Battle of Lanka

Battle of Lanka: Monkeys (Vanaras) versus Demons (Rakshasas).  Angkorian artists of the 12th century A.D. loved to depict the legendary Battle of Lanka described in the great Hindu epics Ramayana and MahabharataRavana, the hubristic ten-headed king of the Rakshasas (a race of terrestrial demons renowned for their ferocity in combat as well as their mastery of mirage and illusion), had kidnapped Sita, the beautiful and loyal wife of Rama (the human incarnation of Vishnu), and had abducted her to his island fortress at Lanka.  Aided by his brother Lakshmana, by Ravana’s brother Vibhishana, who had defected to the cause of righteousness, and by Sugriva, the king of the Vanaras or monkeys, Rama crossed the ocean and laid seige to Lanka.  A tremendous battle ensued, pitting Sugriva’s swarming army of monkeys (supported by an auxiliary troop of bears) against Ravana’s force of demons.  In the end, Rama slew Ravana, defeated his army, and liberated Sita.

Angkorian artists depicted the Battle of Lanka in bas reliefs carved into stone.  Notable depictions of the battle include the following:

  • A vast and masterful carving in the famous outer gallery at Angkor Wat, the great temple to Vishnu completed somewhere around the middle of the 12th century, illustrates in epic proportions the melee of battle as well as the legendary heroes that fought on the two sides.  Prominent in the middle of the battle are Rama, riding into battle on the shoulders of the divine monkey-giant Hanuman, and the multi-armed Ravana on a chariot drawn by lion-like monsters.  Lesser depictions of the battle may be found on other walls and pediments at Angkor Wat.  (See the photos below.)
  • A pediment at Preah Khan, a Buddhist temple of the late 12th century, features the multi-armed, multi-headed Ravana in the middle of the battle.  (Here is thelinkto a photo of the pediment posted on Wikipedia.)
  • A lintel from an unknown location in the Khmer empire, created sometime in the 12th century, is currently on display in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; it shows the demon hero Kumbhakarna in action during the battle.  (See the photos below.)
  • A number of scenes from the battle are also depicted at the 11th century royal temple called the Baphuon, the access to which is currently limited on account of ongoing restoration.

How do the depictions of Rakshasas and Vanaras in the bas reliefs of Angkor compare with their descriptions in the great epics?

The Vanaras, or monkeys

  • The Vanaras as described in the Mahabharata.  The monkey warriors in Rama’s army “were capable of splitting mountain peaks and their weapons were stones and trees of the Sala and the Tala species. And their bodies were hard as adamant, and they were possessed of very great strength. And they were all skilled in war and capable of mustering any measure of energy at will. And they were equal to a thousand elephants in might, and they resembled the wind in speed.”  The Vanaras attacking the fortress of Lanka were of “reddish complexions like those of young camels” and “complexions yellow as the ears of paddy, and grey as Shirisha flowers, and red as the rising Sun, and white as flax or hemp.”  They were of great prowess and energy.  At one point in the battle, “in consequence of those monkeys leaping up and leaping down and leaping in transverse directions, the Sun himself, his bright disc completely shaded, became invisible for the dust they raised.”
  • The Vanaras as depicted at Angkor Wat.  In the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat, the Vanaras have human bodies but the heads of monkeys.  They wear human clothing and headdresses, but eschew human weapons in favor of rocks and tree branches.  The Angkorian artists portrayed the fighting Vanaras as muscular, athletic and savage.  The decision to depict the monkey warriors as muscular is especially interesting in light of the fact that the artists of Angkor, unlike those of ancient Greece or Rome or those of modern America, were not inclined portray human warriors or even heroes as muscular.  Indeed, even images of warriors intended to look fierce, such as the dvarapalas guarding Angkorian temples, are notable for their smooth appearance and lack of muscular definition.

The Rakshasas, or demons

  • The Rakshasas as described in the Mahabharata.  The Vanaras’ opponents the Rakshasas were a humanoid race of mostly evil, cannibalistic shape-changers and illusionists.  They were “of terrible mien, and capable of assuming any form at will.”  Ravana appointed a group of female Rakshasas appointed to stand guard over the captive Sita; these fearsome amazons were “armed with bearded darts and swords and lances and battle-axes and maces and flaming brands…. And some of these had two eyes, and some three. And some had eyes on their foreheads. And some had long tongues and some had none. And some had three breasts and some had only one leg. And some had three matted braids on their heads, and some had only one eye. And these, and others of blazing eyes and hair stiff as the camel’s, stood beside Sita surrounding her day and night most watchfully.”
  • Kumbhakarna, a Rakshasa hero, as described in the Mahabharata.  As impressive as the Rakshasa rank and file undoubtedly appeared, their heroes were even more imposing.  Kumbhakarna, the gigantic brother of Ravana, was sleeping through the battle when he was awakened with news of the dire straits in which the defenders of Lanka found themselves.  Rousing himself for combat, he wreaked havoc among the monkeys and defeated the monkey king Sugriva in a duel.  The epic describes Kumbhakarna as able to assume a “form enormously huge and furnished with numerous heads and legs and arms.”  Anytime one of his limbs was chopped off, two others would grow back.  When Sugriva clubbed the Rakshasa prince over the head with the trunk of a sala tree, the demon suffered no ill effects.  Rama and his brother Lakshmana finally felled Kumbhakarna by means of a secret “Brahma weapon,” the nuclear warhead of Mahabharatan armed conflict.
  • The Rakshasas as depicted at Angkor Wat.  Perhaps surprisingly, the Rakshasas in the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat are depicted as possessing a somewhat bland, invariant and standardized appearance, with characteristic crowns (similar to those of the asuras depicted in other bas-reliefs), hairstyles, and clothing.  The diversity of forms Rakshasas were able to assume as a result of their shape-changing abilities is not represented.  Nor do the bas-reliefs give any sense of the demons’ ability to confuse and to intimidate by assuming a succession of different forms.  Angkorian Rakshasas have a decidedly human appearance, and certainly strike the onlooker as more civilized, decorous and predictable than their simian opponents.

Related pages of this site: 2 Banteay Srei (story of the monkey brothers Vali and Sugriva depicted in a stone bas-relief); 14 Angkor Wat; 17 Demons (Asuras and Rakshasas in the art of Angkor).

The temple of Anchor Wat is constructed as a three-tiered pyramid.  The lowest, outside level of the pyramid contains several hundred meters of bas-reliefs depicting mostly mythological events, including the Battle of Lanka, but also scenes from the court of the Khmer King Suryavarman II, the founder of Angkor Wat.  Here is a map of the temple identifying the locations of the various bas-reliefs, borrowed from Maurice Glaize’s Angkor Guide.

The Angkorian artists depicted the Battle of Lanka as an enormous confusing scrum.  As reported in the Mahabharata, monkeys and Rakshasas “struggled, seizing one another by the hair, and mangling and tearing one another with their nails and teeth.  [They] roared and yelled frightfully….”  At Angkor Wat, the monkeys are depicted fighting with tooth and nail, while the rather more refined-looking Rakshasas resort to hand-held weapons.

In this scene from the bas relief at Angkor Wat, monkey warriors bite their opponents or hit them with crude weapons. At the bottom of the picture, a monkey bites a demon in the face! The demons are fighting though not biting back. In the middle of the picture, a demon mounted on a horse appears poised to body slam a monkey bearing a club.  The Rakshasas do not appear to be using the powers of illusion attributed to them by the epics and folklore.

A growling monkey locks horns with a smirking demon.  The Battle of Lanka was marked by several duels between heroes from the two camps.  In one such duel, the monkey king Sugriva was on the verge of being overwhelmed by the fearsome Kumbhakarna, when Rama’s brother Lakshmana rescued him by drilling the demon through the chest with an arrow.

Somewhere in the middle of the scrum, a raging ursine ally of the monkeys bites his adversary on the hip, while the latter, his demeanor surprisingly unperturbed, prepares to retaliate with a sharp spear.  Somewhat ironically, perhaps, the Mahabharata at one point insists that the monkeys fought “in various ways approved by the laws of warfare.”

The depiction of the Rakshasas in the bas-relief about the Battle of Lanka is consistent with the depiction in another bas-relief at Angkor Wat of demons torturing those of the deceased who have been consigned to Hell.  Here is a scene in which demons abuse the deceased.  At center, a demon appears to subject his victim to a painful wrestling move.

The beloved monkey god Hanuman was the advisor and ally of Rama and Sugriva.  The artists at Angkor Wat also depicted him as Rama’s battle steed.  Here, the air is thick with arrows as Hanuman charges into combat with Rama on his shoulders.

This lintel from an unknown location in the Angkorian empire depicts the calm and supremely confident Kumbhakarna in action against a swarming hoard of Vanaras.  To the right, Sugriva frantically urges his minions against the demon prince.

This closeup shows Kumbhakarna seizing one of his simian opponents by the leg and tail, while others attempt to bit him on the elbow and torso.  The bas relief conveys the ease with which Kumbhakarna beat off the attack of the Vanaras.

King Sugriva urges his subjects against Kumbhakarna, while a couple of very worried-looking specimens cling to him for moral support.  Moments later in the action, Kumbhakarna would seize the monkey king and attempt to carry him off.

In another detail from the bas relief, a valiant monkey warrior clambers onto Kumhakarna’s thigh and attempts to bit him in the side.  This lintel is part of the collection of Angkorean art on display at the Asian Arts Museum in San Francisco.

Aside from the famous bas relief of the outer gallery, a number of minor depictions of the Battle of Lanka may be found at Angkor Wat.  Here is a detail from a partially eroded half tympanum located on a gopura or gatehouse.