One of the most significant contributions to Tamil Literature, after Silappatikaram, is the epic Manimegalai, also known as Manimekalai. Said to be the continuation to Silappatikaram, this work tells the tale of Manimegalai, the beautiful daughter of Jainism followers and later Buddhist converts Kovalan and Madhavi.
According to Tamil literary tradition, Manimegalai, written by the Tamil Buddhist poet Seethalai Saathanar, is one of the five Great Epics of Tamil literature, which also include Silappatikaram, Civaka Cintamani, Valayapathi, and Kundalakesi. Manimegalai is a poem described in 30 cantos or divisions. The story of Manimegalai is basically the sequel to Silappatikaram and describes the conversion to Buddhism of the daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi, the lead characters from Silappatikaram. The exact date of this composition is controversial, but it is believed to have been written in the 6th century CE.
According to Tamil literary tradition, Manimekalai or Manimegalai, written by the Tamil Buddhist poet Seethalai Saathanar follows the footsteps of the five Great Epics ‘Silappatikaram’, ‘Civaka Cintamani’, ‘Valayapathi’ and ‘Kundalakesi’. Manimegalai is a poem described in 30 cantos or divisions. The story of Manimegalai is basically the sequel to Silappatikaram and describes the daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi, the lead characters from ‘Silappatikaram’, getting converted to Buddhism.
As he embarked upon writing Manimegalai, Seethalai Saathanar stood firm on carving a story which would carry on the saga of Silappatikaram, which was written by Ilango Adigal. In Manimegalai, the tale continues with Manimegalai, the beautiful daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi. The poem describes how Manimegalai analyzes the teachings of Buddha after studying the six systems of philosophy of Hinduism and other major religions of that time. Upon comparing the different belief systems, she becomes most impressed with Buddhism. Her Buddhist convictions are further strengthened when she studies the doctrinal expositions of Bhikshu Aravana Adigal, the Buddhist teacher. Manimegalai’s faith in Buddhism leads her to become a dedicated Buddhist nun, and she eventually attains nirvana.
The story begins with Manimegalai, a beautiful dancer-courtesan, being pursued by the romantic Cholan prince Udyakumaaran. However, Manimegalai is intent on dedicating herself to leading a religious celibate life. On a quest to find meaning to life, she meets the sea goddess Manimegala Theivam, or Manimekhalai Devī, who puts her to sleep and takes her to the island Manipallavam (Nainatheevu). Upon waking, she begins to wander about the island. She comes across the Dharma seat, the seat on which Buddha had taught and pacified two warring Naga princes. According to mythology, the seat had been placed there by the God Indra. Legend has it that those who worship the seat will be able to recollect who they were in their previous life.
Not knowing the entire myth behind the Dharma seat, Manimegalai begins to worship it and recollects events pertaining to her previous life. The guardian goddess of the Dharma seat, Deeva-Teelakai (Dvīpa Tilakā) then appears before Manimegalai. She explains the significance behind the Dharma seat and lets her obtain the never-failing magical begging bowl (cornucopia) called Amrta Surabhi (“cow of abundance”). She tells Manimegalai that the purpose of the bowl is to provide food at all times and that it will help in alleviating hunger. The goddess then instructs her to go meet Bhikshu Aravana Adigal in her native town who will teach her more about the meaning of life. Manimegalai then uses the mantra given to her by the sea goddess and returns to Kāveripattinam. Here, she meets Bhikshu Aravaṇa Aḍigal, who provides ample illustrations on Buddha’s teachings. He explains everything there is to know about the nature of life. Upon attaining this knowledge, Manimegalai decides to become a Buddhist nun or Bhikshuni. She strives to free herself from the bondage of birth and death and in the process to attain Nirvana.
Seethalai Saathanar, in his work Manimegalai, provides information about Buddhism and its place in the history and culture of Tamil Nadu during the 6th century CE. Information on arts, culture, and customs dating to those times has been highlighted to a great extent in this epic. The poem describes elegantly the Buddhist doctrine and the Four Noble Truths (ārya-satyāni), Dependent Origination (pratītyasamutpāda), Mind (citta), and Buddhist practtices such as Virtue (Śīla) and Non-Violence (ahimsa).
The story in the poem is set in the harbor town of Kāveripattinam, the modern town of Puhar in Tamil Nadu, and in Nainatheevu of NākaNadu, a small sandy island of the Jaffna Peninsula in modern Sri Lanka.
While writing Manimegalai, Seethalai Saathanar focused primarily on comparing Buddhism favorably with other prevailing religions in South India of that time in order to propagate Buddhism. In his work, he criticizes Jainism, the chief rising religion and competitor of Buddhism at the time. He also points out the weaknesses evident in other contemporary Indian religions and goes on to praise Buddha’s teaching, the Dhamma, as the most perfect religion. The exact date of this composition is still mired in controversy with some stating that it was written in the 6th century CE.
SURVIVAL OF THE TEXT
Of all the five Great Epics, it must be noted that Manimegalai is the only existing Tamil Buddhist literary work. Many attribute the survival of the text of Manimegalai to its being the sequel to the popular epic Silappatikaram.
U. V. Swaminatha Iyer first edited and published Manimegalai, Silappatikaram, and Civaka Cintamani in the late 19th century as part of his effort to transfer Tamil literature from palm leaf manuscripts to paper.
Manimegalai was first translated into English by R. B. K. Aiyangar and was published in 1928 in Manimekhalai in its Historical Setting. The extracts were then republished in Hisselle Dhammaratana’s Buddhism in South India. A more recent translation of the work was done in 1989 by Alain Daniélou in collaboration with T.V. Gopala Iyer. The epic was also published in a Japanese translation by Shuzo Matsunaga in 1991