya as Rama sees her needs to be noted (my translation):

“The Creator, it seems, with utmost care had perfected
this form, divine, enchanting. Like a tongue of
flame smoke-shrouded, Like the full moon’s glory
ice-reflected, Like blinding sunlight mirrored in water.”

Among the panchakanyas, Ahalya remains unique because of the nature of her daring and its consequence. Her single transgression, for having done what her femininity demanded, calls down an awful curse. Because of her unflinching acceptance of her sentence, both Vishvamitra and Valmiki glorify her. Chandra Rajan, a sensitive modern-day poetess, catches the psychological nuances of her situation: 

“Gautama cursed his impotence and raged…
she stood petrified uncomprehending in
stony silence withdrawn into the secret cave
of her inviolate inner self…
she had her shelter sanctuary benediction
within, perfect, inviolate in the one-ness of
spirit with rock rain and wind with flowing
tree and ripening fruit and seed that falls
silently in its time into the rich dark earth.” 8

Tara: Bold StatecraftTara,9 wife of Vali and daughter of the vanara physician Sushena, is the next kanya we meet in the Ramayana. She is a woman of unusual intelligence, foresight and selfconfidence. In the Mahabharata she is called sarvabhutarutajna, able to understand the language of all creatures. In the Kishkindha Kanda of the Ramayana, we see her warning Vali against Sugriva when he comes to challenge Vali for the second time. Appearances are deceptive, she points out; normally no contestant returns to the field so soon after having been soundly thrashed. Moreover, she says, she has heard that Rama, prince of Ayodhya, has befriended him. She urges Vali to anoint Sugriva as the crown prince and live in peace with him. Vali, in the Mahabharata account, suspects that Tara might be favouring Sugriva and therefore rejects her advice. By brushing aside her wise warning, he walks into Rama’s arrow, as he himself admits while he lies dying. He pays a fine tribute to his wife, imploring Ram to ensure that tapasvinim Tara is not insulted by Sugriva and advising Sugriva to follow Tara’s advice unquestioningly. She is skilled, he says, in assessing a situation and deciding what action should be taken; she never judges the merit of anything wrongly.

After Vali’s fall, Tara not only rallies the fleeing subjects, but also shows great political sagacity. When Hanuman asks her to stop grieving and place her son Angada on the throne, she refuses, since, with his uncle Sugriva alive, this would be inadvisable. Then she rushes to Rama and, in an extremely forceful speech, demands that he kill her too. The strength of her personality in facing up to the prince of Ayodhya is strikingly portrayed. In Krittibas’ Bengali Ramayana, Tara curses Rama to be slain by Vali in a future birth. This is confirmed in the Mahanataka and the Ananda Ramayana where the hunter who causes Krishna’s death is Vali reborn. In several vernacular versions of the epic, Tara also curses Rama that he will not be able to enjoy the company of Sita for long. Tara’s upbraiding elicits Rama’s assurance that Sugriva will protect both her and her son’s rights. To ensure that her son Angada is not deprived of his father’s throne, she becomes her brother-in-law Sugriva’s consort.

When Lakshmana storms into the inner apartments of Kishkindha, to upbraid Sugriva who has reneged on his promise to track down Sita, it is Tara who is sent by the terrified Sugriva to tackle this rage-incarnate. Approaching Lakshmana with intoxicated, half-closed eyes and unsteady gait, lovely, slim, unashamed, Tara effectively disarms him. She gently reprimands him for being unaware of lust’s overwhelming power that overthrows the most ascetic of sages, whereas Sugriva is a mere vanara (a forest dweller). When he abuses Sugriva, Tara fearlessly intervenes, pointing out that the rebuke is unjustified and details all the efforts already made to gather an army. Once again, as when tendering advice to Vali, Tara displays her superb ability to marshal information and to intervene in a crisis. Thus, she acts as Sugriva’s shield while ensuring that her son Angada becomes the crown prince.

In the Mahabharata there is an interesting statement in the Vana Parva that Vali and Sugriva fought over a woman. Surely that woman was the remarkable Tara for, the Ramayana tells us, when attendants report Lakshmana’s arrival, Sugriva is so engrossed in Tara (and not his original wife Ruma) that he remains oblivious to the news. This idea is reinforced when we find that, in the Balinese dance Kebyar, “Rama helps Sugriwa get his lover, Dewi Tara, back from his brother, SuVali.” 10 In both the Nrisimha Purana (50.21-27) and the Mahanataka (5.51), Tara is actually Sugriva’s wife whom Vali forcibly took away.

The Telegu Ranganatha Ramayana (4.4) has an even more interesting account of Tara’s origins that aligns her more closely with Ahalya, by also depicting her as not born of woman. In this account, Tara is said to have emerged along with the other apsaras during the churning of the ocean for amrita, the nectar of immortality. Tara was then gifted to Vali and Sugriva for the help they had given the gods. Subsequently, Sugriva married Sushena’s daughter Ruma. The Thai Ramkien states that Vali was given a trident and Sugriva got Tara, but Vali snatched her away and married her. 11 Dr. Ratna Roy, in her performance of the Pancha Kanya dance in the Mahari Odissi tradition, interprets Tara’s predicament as a story that reflects our present crisis, telling of the plight of women during war.

Brihaspati’s Tara: The earliest bearer of the name “Tara” is the wife of Brihaspati who runs away with his disciple Chandra, causing the Tarakamaya war between the devas and their stepbrothers, the asuras. The name Tara, therefore, carries an aura of internecine strife. Tara, like Helen with Paris, let herself be ruled by her preferences, ignoring social conventions in choosing to leave her ascetic husband for the young and irresistibly handsome Chandra. Even after the war, when the devas and the asuras fight again over possession of her son, it is she who has the last word. As this second war is inconclusive, Brahma himself requests Tara to declare who is the father of her son. Once again, Tara chooses to announce the truth instead of hiding behind the safety of conventions and declares that Chandra, not Brihaspati, is the father. That is how she becomes the ancestress of the Lunar dynasty, the Chandra Vamsa, whose fortunes are the stuff of Vyasa’s epic.

Let us not forget that Tara is the name of the second of the Ten Mahavidyas (the ten Transcendental Wisdoms). Erich Neumann, while discussing the highest form of the feminine archetype, the Goddess of Spiritual Transformation, views Tara as the highest evolution of this universal aspect of consciousness. Her name signifies both ‘star’ and ‘the pupil of the eye’, conveying the idea of a focal point, which suggests that Tara is in some manner a very concentrated essence. We can also interpret her name as coming from the causative form of the verb t.’r, meaning ‘to cross’, ‘to traverse’ or ‘to escape’. Like Draupadi, as we shall see later, Tara is ‘she who ferries across’, ‘she who saves’. Indeed, by her intrepid actions Tara, the wife of Vali, saves the kingdom and her son from ruin. 

Mandodari: The Frog Princess: It is with Mandodari, Ravana’s wife and the last kanya portrayed by Valmiki, that we face a problem. There is hardly anything special that Valmiki has written about her except that, like Tara, her assessment of the enemy is shrewd and correct. She warns her husband to return Sita to avoid destruction and has enough influence to prevent him from raping her. Of her birth, the dananva Maya states in the Uttara Kanda (canto 12) that she is born to him from the apsara Hema who left him after giving birth (as apsaras do). The Mahari Panchakanya dance composition, however, provides the following myth of her origin:

“A snake poisons the milk of a hermit as a frog watches. Realising the consequences, the frog jumps into the bowl of milk and dies instantaneously. The hermit, on his return, sees the frog in the milk and curses it for its gluttony. The curse reverses a former curse and the frog turns into the beautiful maiden, Mandodari, who is pure, fair, slender and sharp, with voice like that of a vina (somber and majestic), with the gait of a white swan, flashing and restless eyes, and desired of all men.”12

The story appears to be a version of the Oriya Dharma Purana (canto 5).13 Two hermits, Mandar and Udar, refuse to share with the earth any part of their cow’s milk. Angered, she despatches her son Maninaga to poison the milk. A female frog resident in their ashram notices this and jumps into the vessel of milk to save the sages. By their curse, she turns into a kanya whom they name Vengavati and affiance to Vali. He, however, has sexual intercourse with her before marriage and she becomes pregnant. Ravana asks the hermits for her hand. When they refuse, he assumes Vali’s form (like Indra with Ahalya) and spirits her away. Pulled in opposite directions by Ravana and Vali, she splits into two, giving birth to Angad Yama and Vayu revive her. Thus, she is a double of Tara. Being obtained through ill means, she was named Mandodari; or perhaps she was named after the two sages who turned her from a frog into a woman.

The Ananda Ramayana account (1.9.33-57) has Vishnu create her from the sandalwood paste smeared on his body to delude Ravana into believing that she is Parvati, whom he has asked for from Shiva. According to the Ranganath Ramayana, it is Parvati who makes the doll and Shiva breathes life into it. The doll is Mandodari, whose beauty causes Parvati concern; she has Shiva turn Mandodari into a frog. When Maya begs for children, Shiva restores the frog to human form and gives her to the danava as his daughter. Like Ahalya, Tara and Draupadi, Mandodari is also ayonijasambhava, once again, not-of-woman-born.

There is an analogous myth about her origin in the Telegu Uttara Ramayana. 14 Once, when Parvati was away, Shiva had intercourse with the apsara Madhura, who came to Kailash to worship him. On her return, Parvati turned Madhura into a frog. After twelve years, by Shiva’s grace, the frog took the form of Mandodari who was adopted by Maya and Hema and became the wife of Ravana. “The sperm of Shiva which remained dormant in the womb of Mandodari when she was a frog began to develop, and finally gave birth to Indrajit. Thus, the so-called son of Ravana – Indrajit of Lanka – was an intelligence son [sic] of Shiva.”15

Here we find another clue to the reason behind her name. Desiraju Hanumanta Rao, translating and commenting on the epic, writes, “When Shurpanakha was claiming herself a befitting female for Rama, and belittling Seetha she uses words like krishodari, shaatodari meaning “a female with feeble womb”. So also manda udari “slow, womb…lady with slow conception…” Mandodari gives birth to one Indrajit, son of Ravana, an extraordinary fighter, and all-conquering warrior. Had Mandodari given birth to one or two more Indrajits, a dozen Ramas have to take incarnation.”16

In Rajasthan, the Sri Alvar Tirth of the Jains celebrates the power of Mandodari’s chastity:

“Ravana, the king of Lanka observed the vow of taking meals only after worshipping God. Once he was going in a plane [sic] to a foreign country. When it was time for lunch, he landed near Alvar to take a rest. He remembered the vow of worshipping God but he had forgotten to bring the idol with him. In order to keep the vow, Mandodari made an idol of sand and invested it with life by reciting the mantra of Namaskar. Having worshipped God with devotion, Ravan and Mandodari kept their vow. By virtue of the vow and Mandodari’s chastity, the presiding deity made the idol adamantine. Thus, the idol of Parshvanathji worshipped by Mandodari and Ravan began to be known as ‘Shri Ravan Parshvanath.’ ”17

Not Her Husband’s Shadow: Mandodari’s importance for Ravana is highlighted in certain recensions which describe Ravana performing a sacrifice after his son Indrajit’s death. Vibhishana advises Rama to prevent him from completing the ritual. When Hanuman fails to disturb Ravana’s meditation, Angada drags Mandodari by her hair to Ravana, tearing off her bodice and girdle so that her skirt slips. Upbraiding her husband for shamelessly countenancing all this, she exclaims that such a husband was better dead and calls on her dead son to protect her honour. That arouses Ravana who attacks Angada to free his wife, leaving the ritual incomplete and sealing his fate. 18

The Khmer Ramakerti account has Hanuman snatch away Mandodari’s clothes to break Ravana’s meditation. The Thai Ramakien provides a fascinating parallel with the Ahalya story and the myth of Vishnu assuming Shankhachuda or Jalandhar’s form to seduce his wife Tulsi. According to this telling, Mandodari had learnt the secret of preparing amrita from Uma. Assuming Ravana’s form, Hanuman embraces her. By thus sullying her purity, her sanjivani yajna, performed to make her husband immortal, is rendered fruitless. 19

Like Tara, Mandodari accepts Vibhishana, her husband’s enemy and brother, as spouse, either at Rama’s behest or because it was the custom among non-Aryans for a new ruler to wed an enthroned queen. In the Mahabharata, the rakshashi Hidimba has no hesitation in pursuing her desire for Bhima, who has just killed her brother, and she even has a son by him. In the Mahanataka, when Mandodari asks Rama what her fate will be after the war and the death of her husband, he prohibits her from committing sati and advises her to rule by Vibhishana’s side. The Bengali Krittibas Ramayan, the Oriya Balaramdas Ramayan, the Thai Ramkien and the Mahari dance composition all refer to Mandodari marrying Vibhishana.20 Vernacular versions of the epic have Mandodari curse Sita that she will be abandoned by her husband, complementing Tara’s curse on Rama.

The Adbhut Ramayana (canto 8) provides more insight. Ravana had stored blood drawn from ascetics in a pot and kept it with Mandodari, telling her that it contained deadly poison. Furious with his violating women during his conquests, she broke his injunction not to drink from the pot. By doing what she felt moved to do, Mandodari shows she is not her husband’s shadow. The consequence is that she becomes pregnant, and, like Satyavati and Kunti later, discards the newborn infant in the field Janaka ploughs to discover the orphan Sita.21 This is perhaps the reason why we see Hanuman in the Sundara Kanda of the Ramayana mistaking Mandodari (“resplendent in bejewelled ornaments, fair, golden complexioned, beautiful, mistress of the royal inner apartments, embellishing the palace with her loveliness”) for Sita in Ravana’s palace.

Tara and Mandodari are parallels. Both offer sound advice to their husbands who recklessly reject it and suffer the ultimate 1 responsible for the deaths of their husbands. Thereby, they are able to keep their kingdoms strong and prosperous as allies of Ayodhya, and they are able to continue to have a say in governance. Tara and Mandodari can never be described as shadows of such strong personalities as Vali and Ravana.

To be continued

The author has written 22 books and numerous papers on Indology and Comparative Mythology. He is a Principal Secretary to the Govt. of West Bengal and International HRD Fellow, Manchester University.



  1. “Ahinik Sutravali”, cf. Bharatiya Sanskriti Kosh by Liladhar Sharma ‘Parvatiya’, (Delhi: Rajpal & Sons, 2nd edition, 1996) p. 502. Sharma also cites the Brahmanda Purana, 3.7.219, but has not seen it himself (personal communication). The verse was not found in the editions of this Purana available in Calcutta. Sudhirchandra Sarkar’s Pauranik Abhidhan (Calcutta: M.C. Sarkar & Sons, 1963) has an entry on “Panchakanya” (p.287) giving these five names. This shloka forms part of Orissa’s dying Mahari dance composition, kept alive by Padma Sri Guru Pankaj Charan Das, his disciple Dr. Ratna Roy and Ritha Devi. The Guru told Dr. Roy that the text was by Ratnakar Bandhu (personal communication). Dr. Jan E.M. Houben notes ( cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0302&L=indology& D=1&F=P&O=D&P=8493) a similar sloka in the Brahmavaivarta Purana, Prakriti khanda (16.68), celebrating famous women as emanations of the goddesses Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Durga, Savitri, Radhika, etcetera. All these are aspects of the supreme Prakriti herself, not created by Brahma, and they are the cause of all that is auspicious. Three of the five kanyas (Ahalya, Tara, Mandodari) are mentioned here, along with Arundhati, Mena, Damayanti, Vedavati, Ganga and Yamuna (Manasa in the Bengal recension) – Ahalyarundhati mena tara mandodari para Damayanti vedavati ganga ca manasa tatha.
  2. Ramayana: Adi Kanda 48.15-34 (Aryashastra recension, Kolkata 1964) also known as Bala Kanda. Brahma Purana 87.7 specifically mentions puberty as the time when Ahalya is to be returned to Brahma
  3. Ramayana: Uttara Kanda 30.46. In Harivamsa 31. 31-34 she is one of the twins (king Divodasa being the other) born to Vadhryashva and Menaka. Vadhryashya is the son of Maudgalya who is one of the five sons of Vahyashva after whom the kingdom was named “Panchala”. There is no encounter with Indra in this story, nor is Menaka called an apsara, so this must be another Ahalya.
  4. Ramayana: Uttara Kanda 30. Also Brahma Purana 87.44, 62 where Ahalya cites the ashram guards as witnesses that Indra deceived her by assuming the sage’s form and therefore she is not at fault.
  5. Brahma Purana, canto 87 (Aryashastra recension, Calcutta, 1983)
  6. Shiva Purana, 4.25-27 summarised by W.D. O’Flaherty in The Origins of Evil in Hindu mythology (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988) p. 298.
  7. Somadeva’s Katha Sarit Sagara, Taranga 17 translated by V. Balasubrahmanyam (Calcutta: M.P. Birla Foundation, 1994), p.113.
  8. Chandra Rajan: Re-visions (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1987) p. 12.
  9. Not to be confused with Tara, wife of Brihaspati, preceptor of the gods who elopes with his disciple Chandra, or with Taramati, wife of king Harishchandra in some Puranas and an example of a sati.
  10. h t t p : / / w w w . m u r n i s . c o m / Valinesedances.htm
  11. op.cit. p.469.
  12. Parts III and IV of Guru Pankaj Charan Das’ repertoire presented by Dr. Ratna Roy. She states that the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether – represent the five virtuous women ( panchakanya.htm) and that the emphasis is on the purity of these women because they did not break any humanistic codes, only the strictures of an orthodox patriarchal society. Rama sanctifies Ahalya, Tara and Mandodari at the climactic moment of the dance drama
  13. Fr. Camille Bulcke: Ramkatha—utpatti aur vikas (Hindi Parishad Prakashan, Prayag Vishvavidyalay, 3rd edition., 1971), pp. 636-7
  14. Vettam Mani: Puranic Encyclopaedia (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975) p. 476
  15. Dr. Abraham Kovoor: Gods, Demons and Spirits, quoted ~gk1415/amorous-gods-andgoddesses.htm
  16. sarga58/kishkindha_58_prose.htm However, Vettam Mani’s Puranic Encylopaedia states on p. 476 that Mandodari has 3 sons: Meghanada, Atikaya and Akshakumar
  17. This ancient temple survived till the fifteenth century. The new temple was built in the year 1654 of the Vikram era, and the idol was reinstalled in the year 1983 of the Vikram era. Ravan Parshvanath is mentioned in many ancient scriptures and tirthmalas written from 1422 to 1689 of the Vikram era.
  18. Adhyatma Ramayana 6.10. Bulcke op.cit. (p. 579) refers to the Telegu Dvipada Ramayana 6.133-135, Ananda Ramayana 1.11.229, Padma Purana Uttara khanda, canto 269 as having the incident as well.
  19. Bulcke ibid
  20. Bulcke op.cit. p. 540; S.D. Singh, Polyandry in Ancient India (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978) p. 141. Dr. Ratna Roy writes that, in Part X of the Mahari Panchakanya dance: “In celebration of his victory, Rama places Bibhisana, Ravana’s brother, on the throne of Lanka and blesses Mandodari as his bride and queen, virtuous in spite of her second marriage.”
  21. Bulcke (p.362-4) provides several references to Jain versions and the Mahabhagavata Purana canto 42 that tell of Sita as the daughter of Mandodari.
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