Leaf from the Shangri Ramayana.
Valmiki Ramayana gives an action-filled narrative of the combat between Ravana and Jatayau, the king of Eagles, in the chapter Aranya Khanda. The battle ensues when the mighty king Ravana of Lanka is abducting Sita the wife of prince Rama of Ayodha who is living in exile in the forest with his wife Sita and younger brother Lakshman. Hearing Sita’s cries for help, Jatayu attempts to protect Sita.
Jatayu first tries to appeal to Ravana’s sense of duty and righteousness as a king, asking him to refrain from such a deplorable act that would sully his name as a king. When Ravana is not dissuaded, combat between the two ensues. Jatayu attacks Ravana with his claws, wings and beak inflicting many wounds on his body. He shatters Ravana's bows, arrows, and chariot, kills the mules of the chariot and plucks off the head of the charioteer with his beak. An enraged Ravana severs Jatayu’s wings, feet, and sides, leaving the valiant Jatayu to die in abject pain.
The painter chooses to interpret the scene in marked variance to the description in the Valmiki Ramayana. The moment of depiction chosen is not the gripping narrative of the combat in the sky which is described in it happening between “two gigantic clouds heaved by the tornadic gusts”. [3-51-2]
The painter situates the action firmly on the ground, a thin strip of the blue at the top of the page marking out the horizon. It is a moment of contemplative assessment of the situation amidst the combat. Jatayu has already lashed out against Ravana, whose mules are depicted in a mutilated heap on the ground, charioteer dead and chariot broken.
Confronting each other as formidable foes, the mighty Ravana stands arrayed with weapons in his twenty hands, in readiness for the next attack. A diminutive looking Sita expresses her anxiety over the outcome of the combat, with a hand gesture expressing her astonishment. The gesture is repeated by two of the three sages at the top left who are witness to the spectacular fight.
Although Jatayu is eventually defeated and killed by Ravana, the sympathies of the painter are clearly with the courageous bird, which is portrayed as an enormous figure dominating the picture frame. The bird’s profile is majestically rendered with his sharp beak, deadly talons and a steady gaze focussed on his enemy. In comparison, the many-headed Ravana, with his multiple arms, is depicted as less imposing and assumes a somewhat defensive stance.