Hanūmān looked for Sītā everywhere in the vicinity of the palace. He searched the creeper-covered pavilions, picture galleries, and night rooms, but was unable to find her. He fell into despair and thought, ‘Sītā must have been killed by the rākṣasa or must have died of his torture. What will I tell the vānaras? Well, dauntless self-reliance is the root of all success and is the gateway to happiness. I shall make another determined effort with unwavering zeal to find Sītā!’ He searched the underground passages, vedikās, and caityas, but was still unable to find her. Disheartened once again, he said to himself, ‘I have turned Laṅkā upside down searching for Sītā, for the sake of Rāma. Though Sampāti said that she Sītā was in Rāvaṇa’s house, I am not able to find her. She perhaps must have fallen when the rākṣasa was carrying her in the air; or her heart might have collapsed when she saw the vast ocean from that height; or perhaps, she was eaten by the cruel Rāvaṇa, as she tried to protect herself; or, she must be locked up in some corner of Rāvaṇa’s palace, like a helpless bird in a cage. If I convey this unpleasant news to Rāma, he will surely not survive; with his brother gone, Lakṣmaṇa will give up his life as well. When Bharata hears about this, he will die and so will Satrughna. With their sons gone, Kausalyā, Sumitrā, and Kaikeyī will not wish to live a moment longer. Upon seeing his dear friend in such a state, Sugrīva will die, and will be followed on the path by Rumā as well as Tārā, who is already lamenting for Vālī. That will surely be the end of Aṅgada. All vānaras will end their lives by jumping off huge mountains. With its heroes gone, the Ikṣvāku lineage will get destroyed. I cannot face Sugrīva without finding Maithilī. As long as I don’t go there, the two brothers and the vānaras will live on hope. If I cannot find the daughter of Janaka, I will begin my vānaprastha, controlling my senses and eating only what falls into my hands and mouth. I will erect a citā, kindle a fire, and walk into it. Or, I will let crows, foxes, and dogs devour my body as I sit in samādhi; or, there is yet another method granted for giving up one’s life – I will enter water. Well, death results in further tragedies; being alive, a man can achieve something invaluable. I must remain alive. Or, I can kill Rāvaṇa right away; that way, I would have at least taken vengeance for his wicked deed. Let me search that large grove of aśoka trees. Salutations to Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, Sītā, Rudra, Anila, Sūrya, and Candra. I will assume a very small size and enter the aśoka-vana, which is protected by many rākṣasas.’
Hanūmān then leapt from Rāvaṇa’s palace on to the wall of the aśoka-vana. The grove was filled with many kinds of trees that were blossoming to fruit and flower. As he searched for Sītā, the vānara startled birds that had been peacefully sleeping. The birds flew away, striking the trees with their wings and flowers of every colour showered down from the trees. Hanūmān, who was thus, fully covered in colourful blossoms sped around the grove and the creatures there thought he was Vasanta incarnate! Shaken by the vānara, the trees shed off their leaves and flowers and stood with their naked branches spread out; the entire grove looked like a young woman with dishevelled hair, her makeup smudged, her lips bruised with kisses, and her body bearing the marks of nails and teeth. The grove was full of various kinds of pathways, fields, and ponds filled with various kinds of flowers. It also had a tall mountain and a stream flowed down from it like a beloved woman who was throwing herself down from her beloved’s lap out of anger. The trees on either side of the stream with their branches immersed in it, looked like close friends who were trying to refrain the woman. The vānara watched the stream as it flowed back to the mountain, like a woman graciously returning to her lover, who had propitiated her. There were many golden trees and platforms there; due to their reflected radiance, Hanūmān, for a moment, thought, ‘I am all gold!’
He spotted a śiṃśapā tree, climbed over it and spotted a stream nearby. He hoped that Sītā would come there for performing her sandhyā-vandana. He could see hundreds of aśoka trees, some shining like gold, others like flames of fire, and yet others like black collyrium. He suddenly spotted a gracious young woman, clad in soiled garments, and surrounded by rākṣasīs. She looked emancipated and was sighing again and again. With beauty now only faintly visible, she looked like fire covered by thick smoke. She looked like a doe that has strayed away from her herd and is attacked by a pack of hounds. Her hair was tied in a single plait that reached down her back.
Looking at her closely, Hanūmān reasoned from the visible signs, ‘She must be Sītā! She looks exactly like the lady I saw earlier, being carried off by the rākṣasa.’ Her face was like the full moon; she had lovely eyebrows, rounded breasts, jet black hair, and eyes like lotus petals. Sighing constantly out of sadness, she looked like blurred memory or lost fortune. She was like good reputation, kīrti, blemished by false accusations, apavādas. Her face was covered with tears. Hanūmān grew slightly uncertain, for she was barely discernible, like a branch of knowledge that is not rooted in the Vedas. Sītā, who was wore no ornaments, was recognised with great difficulty by Hanūmān just like an utterance that is not cultured by grammar is hard to understand. After much thought and reasoning, he decided that it was Sītā.
He recognised the ornaments on Vaidehī’s body. They were just as Rāma had described them. He recognised her earrings, śva-draṃṣṭras (‘dog’s teeth’) and jewellery on her hands, though they had blackened with long use. He decided, ‘This must be Rāma’s beloved, who, though lost, has never been absent from his heart. It is for her, that Rāma grieves and his misery is fourfold: because of pity, kindness, grief, and love – pity for a woman in distress, kindness to one who trusted him, grief because his wife is lost, and love because his dearest is gone. In the structure of her body and the beauty of very limb, this lady and Rāma are perfectly matched. Thus, she must be Rāma’s wife. Her heart is firmly lodged in his and his in hers; it is only for this reason, the two have been able to survive even for a moment.’ Having thus discovered Sītā, Hanūmān fixed his mind on Rāma and extolled him.
He turned pensive for a while, thinking, ‘If even Sītā, who is worthy of all esteem and is so dear to Rāma, is subject to such terrible suffering, kālo hi duratikramaḥ – the power of time is, indeed, inescapable. She is not unduly perturbed as she knows by heart the firm resolve of Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa. Rāghava is a worthy husband for Vaidehī and she is the only lady worthy of him, as they are perfectly matched in character, age, conduct, and ancestry. It is for her sake, Virādha, Khara, Dūṣaṇa, Triśiras and many other rākṣasas were slain; it is because of her, Vālī was slain and Sugrīva acquired the kingdom. It is for the sake of this beautiful and noble lady that I crossed over the ocean. If Rāma would turn the entire world, nay the entire universe, upside down for her sake, it would be well justified. This daughter of Janaka, daughter-in-law of Daśaratha, and illustrious wife of Rāma, left behind all her luxuries driven only by her intense love for her husband. Now devoid of all pleasures and constantly tormented, she holds on to her life only with the hope of reunion with Rāma. The husband is truly a wife’s supreme ornament; lacking him, she does not shine as she should. My heart is in deep pain looking at her sorrowful state. These aśoka trees only intensify her śoka – sorrow!’
At a short distance from Sītā, who was sinking down by grief like a ship loaded with excess cargo, Hanūmān saw innumerable frightful rākṣasīs. Some possessed one eye, and others one ear; there was a rākṣasī, whose ears covered her entire body; one was bald and another had her nose on her forehead; one’s lips protruded and another had yellow eyes. Some possessed only one hand and others only one foot. Some had crooked noses and others had noses without nostrils. Some had long tongues and others long nails. A few dreadful rākṣasīs had faces of goats, elephants, cows, horses, and donkeys. Their terrible looking bodies were smeared with flesh and blood and Hanūmān’s hairs stood on end looking at them. The rākṣasīs sat around the huge trunk of a tree and constantly drank liquor and ate raw flesh. Beneath the massive tree, Hanūmān spotted the daughter of Janaka. Bereft of all material ornamentation, her love for her husband was her only ornament. She was in the middle of the aśoka-vana, drowned in śoka-sāgara – an ocean of sorrow. Sītā was confident in her husband’s prowess and was protected by her own śīlā – virtuous character. She was like the distilled essence of all sorrows. Gazing at her, Hanūmān shed tears.
It was almost the end of the night by the time he found Vaidehī. Early next morning, he heard the chanting of the vedas by the brahma-rākṣasas, i.e., brāhmaṇas among rākṣasas, who were also well versed in the six vedāṅgas. Rāvaṇa woke up at the usual hour to the auspicious musical instruments and immediately thought of Vaidehī. Unable to contain his passion, he rushed to the aśoka-vana accompanied by hundreds of women, who held lamps, fans, and drinks. Hanūmān first heard the tinkling ornaments of the women and then spotted the mighty Rāvaṇa. Vaidehī spotted Rāvaṇa too and started trembling. She was like blemished reputation, betrayed trust, decayed wisdom, and shattered hope. She was like a lotus pond destroyed by elephants, its lotuses and leaves torn apart, and its birds frightened away. She joined her hands as though praying to a deity for the defeat of Rāvaṇa at the hands of Rāma.
Rāvaṇa spoke sweet words to her: “Looking at me, O beautiful one, you hide your breasts and stomach as though to make yourself invisible. There is no one else here, please favour me. It is the svadharma of rākṣasas to make love to women married to other men, but I will never touch you unless you desire it, devi. It is only fitting for you to be decked with jewels. Be my wife – you will be my chief queen. No one can defeat me in battle and even the devas and asuras tremble before me. Of what use is Rāma, who lives in the forest wearing matted locks of hair? He might even be dead by now. Unlike Hiraṇyakaśipu, who got his wife back from Indra’s clutches, Rāma will never be able to get you back from me. From the time I saw you, I have lost taste in my other wives. Come, provide me delight and find delight in me!”
Sītā replied in a soft, sorrowful voice, “Give up your hankering for me and give your love to your own women. I cannot be yours, being the chaste wife of another man. If a king’s mind is not under his control, even great empires get ruined. Your glorious city of Laṅkā will soon be destroyed too, because of your misconduct. You cannot seduce me with your wealth; I am inseparable from Rāghava, just as brilliance is inseparable from the Sun. Let me go back to Rāghava, or you will soon see yourself and your rākṣasas dying to his arrows!”
In reply to her, Rāvaṇa spoke these unpleasant words, “However much a man tries to pacify a woman, the more humiliated he gets. The love you rouse in me, restrains my anger; it is only because of my desire, I have compassion for you and don’t kill you for your harsh reproach, Maithilī! I will wait for two months, as promised and by then, you must go to bed with me. If not, I will slaughter you in the kitchen and consume you for breakfast!”
Looking at Vaidehī, who was thus threatened, the daughters of devas and gandharvas who were with Rāvaṇa, tried to console her with the movements of their lips, gestures of their eyes, and faces. Thus encouraged by them, Sītā answered him with renewed spirit, “Wretched man! Somebody should restrain you from this disgusting behaviour. How is it that your eyes don’t fall to the ground as you eye me and your tongue doesn’t shrivel as you speak to me! Only because Rāma has not yet commanded me to do so and in order to protect the power of my tapas, I have not reduced you to ashes with my own blazing power.”
His eyes red with anger, Rāvaṇa glared at Sītā and commanded the rākṣasīs to use all possible means – gentle and harsh, to make her compliant to his wishes. By then, rākṣasī named Dhānyamālinī enticed Rāvaṇa towards her and the rākṣasa left the place with his retinue.
The rākṣasīs then swarmed around Sītā and spoke harsh words, trying to convince her to yield to Rāvaṇa. Sītā, with her eyes welling up with tears retorted, “You may all tear me apart and consume me, but I will never do what you say. Whether he be poor or banished from the kingdom, my husband is my master!” The rākṣasīs were enraged; constantly licking their lips with their flaming tongues, the rākṣasī menacingly crowded around Sītā, holding battle-axes. Some tried to convince her softly, the others used harsh words. Sītā shed tears and lamented, “O Rāma! Lakṣmaṇa, Kausalyā, Sumitrā! It seems like it is impossible to die before the predestined time. It is indeed a curse upon me that I have survived without Rāma even for a moment. I cannot endure this suffering any longer. I would not even touch Rāvaṇa with my left foot, let alone fall in love with the wretched creature. Rāghava will surely come here in no time and reduce the entire city of Laṅkā into a cremation ground. Or has Rāvaṇa already killed the divine brothers through some trick? Blessed indeed are the seers, who have their senses under their control and are unperturbed by joys and sorrows! Fallen here in the clutches of Rāvaṇa, I will end my life!” Enraged, some rākṣasīs went to report Sītā’s behaviour to Rāvaṇa, while others continued to threaten her.
Seeing the vile rākṣasīs who were intimidating Sītā thus, an old rākṣasī named Trijaṭā, who had been asleep, derided them. “Eat your own flesh, you wretched creatures. You shall not eat Sītā, the daughter-in-law of Daśaratha. I had a frightful dream just now which gave me goosebumps. I saw Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa riding in a celestial carriage, made from ivory, and pulled by a thousand horses through the sky. Sītā stood on top of the Mount Śveta, dressed in white garments, and she was united with Rāma. The brothers had mounted a giant, white elephant which had four tusks and escorted Sītā upon it. Then, the splendid woman stroked the Sun and the Moon with her hand. The elephant that bore them, stood high above the city of Laṅkā. I also saw Rāvaṇa, who had fallen from the Puṣpaka-vimāna, was clad in dark garments and his head was shaved. He was being drawn by a woman and then he was traveling towards the South in a chariot drawn by donkeys. He was plunging into a pool of mud. I then saw Daśagrīva riding on a boar, Indrajit on a śiśumāra, and Kumbhakarṇa on a camel, heading towards the South. I saw the dazzling city of Laṅkā with its gopuras and toraṇas crumbling into the ocean. All rākṣasīs were clad in red garments and were drinking oil, dancing, and laughing loudly. Kumbhakarṇa and all other rākṣasas were clad in red and were drowning in a pool of cow-dung. So, run away! Rāghava will soon recover Sītā by destroying the city of Laṅkā and killing all the rākṣasas. Only if you fall at Maithilī’s feet, will she save you from danger; if not, you will die soon. Look, Sītā’s eye is throbbing, indicating the fulfilment of her desire. Her left arm and thigh are throbbing too! The bird on the top of the tree sings sweetly as though to utter warm words of welcome.”
To be continued...
[The critically constituted text and the critical edition published by the Oriental Institute, Vadodara is the primary source. In addition, the Kannada rendering of the epic by Mahāmahopādhyāya Sri. N. Ranganatha Sharma and the English translation by Sri. N. Raghunathan have been referred.]
 When Hanūmān narrates his journey to Laṅkā to the other vānaras, he says Mandodarī enticed Rāvaṇa to go with her. (Sundara-kāṇḍa, sarga 56, verses 66–68)