Agni Pareeksha: Sita's ordeal

A scene from the Ramayana, the Indian epic that follows Prince Rama's quest to rescue his beloved wife from the demon King Ravana

By National Museum - New Delhi

Agni-Pariksha - The fire ordeal of Sita (Late 18th Century) by The first generation of artists of the family after the master artists Manaku and Nainsukh of GulerNational Museum - New Delhi

In many cultures of the ancient world in Asia and Europe, it was believed that the innocence of the accused could be demonstrated if they survived an extreme ordeal such as burning or drowning.

In some versions of the Ramayana, lotus flowers are said to have sprouted below Sita’s feet to protect her from the blazing flames during her trial.

In the Valmiki Ramayana, however, Sita is protected by the god of fire Agni himself, as the gods and celestial beings are aware of her chastity and the purity of her heart.

This folio, from the late 18th Century, belongs to the Guler Ramayana, and is attributed to the first generation of artists of the family after the master artists Manaku and Nainsukh.

The painting is rendered in a style with naturalistic yet lyrical and delicate. The human figures have idealised faces with well-modelled angular faces characteristic of the Guler style; the faces small with slightly upturned noses.

The brushwork is masterly with delicate and exquisite detailing of the folds of the clothes, jewellery and hair or fur of each figure.. well as the fineness with which the leaves of the foliage and elements of the landscape are delineated.

After being separated from his wife Sita for many years during her capture by the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, Rama is unsure of her fidelity and voices his suspicion.

The artist weaves a continuous narrative to illustrate the unfolding of the story. On the right of the painting, Sita is depicted as undergoing her extreme test - she is sitting upon a pyre engulfed in flames.

Hurt by these allegations of disloyalty when she had been steadfastly devoted to Rama, Sita willingly undergoes a trial by fire to prove that she is chaste.

This spectacle of Sita having entered the flames is watched with rapt anticipation by a plethora of beings..

..gods and celestial beings who hover in the sky in their gold-encrusted sedans..

..and men and animals - largely made up of the monkey army.

In the middle foreground the fire-god Agni himself appears in person from the burning pyre, carrying Sita in his arms, protecting her from his fiery wrath and restores her to Rama, testifying to her purity.

Her ‘honour’ restored, Rama joyfully accepts Sita, and on the left foreground Rama and Sita sit together..

..surrounded by a crowd of gods, celestials, humans and animals who bow to Rama and Sita.

Her victory over fire is commemorated as a miraculous feat and celestials come down to worship her..

..and the God of Creation, the four-headed Brahma, and the God of Destruction Shiva, wearing a leopard skin around his waist and a snake coiled around his neck, his ash-smeared body rendered in a pale colour, descend from the heavens to bless Rama and Sita.

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