Kundalakesi is one of the five great classic epics of Tamil language, others being Silappadhikaram, Manimekhalai, Valaiyapathi and Seevaka Chintamani. It is the fragment Buddhist epic written by Nagakuthanar. Manimekhalai, Valaiyapathi and Kundalakesi are the works of Tamil Buddhist poets whereas the remaining two are Jain works.
Kundalakesi was written in the 7th century and it is not available in full. Only the fragments of the literature have been found in the library works and in the commentaries that have survived.
The story rolls around the life history of a young girl, Bhadra, who later becomes Buddhist Bhiksuni (female monk), Kundalakesi. The story was adopted from Dharmapada, the great Buddhist literature.
Kundalakesi literally means “a girl with hair curled around her ears resembling an ornament.”
Bhadra was born in a merchant family in the city of Puhar. One day, when she was playing on the terrace of her house, she saw a thief, Kaalan being paraded on the streets of the city on the charge of theft and sentenced to death by the king. Bhadra falls in love with him and expresses her desire of marrying Kaalan to her father.
Her father being a minister speaks to the king and arranges for the release of Kaalan. As compensation, he pays Kaalan weight gold and 81 elephants to the treasury to secure Kaalan’s life. Both Bhadra and Kaalan get married and lead a happy life for some time.
One day, Bhadra playfully refers her husband as a thief, recalling his previous actions. This act stings Kaalan to a quick and enrages him. He decides to take revenge on her, also in part due to his desire on the jewellery of Bhadra.
Due to his treacherous thought, he asks his wife to appear in her best clothes and the jewels, so that they can go for outing. He takes his wife to the summit of the mountain rock and threatens her saying that he is going to push her off the mountains and orders her to remove all the jewels. Bhadra being smarter than Kaalan says that she is willing to pray her ultimate God, her husband (in India, girls respects their husbands more than God). Once he permitted, she started moving around him and when she came back to him, she just pushes him off the mountain and Kaalan dies.
Disgusted with life and never wanted to return home, she hung up all her jewels in a tree and went on her way, without knowing where she was going. She happened to come to a place of Paribbajikas (female wandering ascetics) and she herself became a Paribbajika. To become a saint, one should not have long hair; hence, she cut her hair. When the hair started growing again, it curled around her ears looking like an ornament. Hence, she was called, “Kundalakesi”.
The Paribbajikas taught her all their one thousand problems in sophistry and Kundalakesi being brilliant, learnt everything in short period of time. Her teachers advised her to go out and find her teacher who will be able to answer all her 1000 questions.
Originally, Kundalakesi is said to be a Jain monk who moved all over India for expanding Jainism by debating with Non-Jainism monks and refuting them. On one occasion, she came to Savatthi and placed a rose-apple bough into a heap of sand as a sign that she would debate with anyone who would debate with her.
Sariputta, the great disciple of Buddha challenges Kundalakesi and defeats her by answering all the 1000 questions. Then, she becomes the devotee of Buddha and starts spreading Buddhism by challenging and defeating the Non-Buddhist monks.
The author of the epic is a Buddhist and his name was Nagasena. The Pali name, Nagasena may have been Tamilized into Nathakuthanar.
19 versus among the 99 versus of the epic have been recovered and an addition of five more verses has been found; but, it is still uncertain whether or not, these five verses belong to Kundalakesi. The 19 verses were found in the commentaries of Tolkappiyam, Veera Sozhiyam, Yapperungalam, Thakkayagaparani, Sivagnana Siddhiyar Parapakkam (Thirvorriyur Gnanaprakasar’s commentary).
The epic is very popular being one of the five great epics of Tamil literature.
The early life story of Kundalakesi killing her husband has been used in the Tamil movie, Manthiri Kumari in 1951.
The destruction of this epic was a big blow to Buddhism as it was the splendid source of Buddhist history and it contained the details of the Buddhist culture.
Kundalakesi is purely a Buddhist work. This is evident from the Jain work, Nilakesi, a counter written to Kundalakesi.