Here is a forgotten chapter from The Ramayana. Chances are that you’ve never heard of this princess and her sacrifice.
When Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya, was exiled to the forest for 14 years as per the wishes of Kaikeyi, his father’s youngest queen, Sita, his wife, insisted that she accompany him to the forest.
“A woman’s place is with her husband and I shall go wherever you go. Please do not stop me. If it’s your duty to follow the orders of your father, it is mine to follow you to the ends of the earth.” The young princess was stubborn and Rama had no choice but to let her have her way.
As for Lakshmana, his younger brother, there was no question that he would let his brother go into exile on his own. From their days in the cradle, they were always together, so much so if baby Lakshmana was placed anywhere other than near his brother Rama, he would cry and cry until he was beside him again!
“Dear Rama, you know you have no choice but to let me come with you. All I want to do is to take care of you and Devi Sita,” said Lakshmana when his brother tried to dissuade him. “Can you ever remember a time when we were apart?” Rama had no answer to that.
Lakshmana was married to Urmila, Sita’s younger sister. He hurried to her chambers to break the news to her. Gently, Lakshmana, gently, he told himself. He knew that Urmila was a spirited princess too. Of course, he was being unfair to her.
Urmila had heard from her sister that she was accompanying her husband and when Lakshmana announced that he was going too, she was least perturbed. “Oh, we must go with them...” she began cheerfully, her beautiful eyes lighting up at the thought them all going off into the great unknown.
“Not we, Urmila, just me,” said Lakshmana gently. “You must stay behind and take care of our old parents, when we are away.”
“But a wife’s place is beside her husband. Isn’t sister Sita going? She has told me herself. If you
are going, I come too.” Urmila was beginning to get annoyed with her husband.
“I know you are right, dear Urmila. It is just that if I were to take you along, it would be a huge responsibility for me. The forest is a dangerous place with evil asuras and wild animals lurking in unknown corners. I will need all my wits about me to focus on protecting my dear brother and his wife. Please understand and make this sacrifice for me.” Lakshmana knew he was being unfair but his life was dedicated to his brother. Urmila knew that too.
“As you wish...” whispered the princess tearfully and bid adieu to her husband.
Rama, Sita and Lakshmana left for their exile. When night fell and all the world was asleep, Lakshmana stayed awake watching over his beloved brother and his wife.
One night as he sat outside his brother’s dwelling, a luminous form appeared before him. When his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw before him a resplendent goddess. She smiled at him. “How are you going to do this, Lakshmana?” asked she.
“Do what?” Lakshmana was puzzled for he knew not who she was and what she was getting at. “Sleep… everybody needs to sleep. I’m Nidhra, the goddess of sleep. Are you going to spend 14 years of your brother’s exile without sleep? It will be impossible!”
“But I will not, cannot, sleep for I intend to watch over my brother day and night,” said Lakshmana.
“I know your devotion, Lakshmana. But no living creature can survive without sleep. That is the universal law.... Unless…” the goddess paused.
“Unless... what?” Lakshmana seized upon that pause.
“Unless there is someone who will do that for you,” smiled the goddess. “Sleep all the sleep you need for the 14 years you are here in exile.... Is there someone who will do that for you?”
Lakshmana smiled in relief. He knew he could count on someone, his wife! “My wife, Urmila... she will surely take my place for me.”
“I will go at once to the palace of Dasharata in Ayodhya and ask her,” said Goddess Nidhra and disappeared as she had come.
And of course Urmila did offer to take Lakshmana’s share of sleep and went into a deep slumber for all the 14 years he was away. Which is why, no one speaks of Urmila throughout The Ramayana.
But we know that her story ended happily and she was reunited with her husband when Rama returned to Ayodhya after the exile was over.