|The literature of Tamil Nadu has been honored the world over for many years, and will likely be admired for some time to come. One such renowned Tamil literary masterpiece is Silappatikaram. According to Tamil literary traditions, Silappatikaram is one of the five Great Epics of Tamil Nadu, followed by Manimegalai, Civaka Cintamani, Valayapathi and Kundalakesi.
Silappatikaram (or Silappathikaram) was penned by the poet prince Ilango Adigal, who is also believed to have been a Jain monk. Some theories say Ilango Adigal was the brother of Senguttuvan, ruler of the Chera dynasty. The literary work has been held in high regard by Tamils. The epic is in the narrative form. It has three chapters and a total of 5270 lines of poetic verses. Kannagi is the protagonist of the tale. The story revolves around her husband Kovalan being subjected to a false accusation and death sentence at the court of the Pandya king. How Kannagi wreaks her revenge on the Pandya ruler’s kingdom forms the core of this epic.
Silappatikaram is believed to have been written during the first few centuries of the Common Era, but other theories propose that the author might have penned the epic around a pre-existing folklore. All three of the Tamil kingdoms of the ancient era – the Chola, the Pandya and the Chera – are mentioned in the tale. Despite the references to historical events and personalities in the work, many historians do not accept Silappatikaram as a reliable source of history. This is largely because of the many exaggerated events and achievements attributed to the ancient Tamil kings.
Silappatikaram is considered to be one of the greatest poetic works detailing the Tamil culture. The epic also emphasizes the importance of various religions, town plans and city types, and the mingling of Greeks and Arabs with the Tamil peoples. Moreover, the story is admired by many as it presents a treasure trove of information pertaining to music and dance – both classical and folk.
Silappatikaram depicts the life of Kannagi, a chaste woman leading a peaceful life with her husband Kovalan in Puhar (Poompuhar), the then capital of the Chola Empire. A beautiful courtesan dancer named Madavi enters their lives and lures away Kovalan. He passes several years with Madavi and spends all his money on her. Kannagi and Kovalan eventually mend their relationship and renew their life together in Madurai, the capital of Pandyas. Kannagi gives her valuable anklet to Kovalan to sell in order to raise money to start a business. (Silappatikaram means literally, “the anklet chapter.”) When Kovalan attempts to sell the anklet, he is falsely accused of stealing the anklet from the Pandya queen. Kovalan is sentenced to death and beheaded. Kannagi goes on to prove her husband’s innocence and burns the entire city of Madurai with a curse. Kannagi ascends to heaven with Kovalan and the gods, while Madavi shaves her head and becomes a monk.
Silappatikaram was composed in 25 cantos in akalval meter, which was used in most poems in Sangam literature. Silappatikaram is narrated in three chapters:
Puharkkandam (Puhar chapter): This chapter narrates the married life of Kannagi and Kovalan, and Kovalan leaving his wife for the courtesan Madavi in the Chola city of Puhar. The Puhar chapter is composed of 10 cantos or divisions.
Maduraikkandam (Madurai chapter): This chapter narrates how Kovalan loses his life in Madurai in the Pandya kingdom after being blamed mistakenly for the theft of the queen’s anklet. The Madurai chapter comprises 13 cantos.
Maduraikkandam (Madurai chapter): This chapter narrates how Kovalan is executed in Madurai in the Pandya kingdom after being falsely blamed for the theft of the queen’s anklet. The Madurai chapter comprises 13 cantos.
Vanchikkandam (Vanchi chapter): This chapter takes place in the Chera country where Kannagi ascends to the heavens. The Vanchi chapter comprises 7 cantos. Each chapter has numerous sub-divisions called kaathais.
Apart from being acknowledged as the first epic poem written in the Tamil language, Silappatikaram also holds the distinction for various other innovations. It was in this literary gem that poetry was first presented together with prose, a form not seen in previous Tamil works. Silappatikaram also has to its credit bringing folk songs to the literary genre for the first time. Another remarkable highlight is at the beginning of the story when praise is offered to the Sun, the Moon, the river Kaveri, and the city of Poompuhar. This is in contrast to the praise traditionally bestowed upon deities at the beginning of a story.
IN POPULAR CULTURE
The tale of Silappatikaram has been very popular ever since it was written. Several movies have been made based on the story, the most famous being the portrayal of Kannagi by the actress Kannamba in the 1942 movie Kannagi. The role of Kovalan was portrayed by P.U. Chinnappa. The movie was a smash hit when it was released. Another movie, titled Poompuhar, penned by M. Karunanidhi, is also based on Silappatikaram. Additionally, Silappatikaram has been depicted in the dance form by many great exponents of Bharatanatyam, as most of the verses of Silappatikaram can be set to music.