Ravana’s sister, the demoness Shurpanakha, has come upon Rama in the forest and (in some tellings of the story) has transformed herself into an attractive woman. Struck by Rama’s beauty, she tries to seduce him and proposes marriage. On the right, Rama informs Shurpanakha, who appears twice in the painting, that he is married and directs her attention toward his brother Lakshmana (on the left). Not shown in this painting are the next moments of the story when the brothers’ teasing of the seductress turns into an exchange of insults. Shurpanakha proceeds to threaten Sita. Rama orders Lakshmana to punish Shurpanakha by cutting off her nose and ears. When Ravana eventually hears of this, and of Sita’s great beauty, he resolves to have vengeance on Rama by abducting Sita.
The episode in which Rama and Lakshmana disfigure Shurpanakha has long made audiences uneasy. Rama is protecting Sita and penalizing Shurpanakha for what was thought to be her shameful forwardness, but the penalty has sometimes seemed excessive.
(Exhibition Label from The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe)