Silappatikaram (Tamil: சிலப்பதிகாரம், Cilappatikāram, IPA: [ʧiləppət̪ikɑːrəm] ?, republished as The Tale of an Anklet) is one of The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature according to later Tamil literary tradition. A Jain poet-prince from Kochi (in modern Kerala) referred to by the pseudonym Ilango Adigal is credited with this work. He is reputed to have been the brother of Vel Kelu Kuttuvan, the Chera dynasty king.
As a literary work, Silappatikaram is held in high regard by the Tamil people. The nature of the book is non-religious, narrative and has a moralistic undertone. It contains three chapters and a total of 5270 lines of poetry. The epic revolves around Kannagi, who having lost her husband to a miscarriage of justice at the court of the Pandyan Dynasty, wreaks her revenge on his kingdom.
Regarded as one of the great achievements of Tamil genius, the Silappatikaram is a poetic rendition with details of Tamil culture; its varied religions; its town plans and city types; the mingling of Greek, Arab, and Tamil peoples; and the arts of dance and music.
Silappatikaram has been dated to likely belong to the beginning of Common era, although the author might have built upon a pre-existing folklore to spin this tale. The story involves the three Tamil kingdoms of the ancient era, which were ruled by the Chola, Pandyan and Chera dynasties. Silappatikaram has many references to historical events and personalities, although it has not been accepted as a reliable source of history by many historians because of the inclusion of many exaggerated events and achievements to the ancient Tamil kings.
At the end of the Sangam epoch (second – third centuries CE), the Tamil country was in political confusion. The older order of the three Tamil dynasties was replaced by the invasion of the Kalabhras. These new kings and others encouraged the religions of Buddhism and Jainism. Ilango Adigal, the author of Silappatikaram, probably lived in this period and was one of the vast number of Jain and Buddhist authors in Tamil poetry. These authors, perhaps influenced by their monastic faiths, wrote books based on moralistic values to illustrate the futility of secular pleasures. Silappatikaram used akaval meter (monologue), a style adopted from Sangam literature. Silappatikaram do not use the convention of regarding the land divisions becoming part of description of life among various communities of hero and heroine. The epic 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 (4th century CE). These authors went beyond the nature of Sangam poems, which contain descriptions of human emotions and feelings in an abstract fashion, and employed fictional characters in a well conceived narrative incorporating personal and social ramifications thus inventing Tamil Epics.
The story of Silappatikaram is set during the first few centuries of CE and narrates the events in the three Tamil kingdoms: Chera, Chola, and Pandya. It also mentions the Ilankai king Gajabahu and the Chera Senguttuvan. It confirms that the northern kingdoms of Chedi, Uttarakosala, and Vajra were known to the Tamil people of the time. The epic also vividly describes the Tamil society of the period, its cities, the people's religious and folk traditions and their gods.
The authorship of Silappatikaram is credited to the pseudonym Ilango Adigal ("Prince-Ascetic"). He is reputed to be the brother of Chera king Senguttuvan, although there is no evidence in the Sangam poetries that the famous king had a brother. There are also claims that Ilango Adigal was a contemporary of Sattanar, the author of Manimekalai. The prologues of each of these books tell us that each were read out to the author of the other [Silappatikaram, pathigam 90]. From comparative studies between Silappatikaram and certain Buddhist and Jain works such as Nyayaprakasa, the date of Silappatikaram has been determined to be around the fifth and the sixth centuries CE.
In the pathigam, the prologue to the book, Ilango Adigal gives the reader the gist of the book with the précis of the story. He also lays the objectives of the book:
|“||We shall compose a poem, with songs,
To explain these truths: even kings, if they break
The law, have their necks wrung by dharma;
Great men everywhere commend
Pattin̪i of renowned fame; and karma ever
Manifests itself, and is fulfilled. We shall call the poem
The Cilappatikāram, the epic of the anklet,
Since the anklet brings these truths to light.
- Kovalan - Son of a wealthy merchant in Puhar
- Kannagi - Wife of Kovalan
- Masattuvan - A wealthy grain merchant and the father of Kovalan
- Madhavi - A beautiful courtesan dancer
- Chitravathi - Madhavi's Mother
- Vasavadaththai - Madhavi's female friend
- Kosigan - Madhavi's messenger to Kovalan
- Madalan - A Brahmin visitor to Madurai from Puhar
- Kavunthi Adigal - A Jain nun
- Neduncheliyan - Pandya king
- Kopperundevi - Pandya Queen
Silappatikaram (literally translated, "The story of the Anklet") depicts the life of Kannagi, a chaste woman who led a peaceful life with Kovalan in Puhar (Poompuhar), then the capital of Cholas. Kannagi was born in a very rich trader family. She was brought up with comfort and discipline. She was married to Kovalan, who was the young son of a similarly rich trader. Her life later went astray by the association of Kovalan with another woman Madhavi who was a dancer. Kovalan left Kannagi and settled at Madhavi's house. But Madhavi's mother started to get money from Kannagi in the name of Kovalan's request, without knowledge of both Kovalan and Madhavi. The loyal and astute Kannagi lost all the wealth given to them by their parents.
One fine day Madhavi unknowingly utters a line of knowledge within the song she was singing and Kovalan finds his error of leaving his wife. He immediately leaves Madhavi to rejoin Kannagi. Reluctant to go to their rich parents for help, the duo start resurrecting their life in Madurai, the capital of Pandyas. While Kannagi stays in the outskirts of Madurai, Kovalan goes to the city to sell one of Kannagi's two ruby anklets to start a business. At the same time, the royal goldsmith had stolen a pearl anklet belonging to the queen, for which he frames Kovalan. Even the very just king is reluctant to trust Kovalan, and has him beheaded for stealing the queen's pearl anklet. Kannagi went on to prove the innocence of her husband by storming into the court and breaking her other anklet to spill its rubies. The king possibly suffers a heart attack and collapses as he had uttered a false hasty judgement. The queen possibly faints and falls next to the King. As the guards, soldiers, ministers, others rush to help the King and Queen, in the ensuing confusion, unnoticed, Kannagi possibly takes a lamp/torch and might have set fire to the palace curtains, the raging fire is supposed to have destroyed half the city of Madurai. Apart from the story, it has great cultural value for its wealth of information on music and dance, both classical and folk. The most important aspect of the story is that even two thousand years ago the Tamils gave Justice to all, even the mighty King was not above law. The King gave audience to Kannagi.This also shows the power of women in those days.
Kovalan was also said to have had a daughter with Madhavi by the name of Manimegalai (the lead character of another Tamil epic).
Structure of Silappatikaram
Silappatikaram contains three chapters:
- Puharkkandam (புகார்க் காண்டம் – Puhar chapter), which deals with the events in the Chola city of Puhar, where Kannagi and Kovalan start their married life and Kovalan leaves his wife for the courtesan Madavi. This contains 10 cantos or divisions.
- Maduraikkandam (மதுரைக் காண்டம் – Madurai chapter), is situated in Madurai in the Pandya kingdom where Kovalan loses his life, incorrectly blamed for the theft of the queen's anklet. This contains 13 cantos.
- Vanchikkandam (வஞ்சிக் காண்டம் – Vanchi chapter), is situated in the Chera country where Kannagi ascends to the heavens. This contains 7 cantos, and each of them is made of several sub-divisions called kaathais (narrative sections of the chapters).
The Silappatikaram, apart from being the first known epic poem in Tamil, is also important for its literary innovations. It introduces the intermingling of poetry with prose, a form not seen in previous Tamil works. It features an unusual praise of the Sun, the Moon, the river Kaveri and the city of Poompuhar at its beginning, the contemporary tradition being to praise a deity. It is also considered to be a predecessor of the Nigandu lexicographic tradition. It 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) associated 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.
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.
M.P. Sivagnanam popularly known as Ma. Po. Si. wrote many books on Silappatikaram, spreading the popularity of this epic considerably in the Tamil society. R. P. Sethu Pillai gave him the title 'Silambu Selvar', acknowledging the tremendous knowledge he had on this topic. Ma. Po. Si. named his daughters as Kannagi and Madhavi after the epic's characters. He instituted the Silappatikara Vizha, an annual function in 1950, which is currently headed by his daughter Madhavi after his demise.
Books written by Ma. Po. Si. on Silappatikaram include:
- Silappatikaramum Thamizharum (1947)
- Kannagi Vazhipadu (1950)
- Illangovin Silambu (1953)
- Veerakanagi (1958)
- Nenjaiallum Silappatikaram (1961)
- Madhaviyin Manbu (1968)
- Kovalan Kutravaliya (1971)
- Silappatikara Thiranaivu (1973)
- Silappatikara Yathirai (1977)
- Silappatikara Aayvurai (1979)
- Silappatikara Uraiasiriyargal Sirappu (1980)
- Silappatikarathil Yashum Esaiyum (1990)
- Silambil Edupatathu eppadi (1994)
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, it is criticised of having unfamiliar and a difficult poem to understand. To some critics, Manimegalai is more interesting than Silappadikaram, but in terms of literary evaluation, it seems inferior. 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 epic works on a whole have no plot and no characterization to qualify for an epic genre.
However, a possible cause for this reaction in the west might be due to the unfamiliar prominence of a female character in the epic, which is unknown in epic cycles of Greek and other European sources. In addition, the idea of chastity as exemplified in the epic is difficult to understand outside the context of Tamil and Indian cultural norms. Modern scholars have a more favourable view of the poem and consider it to be the foremost epic in Tamil literature as well as the first to envision a united Tamil consciousness through the depiction on the three major countries occupied by the Tamil people as one nation united in worship of the goddess of chastity (Kannagi).
The English-translated work The Tale of an Anklet by R. Parthasarathy was received positively by University of California, Berkeley professor George L. Hart: "The Cilappatikaram is to Tamil what the Iliad and Odyssey are to Greek—its importance would be difficult to overstate. . . . This is an extraordinary accomplishment."
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 movie Kannagi. P. U. Chinnappa played 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 great exponents of Bharatanatyam in Tamil as most of the verses of Silappathikaram can be set to music.
Silappatikaram also occupies much of the screen time in the 15th and 16th episodes of the television series Bharat Ek Khoj. Pallavi Joshi played the role of Kannagi and Rakesh Dhar played that of Kovalan.
Aichiyar Kuravai, the song depicting the dance of the cowherd women in Silappathikaram has been sung by Bharat Ratna M. S. Subbulakshmi titled 'Vadavaraiyai Mathakki'. Recently P. Unni Krishnan rendered the song again with additional orchestration to relive the old memory of the song.
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- Manimekalai, a Buddhist poem, tells the story of Manimekalai, the daughter of Kovalan and Madavi.
- See K. Nilakanta Sastry, A history of South India, pp 398
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- Tamil Nadu's Silapathikaram Epic of the Ankle Bracelet: Ancient Story and Modern Identity by Eric Miller
- The Silappatikaram of Ilanko Atikal: An Epic of South India (Translations from the Asian Classics) by R. Parthasarathy (1992)
- An Introduction to Cilappathikaram
- Cilapathikaram in Tamil Unicode - pukaark kaaNtam, maturaik kANTam, vanjcik kANTam
- English Translations of Sangam Literature and Silapathikaram
- The song in Aichiyar Kuravai from Silappathikaram
- Silapathikaram website
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