The Aranya Kanda, the third book of the Ramayana, known as the forest section, narrates the story of how Rama, Lakshmana and Sita started their life in the Dandaka forest where they were to spend ten years in exile, moving from one hermitage to another.
The demon Ravana kidnaps Sita and imprisons her in his kingdom of Lanka. Finding Sita gone, Rama’s anguish was intolerable. While wandering around looking for her, he met Jatayu, the king of the vultures, who had been mortally wounded by Ravana in defence of Sita. He told Rama that Sita had been abducted by Ravana.
Towards the end of the Aranya Kanda, we read that one day, in their search for Sita, Rama and Lakshmana entered thick woodlands and met a gigantic monster, the huge and hideous rakshasa Kabandha. Without a head or neck, his face was set in his belly and he was covered with bristling hairs. His single terrible eye with its thick lid opened on his chest, and his mouth had fangs and lips, which he licked continuously. The ogre grabbed Rama and Lakshmana with his huge arms, holding them with all his might. In great distress, the two brothers managed to cut his arms off at the shoulders with their swords.
Figure 1. Rama and Lakshmana Killing Kabandha, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. Here we see the killing of Kabandha, with Rama and Lakshmana brandishing swords to sever the monster’s arms. In this schematic representation the huge and hideous rakshasa Kabandha resembles a demon kala, with decorative vegetal scrolls sprouting from his head.
You can find this carving on the base of a pilaster on the central sanctuary, on the southern side of the western portico, at Banteay Samre Temple.
Mortally wounded, Kabandha revealed that he was Danu (a danava, a sort of good asura) who, having defied Indra, had been condemned to assume such a hideous shape until Rama would sever his arms. Ever since, he had been wandering in the forest waiting for Rama.
Having told his story, Kabandha tells Rama that if he would put an end to his life and cremate him performing thus a consecration by fire, in a pact of friendship Kabandha will tell them who is acquainted with Ravana. The two brothers proceed to conduct the ogre’s ceremonial cremation. When Kabandha, freed from his horrible body, is rising to the sky, he tells them that the only person who could help him in his search for Sita was the mighty Sugriva, king of the monkey tribe. Exiled by his brother Valin, he was currently wandering on Mount Rishyamuka. Kabandha suggested that Rama should hurry to meet him and conclude an alliance.
Figure 2. Rama and Lakshmana Killing Kabandha, Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia. Here we see the scene depicted on a flat-shaped pediment over the lintel of the southern portico of the northwestern corner pavilion of Angkor Wat. Rama and Lakshmana are suspended from the ground by the long arms of the hideous Kabandha. You can see a larger version of this image by clicking here ⧉.
In Figure 2 we see the narrative depicted in a single register. At the centre is the large hideous face of the ogre Kabandha protruding from a body with two robust arms. The body itself seems to emerge from the ground at the level of the shoulders. The face has two large eyes, a nose like a short tusk, a very large mouth touching the ears, with massive teeth and a pendulous tongue. The ears are pointed and the entire head is covered with thick bristles or scales which, at the top, are grouped in a large chignon. His two large arms grasp Rama and Lakshmana by their waists, pulling them towards his mouth to devour them.
Rama and Lakshmana are almost identical here, the Ramayana text stipulates that Rama is on the monster’s right, enabling him to cut off his right arm. They are both holding their swords high to release terrible blows on the monster’s arms. With their other hands they grab the monster by the ribbon which keeps his hair together in a tuft. One each of the two brothers’ legs is held within the monster’s mouth.
At either side are two seated figures, kneeling in profile with arms upraised in prayer. They are ascetics, judging from the small goatee and high chignon, probably belonging to the nearby hermitage of Matanga. The scene is set in a dense forest, there is a fruit tree behind Rama, and a branching tree just behind Kabandha’s head that looks as if it is part of him. In the foreground, small animals graze in the forest.
In Khmer reliefs, Kabandha does not have the exact features described in the Valmiki Ramayana text, but rather resembles the other gigantic monsters like Viradha. The latter is described as having, besides a huge mouth and pointed ears, featured in the relief, sunken eyes and a deformed belly. Thus, none of the identifying characteristics of either monster are rendered literally in the reliefs. If the depiction of the heads is not, therefore, a dependable criterion to define who is who in the reliefs, one has to refer to the action taking place; the monster is Kabandha when he is represented with Rama and Lakshmana brandishing swords to sever his arms, and he is Viradha when the two heroes pierce him with their lethal arrows.
Valmiki frames the third book of the Ramayana epic (Aranya Kanda) with two symmetrical episodes in which Rama confronts monsters, first Viradha (chapters 1-3) and later Kabandha (chapters 65-69). Both are characterisations of the ugly traits of the rakshasas. However, these two demons are not really rakshasas because they live permanently in the forest, in isolation, and not in groups. As is common in the Ramayana, their physical deformity reflects moral depravity, stressing a symbolic correlation between physical and moral qualities. In reality both are relatively benign celestial beings, cursed with a monstrous form as a result of moral transgression. Tumburu became Viradha by neglecting his duties towards Kubera by overindulging in sexual pleasures, and Danu (a danava, a sort of good asura) became Kabandha by arrogantly attacking Indra. They are fallen creatures who can be liberated only by the spiritual sword of the god-king Rama. Since their hatred and violence is directed essentially against the brahmins, they take it out against the brahmins’ protector, Rama.
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