Kovalan, the son of a wealthy merchant in Kaveripattinam, married Kannagi, the lovely daughter of another merchant. They lived together happily in the city of Kaveripattinam, until Kovalan met the courtesan Madhavi and fell in love with her. In his infatuation, he left Kannagi and gradually spent all his wealth on the dancer. At last, penniless, Kovalan realised his mistake, and returned to Kannagi after a year. Their only asset was a precious pair of anklets (Tamil: Silambu), filled with gems, which she gave to him willingly. With these as their capital they went to the great city of Madurai, where Kovalan hoped to recoup his fortunes by trade.
The city of Madurai was ruled by the Pandya king Neduncheziyan. Upon arrival to Madurai, Kovalan set out to sell Kannagi's anklets. While on his way to sell the anklet, he was held by the king's guards for the alleged theft of one of the queen's anklets. Upon the king's orders, he was beheaded without trial. When Kannagi was informed of this, she became furious, and set out to prove her husband's innocence to the king, by showing him the anklets.
Kannagi came to the king's court, broke open the anklet seized from Kovalan and showed that it contained rubies, as opposed to the queen's anklets which contained pearls. Realizing their fault, the king and the queen died of shame. Unsatisfied, Kannagi tore out a breast and flung it on the city, uttering a curse that the entire city be burnt. Due to her utmost chastity, her curse became a reality.