The painting represents an episode from the Rama-katha related to the worship of Shiva by Rama during his battle against Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, before he killed the latter. Though the Valmiki’s Ramayana and Tulsidasa’s Ramacharita Manasa do not allude to Rama worshipping Shiva, in later Rama-katha texts, Bengali Ramayana and others, and in popular tradition it is a firmly set belief that Rama worshipped Shiva as Shiva-ling and propitiated him before he was able to kill Ravana. The tradition is not without logistics. Ravana was a stout devotee of Shiva and had in him some of Shiva’s ‘shaktis’ that Shiva had bestowed upon him. Obviously, unless Rama appeased Shiva and Shiva withdrew or rendered ineffective his ‘shaktis’ Rama would not be able to kill Ravana. Hence, he is said to have installed on the sea-shore itself, where his army camped, an earthen Shiva-ling and worshipped Shiva as ‘ling’.
Whatever its sources, the legend relates purely to performing a simple and pure ritual; however, this Madhubani canvas has completely dramatised it by adding to it the colours of man’s world not merely by transforming Shiva-ling into humanised forms of Shiva and Parvati : ‘ling’, into Shiva, and the Shiva-ling’s female aspect ‘yoni’, into Parvati, or by alternating iconic worship with face-to-face interaction, but also by representing the psyches of different characters. The all-knowing Shiva was not unaware of Rama’s errand but with a soft corner for his most stout devotee who was Ravana he could not easily concede Rama’s prayer. His reluctance has been portrayed in his posture : seated with his back turned towards Rama and continuing with his penance. Shiva’s ambassador or by her own, a polite and courteous Parvati receives Rama and Lakshmana, as suggests the gesture of her arms, with full respect. An humble Rama has his hands folded in full respect, however Lakshmana, in tune to his nature, holds an arrow in his right hand and does not have either on his face or in the gesture of hands any signs of humility or respect for Parvati or Shiva.
Madhubani artists portray the likenesses of their figures by some prominent symbols associated with a particular figure. In this visualisation Manju Devi has portrayed the figure of Lord Shiva with just normal two arms but has prominently used trident, double-drum and numerous snakes around his figure, and the lion-skin he is seated on, for determining his identity. While exceptional beauty and grace define the figure of Parvati, for defining the identities of Rama and Lakshmana she has used the symbols of bows and quivers they are carrying on their left and the marks of Vaishnava on their foreheads.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.