The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature
|Topics in Tamil literature|
|The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature|
|Tevaram||Nalayira Divya Prabandham|
|Tamil history from Sangam literature||Ancient Tamil music|
The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature (Tamil: ஐம்பெரும்காப்பியங்கள்) are five large narrative Tamil epics according to later Tamil literary tradition, namely Silappatikaram, Manimegalai, Civaka Cintamani, Valayapathi and Kundalakesi. The first mention of the "Aimperumkappiyam" (lit. Five large epics) occurs in Mayilainathar's commentary of Nannūl. However, Mayilainathar does not mention the names of the five epics. The names of the epics are first mentioned in the late 18th century - early 19th century work Thiruthanikaiula. Earlier works like the 17th century poem Tamil vidu thoothu mention the great epics as Panchkavyams. Among these, the last two, namely Valayapathi and Kundalakesi are extant.
These five epics were written over a period of 1st century CE to 10th century CE and act as the historical evidence of social, religious, cultural and academic life of people during the era they ere created. Civaka Cintamani introduced long verses called virutha pa in Tamil literature., while Silappatikaram used akaval meter (monologue), a style adopted from Sangam literature.
Great Epics of Tamil Literature
According to the great Tamil commentator Atiyarkkunallar (12th-13th century CE), poems were of two kinds - sol-totar-nilai-seyyul (Tamil: சொல் தொடர் நிலை செய்யுள், poems connected by virtue of their formal properties) and porul-totar-nilai-seyyul (Tamil: பொருள் தொடர் நிலை செய்யுள், poems connected by virtue of content that forms a unity). Silappatikaram, the Tamil epic is defined by Atiyarkkunallar as iyal-icai-nataka-polur-thodar-nilai-ceyyul (Tamil:இயல் இசை நாடக பொருள் தொடர் நிலை செய்யுள், poems connected by virtue of content that forms a unity having elements of poetry, music and drama). Such stanzas are defined as kavya and kappiyam in Tamil. In Mayilainathar's commentary (14th century CE) on the grammar Nannul, we first hear the mention of aimperumkappiyam, the five great epics of Tamil literature.
Each one of these epics have long cantos, like in Silappatikaram, which has 30 referred as monologues sung by any character in the story or by an outsider as his own monologue often quoting the dialogues he has known or witnessed. It has 25 cantos composed in akaval meter, used in most poems in Sangam literature. The alternative for this meter is called aicirucappu (verse of teachers) associted with verse composed in learned circles. Akaval is a derived form of verb akavu indicating to call or beckon. Silappatikaram is also credited to bring folk songs to literary genre, a proof of the claim that folk songs institutionalised literary culture with the best maintained cultures root back to folk origin. Manimekalai is an epic in Ahaval metre and is noted for its simple and elegant style of description of natural scenery. Civaka Cintamani is one of the earliest works of Tamil literature in long verses called virutha pa.
|1||Silappatikaram||Ilango Adigal||Non religious work of 1st century CE|
|2||Manimegalai||Seethalai Sathanar||Buddhist religious work of 1st or 5th century CE|
|3||Civaka Cintamani||Tirutakkatevar||Jain religious work of 10th century CE|
|4||Valayapathi||Unknown Jain ascetic||Jain religious work of 9th century CE|
|5||Kundalakesi||Nagakuthanar (Nagasena)||Buddhist religious work of 5th century CE|
The epic trio of Silappatikaram, Manimegalai and Civaka Cintamani gives a full account of Tamil concept of womanhood by powerfully and poignantly delineating the character of a chaste wife Kannagi, a brave and dutiful daughter Manimekalai and an affectionate mother in Vijayai, mother of Jivakan in the three epics respectively. Silappatikaram explains the inexorable working of fate where in spite of being innocent, the hero Kovalan gets punished and the queen of Pandya loses her life along with the king when the king realises his mistake of punishing Kovalan. Kannagi is regarded as a symbol of chastity and she is always associated with chasteness in Tamil literature across ages. In Manimegalai, the protagonist, Manimegalai is instructed in the various truths expounded by the teachers of different faiths. Civaka Cintamani is adopted from Sanskrit Mahapurana, is predominantly sensuous, though Jain philosophy is brought to practical aspects of life.
The Five epics
Silappatikaram (story of anklet) depicts the life of Kannagi, a chaste woman who lead a peaceful life with Kovalan in Puhar (Poompuhar), the then capital of Cholas. Her life later went astray by the association of Kovalan with an unchaste woman Madhavi. The duo started resurrecting their life in Madurai, the capital of Pandyas. Kovalan went on to sell the anklet of Kannagi to start a business, but was held guilty and beheaded of stealing it from the queen. Kannagi went on to prove the innocence of her husband and believed to have burnt the entire city of Madurai by her chastity. Apart from the story, it is a vast treasure of information of music and dance, both classical and folk.
Manimekalai is a 5th-century Buddhist epic created by Sithalai Sathanar during the 5th century. It is believed to be a followup of Silappatikaram with the primary character, Manimegalai being the daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi. It contains thirty cantos describing the circumstances in which Manimegalai renounced the world and took the vows of Hinayana sect of Buddhism, which is followed in Burma and Sri Lanka. Apart from the story of Manimegalai and her Buddhist inclination, the epic deals with a great deal with Buddha's life, work and philosophy.
Civaka Cintamani, an epic of the 10th century CE was written by Thiruthakka Thevar, a Jain monk. It narrates the romantic exploits of Jeevaka and throws light on arts of music and dance of the era. It is reputed to have been the model for Kamba Ramayanam. The epic is based on Sanskrit original and contains the exposition of Jain doctrines and beliefs. It is a mudi-porul-thodar-nilai-seyyul, a treatise of the fourfold object of life and aim of literary work of virtue, wealth, pleasure and bliss. It is in 13 books or illambagams and contains 3147 stanzas. It is noted for its chaste diction and sublime poetry rich in religious sentiments and replete with information of arts and customs of social life. There are many commentaries on the book, the best on the work is believed to be by Naccinarkiniyar.
Kundalakesi is now extant, but quotations from it and found from references used by authors who had access to the classic. The poem was used for showing the purpose of showing the advantage of Buddhist philosophy over Vedic and Jain philosophies. The Jain in reply wrote Nilakesi which has opposing views to the ideologies in Kundalakesi. Kundalakesi was a Jain nun who moved around India, expounding Jainism and challenged anyone who had alternate views. Sariputra, a disciple of Buddha, took up the challenge one day and defeated Kundalakesi in debates. She renounced Jainism and became a Buddhist. The author is believed to be Nagaguttanar. The record of culture and Buddhist views during the era were lost with the book.
Valayapathy is also an extant work and it is not certain whether it is a Buddhist or Jain work. Some scholars believe it is a Buddhist work and base their claims on the quotations of Valayapathy found in other literary works. The author of Valayapathy quotes from Thirukkural and it is possible that he took inspiration from it.
Age and genre
Silappatikaram and Manimegalai are accepted to be composed post Sangam period (300 BCE to 200 CE). M. Varadarajan assessed the period to be between 100-500 CE, T.P. Meenakshi Sundaram as 5th century CE, Somasundaram Pillai calls in age of Buddhism and Jainism and places between 250 CE and 600 CE and Rajamanickam places both these in the 2nd century CE. Manimegalai has been accepted as a sequel of Silappatikaram and both these works are placed before the 5th century CE. It is generally accepted that these works might have been composed between 200 BCE to 500 CE. There is a controversy to the age of the author of Civaka Cintamani, Tirutakkatevar. There is one version that he lived before Kamban (9th century CE) as the viruttam metre, language and imagery was commonly used by Kamban. The other view is that it belongs to a period later than Kamban.
Parallel with Sanskrit literature
It was also the period when ornate Sanskrit literature evolved and shared major features with Tamil literature. The period of Pallava supremacy is characterized by the development of epic poetry. The use of nature to express ideas or feelings is first introduced in Silappatikaram. The two Tamil epics, Silappatikaram and Manimegalai do not use the convention of regarding the land divisions becoming part of description of life among various communities of hero and heroine. The epics mention the evenings and spring season in particular as time and season that aggravates the feelings in those who are separated. These patterns are found only in the later works of Sanskrit by Kalidasa (10th century CE). The epic style of Sanskrit was emulated with characterization of ordinary people like Kovalan and Kannagi, providing an insight into everyday life during the period. Civaka Cintamani emulates Sanskrit court poetry and illustrates the heroics of Civaka, who later becomes a monk. Silappatikaram posts a line of development of long poetic sequence in Tamil literature and downplays points of derivation from Sanskrit contemporary works like Mahakavya. Silappatikaram and Manimegalai thus showed greater specialities compared to its Sanskrit counterparts during the period.
The influence of Vedic religion was marked in the religious life of the people in the south. The followers of Veda often entered into dispute with rival religions like Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism was prevalent during the 1st century CE followed by Buddhism in the next three centuries and finally Jainism taking prominence during the 5th-6th centuries CE. This is well illustrated in the non-religious work of Silappatikaram written during the 1st century CE followed by Buddhist work of Manimegalai and the Jain work of Civaka Cintamani. The joyous life portrayed in Sangam literature is replaced by sombre life depicted in Manimegalai. It also depcits punishments to the persons, who knowing the inevitability of death indulge in crimes and carnal pleasures.
Five lesser Tamil epics
Similar to the five great epics, Tamil literary tradition also classifies five more works as Ainchirukappiyangal (Tamil: ஐஞ்சிறுகாப்பியங்கள்) or five lesser epics. The five lesser Tamil epics are Neelakesi, Naga kumara kaviyam, Udhyana kumara Kaviyam, Yasodhara Kaviyam and Soolamani.
Publishing in modern times
U. V. Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942 CE) resurrected the first three epics from appalling neglect and wanton destruction of centuries. He reprinted these literature present in the palm leaf form to paper books. Ramaswami Mudaliar, a Tamil scholar first gave him the palm leaves of Civaka Cintamani to study. Being the first time, Swaminatha Iyer had to face lot of difficulties in terms of interpreting, finding the missing leaves, textual errors and unfamiliar terms. He set for tiring journeys to remote villages in search of the missing manuscripts. After years of toil, he published Civaka Cintamani in book form in 1887 CE followed by Silapadikaram in 1892 CE and Manimekalai in 1898 CE. Along with the text, he added lot of commentary and explanatory notes of terms, textual variations and approaches explaining the context.
Criticism and Comparison
"After the last line of a poem, nothing follows except literary criticism" observes Ilangovadigal in Silappadikaram. The postscript invites readers to review the work. Like other epic works, these works are criticised of having unfamiliar and a difficult poem to understand. To some critics, Manimegalai is more interesting than Silappadikaram, but it terms of literary evaluation, it seems inferior. The story of Manimegalai with all its superficial elements seems to be of lesser interest to the author himself whose aim was pointed toward spreading Buddhism. In the former, ethics and religious are artistic, while in the latter reverse is the case. Manimegalai also criticizes Jainism while preaching the ideals of Buddhism and human interests is diluted in supernatural features. The narration in akaval meter moves on in Manimegalai without the relief of any lyric, which are the main features of Silappadikaram. Manimegalai in puritan terms is not an epic poem, but a grave disquisition on philosophy. There are effusions in Silappadikaram in the form of a song or a dance, which does not go well with western audience as they are assessed to be inspired on the spur of the moment. According to Calcutta review, the three works on a whole have no plot and no characterization for an epic genre. The plot of Civaka Cintamani is monotonous and deficient in variety in strength and character and does not stand the quality of an epic.
There have been multiple movies based on the story of Silappathikaram and the most famous is the portrayal of Kannagi by actress Kannamba in the 1942 Tamil movie Kannagi with P.U.Chinnappa playing the lead as Kovalan. The movie faithfully follows the story of Silappathikaram and was a hit when it was released. The movie Poompuhar, penned by M. Karunanidhi is also based on Silapathikaram. There are multiple dance dramas as well by some of the exponents of Bharatanatyam (a South Indian dance form) in Tamil as most of the verses of Silappathikaram can be set to music. Manimegalai has been shot as a teleserial in Doordarshan.
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