Five Great Epics

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Topics in Tamil literature
Sangam Literature
Five Great Epics
Silappatikaram Manimekalai
Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi Valayapathi
Bhakthi Literature
Tevaram Divya Prabandha
Tamil people
Sangam Sangam landscape
Tamil history from Sangam literature Ancient Tamil music

The Five Great Epics[1] (Tamil: ஐம்பெரும்காப்பியங்கள் Aimperumkāppiyaṅkaḷ) are five large narrative Tamil epics according to later Tamil literary tradition. They are Cilappatikāram, Manimekalai, Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi, Valayapathi and Kuṇṭalakēci.[2] The first mention of the Aimperumkappiyam (lit. Five large epics) occurs in Mayilainathar's commentary of Nannūl. However, Mayilainathar does not mention their titles. The titles are first mentioned in the late 18th–early 19th century work Thiruthanikaiula. Earlier works like the 17th century poem Tamil vidu thoothu mention the great epics as Panchkavyams.[3][4] Among these, the last two, Valayapathi and Kuṇṭalakēci are not extant.[5]

These five epics were written over a period of 5th– to 10th–century CE and act and provide historical information about the society, religions, culture and academic life of Tamil people over that period. Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi introduced long verses called virutha pa in Tamil literature,[6] while Cilappatikāram used akaval meter (monologue), a style adopted from Sangam literature.


According to the great Tamil commentator Atiyarkkunallar (12th–13th century CE), poems were of two kinds – Col thodar nilai ceyyuḷ (சொல் தொடர் நிலை செய்யுள்) or poems connected by virtue of their formal properties and Poruḷ toṭar nilai ceyyuḷ (பொருள் தொடர் நிலை செய்யுள்) or poems connected by virtue of content that forms a unity.[7] Cilappatikāram, the Tamil epic is defined by Atiyarkkunallar as Iyal icai nāṭaka poruḷ toṭar nilai ceyyuḷ (இயல் இசை நாடக பொருள் தொடர் நிலை செய்யுள்), poems connected by virtue of content that forms a unity having elements of poetry, music and drama.[7][8] Such stanzas are defined as kāvya and kappiyam in Tamil. In Mayilainathar's commentary (14th century CE) on the grammar Nannūl, we first hear the mention of aimperumkappiyam, the five great epics of Tamil literature.[7]

Each one of these epics have long cantos, like in Cilappatikāram, 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.[9] 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.[10] Akaval is a derived form of verb akavu indicating to call or beckon. Cilappatikāram is credited with bringing 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.[10] Manimekalai is an epic in ahaval metre and is noted for its simple and elegant style of description of natural scenery.[11] Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi is one of the earliest works of Tamil literature in long verses called virutha pa.[6]


No Name Author Date
1 Cilappatikāram Ilango Adigal 5th or 6th century CE[12][13][14]
2 Manimekalai Sīthalai Sāttanār after Cilappatikaram, 6th-century[15]
3 Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi Tirutakkatevar early 10th-century[16]
4 Valayapathi Unknown Jain ascetic 10th-century[17]
5 Kundalakēci Natakuptanar unknown[18]

Theme and contents[edit]

Ilango Adigal is the author of Silappatikaram, one of the five great epics of Tamil literature.[12]

Cilappatikāram is a tragic love story of an ordinary couple, Kannaki and her husband Kovalan.[19] It is set in a flourishing seaport city of the early Chola kingdom. Kannaki and Kovalan are a newly married couple, in love, and living in bliss.[20] Over time, Kovalan meets Madhavi – a courtesan. He falls for her, leaves Kannaki and moves in with Matavi. He spends lavishly on her. Kannaki is heartbroken, but as the chaste woman, she waits despite her husband's unfaithfulness. During the festival for Indra, the rain god, there is a singing competition.[20] Kovalan sings a poem about a woman who hurt her lover. Madhavi then sings a song about a man who betrayed his lover. Each interprets the song as a message to the other. Kovalan feels Madhavi is unfaithful to him, leaves her, returns to Kannaki.[20] Kovalan is poor, they move to Madurai, and try to restart their life. Kannaki gives him one of her jeweled anklets to sell to raise starting capital.[20] Kovalan sells it to a merchant, but the merchant falsely frames him as having stolen the anklet from the queen. The king orders his execution, without the due checks and processes of justice.[20][21] Kannaki learns what has happened. She protests the injustice and then proves Kovalan's innocence by throwing in the court the other jeweled anklet of the pair. The king accepts his mistake. Kannaki curses the king and curses the people of Madurai, tearing off her left breast and throwing it at the gathered public. The king dies. The society that had made her suffer, suffers in retribution as the city of Madurai is burnt to the ground because of her curse.[20] In the third section of the epic, gods and goddesses meet Kannaki and she goes to heaven with god Indra. The royal family of the Chera kingdom learns about her, resolves to build a temple with Kannaki as the featured goddess. They go to the Himalayas, bring a stone, carve her image, call her goddess Pattini, dedicate a temple, order daily prayers, and perform a royal sacrifice.[20]

Manimekalai is a Buddhist sequel to the Silappadikaram, with some characters from it and their next generation.[22] Manimekalai is the daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi, who follows in her mother's footsteps as a dancer and a Buddhist nun.[23] The epic tells her story. Her physical beauty and artistic achievements seduces the Chola prince Udhayakumara.[24] He pursues her. She, a nun of Mahayana Buddhism persuasion, feels a commitment to free herself from human ties. She rejects his advances, yet finds herself drawn to him.[25] She hides, prays and seeks the help of her mother, her Buddhist teacher Aravana Adikal and angels. They teach her Buddhist mantras to free herself from fears. One angel helps her magically disappear to an island while the prince tries to chase her, grants her powers to change forms and appear as someone else. On the island, she receives a magic begging bowl. Later, she takes the form and dress of a married woman in the neighborhood, as the prince pursues her.[25] The husband sees the prince teasing her, and protects "his wife" – Manimekalai-in-hiding – by killing the prince. The king and queen learn of their son's death, order the arrest of Manimekalai, arrange a villain to kill her. Angels intervene and Manimekalai miraculously disappears as others approach her, again. The queen understands, repents. Manimekalai is set free. Manimekalai converts the prison into a hospice to help the needy, teaches the king the dharma of the Buddha.[24] In the final five cantos of the epic, Buddhist teachers recite main doctrines of Buddhism. She goes to goddess Kannaki temple in Vanci (Chera kingdom), prays, listens to different religious scholars, and practices severe self-denial to attain Nirvana (release from rebirths).[25][24]

Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi, an epic of the 10th century CE was written by Thiruthakka Thevar, a Jain monk. It narrates a supernatural fantasy story of a prince who is the perfect master of all arts, perfect warrior and perfect lover with numerous wives.[26][27] The epic begins with the story of a treacherous coup, where the king helps his pregnant queen escape in a peacock-shaped air machine but is himself killed. The queen gives birth to a boy. She hands him over to a loyal servant to raise, becoming a nun herself.[26] The boy grows up into a man, rather a superman, one who is perfect in every art, every skill, every field of knowledge. He excels in war and erotics, kills his enemies, wins over and marries every pretty girl he meets, then regains the kingdom his father had lost. After enjoying power, sex and begetting many sons with his numerous wives, the epic ends with him renouncing the world and becoming a Jaina ascetic.[26][28]

The Kundalakesi epic has partially survived into the modern age in fragments, such as in commentaries written centuries later. From these fragments, it appears to be a tragic love story about a Hindu[29] or Jain[30] girl of merchant caste named Kundalakesi who falls in love with Kalan – a Buddhist criminal on a death sentence.[31] The girl's rich merchant father gets the criminal pardoned and freed, the girl marries him. Over time, their love fades and they start irritating each other. During an argument, Kundalakesi reminds him of his criminal past which angers Kalan. A few days later, he invites her to a hike up a hill.[31] When they reach the top, he tells her that he will now kill her. The wife requests that he let circumambulate him – her husband – three times like a god, before her death. He agrees. When she is behind him, she pushes her husband over into the valley below and kills him. She feels remorse for killing the boy she once fell in love with and someone she had married. She meets teachers of various religious traditions, adopts Buddhism, renounces and becomes a nun, then achieves Nirvana.[31][29]

Vaḷaiyāpati is another lost work, that has survived in fragments as quoted in other Tamil texts. It is a story of a father who has two wives, abandons one who gives birth to their son, and the son grows up and seeks his real father.[32] The surviving stanzas of the epic, and the commentaries that mention Valayapathi, suggest that it was partly a text that was disputing and criticizing other Indian religions,[33] that it supported the ideologies found in early Jainism, such as asceticism, horrors at meat-eating, and monastic aversion to women.[34] It is therefore "almost certain" to be a Jain epic, written by a Jain ascetic, states Kamil Zvelebil – a Tamil literature scholar.[34] However, the substantial sections on Shaivism have led to uncertainty.[34]

Five minor Tamil epics[edit]

Similar to the five great epics, Tamil literary tradition classifies five more works as Ainchirukappiyangal (Tamil: ஐஞ்சிறுகாப்பியங்கள்) or five minor epics. The five lesser Tamil epics are Neelakesi, Naga kumara kaviyam, Udhyana kumara Kaviyam, Yasodhara Kaviyam and Soolamani.[2][35]

Publishing in modern times[edit]

U. V. Swaminatha Iyer (1855–1942 CE) resurrected the first three epics from appalling neglect and wanton destruction of centuries.[36] He reprinted the literature present in the palm leaf form to paper books.[37] Ramaswami Mudaliar, a Tamil scholar first gave him the palm leaves of Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi to study.[36] Being the first time, Swaminatha Iyer had to face a lot of difficulties in interpreting, missing leaves, textual errors and unfamiliar terms.[36] He set for tiring journeys to remote villages in search of the missing manuscripts. After years of toil, he published Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi in book form in 1887 CE followed by Cilappatikāram in 1892 CE and Manimekalai in 1898 CE.[36] Along with the text, he added much commentary and explanatory notes of terms, textual variations and approaches explaining the context.[36]

Criticism and comparison[edit]

"After the last line of a poem, nothing follows except literary criticism," observes Iḷaṅkō Aṭikaḷ in Cilappatikāram. The postscript invites readers to review the work. Like other epic works, these works are criticised of having an unfamiliar and difficult poem to understand. To some critics, Maṇimēkalai is more interesting than Cilappatikāram, but in literary evaluation, it seems inferior.[38] The story of Maṇimēkalai with all its superficial elements seems to be of lesser interest to the author whose aim was pointed toward spreading Buddhism.[38] In the former, ethics and religious are artistic, while in the latter reverse is the case. Maṇimēkalai criticizes Jainism while preaching the ideals of Buddhism, and human interest is diluted in supernatural features. The narration in akaval meter moves on in Maṇimēkalai without the relief of any lyric, which are the main features of Cilappatikāram.[39] Maṇimēkalai in puritan terms is not an epic poem, but a grave disquisition on philosophy.[40]

There are effusions in Cilappatikāram in the form of a song or a dance, which does not go well with the Western audience as they are assessed to be inspired on the spur of the moment.[41] According to Calcutta review, the three works on a whole have no plot and no characterization for an epic genre.[40] The plot of Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi is monotonous and deficient in variety in strength and character and does not stand the quality of an epic.[40]

Popular culture[edit]

There have been multiple movies based on Silappathikaram. 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.[42] 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.

Maṇimēkalai has been shot as a teleserial in Doordarshan.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zvelebil, Kamil (1992). Companion Studies to the History of Tamil Literature.
  2. ^ a b Mukherjee 1999, p. 277
  3. ^ Zvelebil 1992, p. 73
  4. ^ M.S. 1994, p. 115
  5. ^ Das 2005, p.80
  6. ^ a b Datta 2004, p. 720
  7. ^ a b c Zvelebil 1974, p. 130
  8. ^ M.S. 1904, p. 69
  9. ^ Zvelebil 1974, p. 131
  10. ^ a b Pollock 2003, p. 295
  11. ^ M.S. 1904, p. 68
  12. ^ a b Rosen, Elizabeth S. (1975). "Prince Ilango Adigal, Shilappadikaram (The anklet Bracelet), translated by Alain Damelou. Review". Artibus Asiae. 37 (1/2): 148–150. doi:10.2307/3250226. JSTOR 3250226.
  13. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 174–176.
  14. ^ Parthasarathy 1993, pp. 5–6.
  15. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1974, pp. 140–142.
  16. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1974, pp. 136–137.
  17. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1992, pp. 73–75.
  18. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1992, pp. 70–73.
  19. ^ Parthasarathy 1993, pp. 1-6, backpage.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g Parthasarathy 1993, pp. 2–5.
  21. ^ E.T. Jacob-Pandian (1977). K Ishwaran (ed.). Contributions to Asian Studies: 1977. Brill Academic. pp. 56–59. ISBN 90-04-04926-6.
  22. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1974, pp. 140–141.
  23. ^ Alain Danielou (Translator) 1993.
  24. ^ a b c Alain Danielou (Translator) 1993, pp. xxi–xxiv.
  25. ^ a b c Kamil Zvelebil 1974, p. 141.
  26. ^ a b c Zvelebil 1974, pp. 136–137.
  27. ^ David Shulman 2016, pp. 176–182.
  28. ^ David Shulman 2016, pp. 176–178.
  29. ^ a b Zvelebil 1992, p. 71.
  30. ^ Zvelebil 1992, p. 70.
  31. ^ a b c Kamil Zvelebil 1974, p. 142.
  32. ^ Zvelebil 1992, pp. 73–74.
  33. ^ M. S. Purnalingam Pillai (1994). Tamil Literature. Asian Educational Services. pp. 132–134. ISBN 978-81-206-0955-6.
  34. ^ a b c Zvelebil 1992, pp. 73–75.
  35. ^ Prameshwaranand 2001, p. 1151
  36. ^ a b c d e Lal 2001, pp. 4255–4256
  37. ^ M.S. 1994, p. 194
  38. ^ a b Zvelebil 1974, p. 141
  39. ^ Zvelebil 1974, p. 142
  40. ^ a b c University of Calcutta 1906, pp. 426–427
  41. ^ Paniker 2003, p. 7
  42. ^