“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is a popular proverb based on a 17th century English play, The Mourning Bride. The righteous anger of women has been an enduring motif in literature across time and space. The ancient Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have both produced iconic images of the same in the characters of Sita and Draupadi. Peninsular India has also contributed one of the most archetypal characters to this trope - Kannagi, the protagonist of the ancient Tamil epic the Silappadikaram. The Silappadikaram is one of the most outstanding works of Tamil literature and a text of deep cultural value.
The Silappadikaram consists of 5370 lines composed in the akavalmetre. Tradition ascribes the authorship of the text to Ilango Adigal, who is believed to be a Jaina by faith and the younger brother of the Chera king Senguttuvan. This fact is, however, disputed by certain scholars. The name Ilango Adigal occurs only in the padikam or prologue to the epic which some scholars believe to be a later interpolation. Scholars also believe that the epic perhaps existed as part of an oral or bardic tradition before the author rendered it into a written text. That the Kannagi story has also been mentioned in other works of the Sangam period such as the Narrinai (1st - 5th century CE) also attests to this belief.
There are two extant commentaries on the Silappadikaram: Arumpaduvari by an unknown author from ancient times, and one by Adiyarkunallar dating to the medieval period. The manuscript of the epic was found by UV Swaminatha Aiyar in the 2nd half of the 19th century and the first complete version appeared in print in 1892. During the 20th century, the text was translated into other languages, primarily English. The first translation was by VRR Dikshitar in 1939, followed by Alain Denielou’s in 1965. The award-winning translation of R Parthasarathy in English was published in 1993. The present study is primarily based upon Dikshitar’s translation which is hosted on the current website. Dikshitar’s translation is a faithful rendering of the text into English and is held in high esteem. Although the original text is a mixture of verse and prose, Dikshitar restricts himself to a prose translation and refrains from diluting the beauty of the original verses. As a true historian, he undertakes a detailed discussion of the socio-cultural and political context of the times and firmly grounds his arguments in historical evidence.
The date of the epic has been a matter of considerable debate. Diskhitar is of the opinion that the text was composed during the 2nd century CE. He points out that there is no mention of the Pallava dynasty of Kanci in the text, and suggests that this is perhaps indicative of the fact that the text was composed before the emergence of the Pallavas (between 200 and 350 CE). Another scholar Kamil Zvelebil, however, suggests that since the language, style and structure of the epic resembles later works rather than the Sangam literature, it cannot be dated before the 5th century. (Sangams are assemblies or academies of scholars and poets, held in the Tamil country between the 3rd century BCE and the 2nd century CE.) Parthasarathy supports this claim and holds that the text was not composed before the 6th century CE. However, there is greater scholarly consensus around Dikshitar’s dating of the text and it is generally considered authoritative.
The story of Silappadikaram begins in the city of Puhar in the Chola kingdom with the wedding of Kannagi and Kovalan, children of prominent merchants. After a brief period of conjugal bliss, Kovalan, however, abandons Kannagi for a celebrated courtesan named Madhavi. Engrossed in a life of sensual and cultural pursuits, Kovalan forgets all about his wife. However, one day, on the occasion of the festival of Lord Indra, Madhavi sings a song about a woman betrayed in love. This prompts Kovalan to suspect Madhavi’s fidelity. With a wounded sense of pride, he leaves her and returns to Kannagi who accepts him back without any reproach. Thereafter, the reconciled couple decide to start their life anew in the city of Madurai in the Pandya territory. However, since Kovalan had squandered all his wealth on Madhavi, they decide to sell Kannagi’s anklet, her only remaining piece of jewelry, to accumulate the capital necessary for starting a business.
They undertake a laborious journey on foot to finally reach their destination. The next day, Kovalan sets out for the city to sell one of the anklets to a goldsmith. His departure is marked by the appearance of several ill omens. The goldsmith, who is a dishonest man, however, has his own insidious designs. He reports to the Pandyan king Neduncheliyan that Kovalan has stolen the queen’s anklet. The real thief is, of course, the goldsmith himself. The king, who is at that time eager to placate his queen after a quarrel, orders the immediate capture and execution of Kovalan without a trial. His orders are carried out. When Kannagi comes to know of the terrible fate of her husband, she rushes to the city and finds him lying dead in a pool of blood. Mad with rage, she storms into the palace and apprehends the king. She furiously throws the remaining anklet (of the pair) on the floor causing it to break, revealing the gems encrusted within.
The king instantly realizes his error as the queen’s anklet contained pearls. In utter shame and despair, the king kills himself and is followed by his wife. Kannagi, still very angry, plucks out her left breast and throws it at the city causing it to burst into flames. As the fire begins to wreak havoc in the city its guardian deity appears before Kannagi and attempts to pacify her. She tells Kannagi that Kovalan in his past life as Bharata had falsely executed a merchant on the suspicion of being a spy, and his death now was only a fallout of his own karma. She also lets Kannagi know that in 14 days she too will join her husband. Kannagi, overcome by grief, wanders into Murugavel-kunram, hills of the Chera territory. There the Kuravas or hill people witness her eventual death and ascension to heaven. In awe, they inform their king Senguttuvan about this strange happening. The queen is so moved by the tragic tale that she desires a temple to be built in honour of Kannagi. The king then vows to bring a stone from the Himalayas to carve out an idol for the goddess. The king keeps his promise and establishes the cult of Pattini.
The epic Silappadikaram is an invaluable source for understanding the geo-political, social and cultural conditions of peninsular India during ancient times. The geographical context of the epic coincides with the historical region of Tamilakam which comprises modern-day Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Lakshadweep and parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The epic is divided into three kandams or books: Puharkkandam, Maduraikkandam and Vanjikkandam, which correspond with the political divisions of the Chola, Pandya and Chera kingdoms of early India. The text also mentions important rivers such as the Anporunai (Amaravati), Periyaru or Ponnani, the Vaigai and the Kaveri. The songs mentioned in the text also give us a picture of the geographic and ethnico-cultural features of the region such as the love songs of the seaside, dance of the herdswomen and the hill dwellers, songs and dances of the hunters, etc. The text also beautifully describes bustling cities, urban life, trade and commerce of the times. The socio-religious world illustrated by Silappadikaram seems to be a mosaic where various spiritual ideologies and religious traditions co-existed: Jainism, Brahmanical religion and Buddhism.
As discussed earlier, the story of Silappadikaram perhaps existed as an oral tradition before it was rendered into a text. The creation of a textual form is an important point in the life of an epic as it becomes a point of reference for future retellings. However, oral traditions do not disappear after texts come into being.
The Mudhuvans who are a hill tribe of Tamil Nadu believe that their ancestors were spared from the wrath of Kannagi because they had advised the Pandyan king to not harm Kovalan. Similarly, there are versions of folk tales that believe that Kannagi was, in fact, the daughter of the Pandyan king and was abandoned as a child. The variations are many. However, the core story does not differ radically from the classical version.
The story of Silappadikaram hinges on Kannagi’s metamorphosis from a homely and submissive wife into a goddess. The anklet plays a central role in the story and is imbued with symbolism at multiple levels. In fact, the title of the epic itself is a combination of two words silambu and adikaram, literally meaning: a tale of a silambu or anklet. Unlike most epics of the Sanskritic and Greek world, the protagonist of Silappadikaram is a woman. Kannagi operates in a patriarchal world in which the ideals of chastity (karpu) and honour are held in high esteem. However, it is when the supposed upholders of the social and moral order at various levels fail to perform their duties, that the character of Kannagi rises to her full stature. Kovalan who is supposed to be Kannagi’s protector and provider, abandons her and squanders all his wealth, to the extent that he has to deprive her of her remaining piece of jewelry to make ends meet.
It is through this very ornament, a symbol of Kannagi’s marriage and femininity, that the defining turn of the narrative is achieved. The king who is supposed to be the upholder of justice and the protector of the realm too fails to deliver justice. It is only after Kannagi breaks her anklet that the truth is brought to light. The breaking of the anklet symbolises the impending calamity that the king has brought upon his realm by acting in an unjust manner. It also symbolises the first step of the transition of Kannagi from a complaisant and passive housewife to an upholder of justice. The process culminates in the act of violence that Kannagi commits on her own body: the plucking of her breast and throwing it at the city causing it to burn. The act symbolises the total abandonment of her femininity and sexuality and signals chaos and a breakdown of the order of the universe.
However, it is again through this very act of transcendence that the order is restored and justice is dispensed. The image of Kannagi plucking out her breast is one of the most startling and unique images of the world of epics. It is this subversion of her ‘ideal’ feminine nature which makes her distinctive. The act of transcendence establishes her as out of the ordinary and brings out her latent divinity. There are several temples dedicated to goddess Kannagi in present-day Tamil Nadu. She is worshipped as an incarnation of goddess Bhadrakali in Kerala, as goddess Pattini by the Sri Lankan Sinhalese Buddhists and as Kannaki Amman by the Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka.
Silappadikaram is considered to be the epitome of the literary genius and civilisational ethics and ideals of the Tamils. It deals with humanitarian concerns that are universal: the purpose of life, a possibility of life beyond death, morality and justice. However, the epic has been retold time and again over the ages. In the modern age it has been made into films such as Kannagi (1942) and Poompuhar (1964), and television series such as Upasana (1996, Doordarshan). It has also been appropriated by various socio-political movements over time. Every retelling reflects the concerns and ideals of the society that reiterates it. Thus, an epic is both static and dynamic in nature. It reflects the essence of every cilivlisation: a cherishing of its traditional and age-old values and a simultaneous desire to move forward.
“In the manner in which lofty hills are reflected in a mirror, it (Silappadikaram) expresses the essence of the cool Tamil country...where dwell men and gods devoted to duty and to the common practice of dharma, artha and kama…”
The Silappadikaram (Translated by VRR Dikshitar, p.346)