By: Kumar Punithavel
There are five great epics in ancient Tamil literature which are collectively called Aymperumkaapiyam ( ஐம்பெரும் காப்பியம்) meaning five mega epics. They are Chilapathikaram (சிலப்பதிகாரம்), Manimekalai (மணிமேகலை), Chivagacinthamani (சீவக சிந்தாமணி), Valaiapathi (வளையாபதி), and Kundalakesi (குண்டலகேசி). It is interesting to note that each title of these epics is denoted by jewelry worn by Tamil women, implying they are beautifying mother Tamil. Chilambu (சிலம்பு) is the anklet worn by women. It hints that the weight of Mother Tamil’s weight is carried on Chilapathikaram and it is the oldest, dating about two thousand years. Chilapathikaram was authored by Ilanko Adikal, a prince turned Jain sage.
The story is that of Kannaki, a chaste woman, daughter of a wealthy business man, marries Kovalan and leads a peaceful life in Poompuhar, the coastal capital of Chola kingdom. Her life goes astray by the association of Kovalan with dancer Madhavi. When Kovalan realizes his folly and returns to Kannaki, both wanting to resurrect their life in Madurai, the capitol of Pandiyan dynasty. Having spent all his wealth on his other woman and is now in dire need, Kovalan goes out to sell one of the two anklets of Kannaki to start a business, but was caught and wrongfully accused of stealing the queen’s anklet which was reported stolen earlier. As a result, Kovalan was beheaded. The outraged Kannaki, usually a quiet house wife, storms the emperor’s court with the leftover anklet and proves without doubt that the anklet that Kovalan had was not that of the queen’s. Having proven her husband’s innocence, the King realizes his error of judgement and dies at the throne along with the Queen. It implies in those times, an average citizen could go to the emperor’s court and appeal for judgment in those days, and was able to get redress.
The widowed Kannaki casts spell on the city of Madurai burns down completely, by her chastity. Later Kannaki leaves the city wailing,” I entered this city by the eastern gate with my husband, and now am leaving it by the western gate alone’. As the tradition of that time Kannaki resolves to face north to starve and die.
Chera, the royal son, who had chosen a monastic life, adopting Jain religion and assumed the name Illango Adikal (இளங்கோ அடிகள்) hears about Kannaki’s heroic act of faith. In honour of Kannaki, Ilango Adikal resolved to make a monument of words, writing the great Chilapathikaram. His elder brother the Chera the crown prince took it to his task to go north all the way to Himalayas and brought stone from there overthrowing the Himalayan king and built a monumental temple for Kannaki.
On mentioning the incidence of his brother going to Himalayas, the author mentions:
கயலெழுதிய இமைய நெற்றியின் அயலெழுதிய புலியும் வில்லும்
Kayaleluthiya imaya netryin Ayaleluthia puliyum villum
Meaning, adjoining to the insignia of carp is engraved are the tiger and bow. The carp fish is the insignia of Pandya dynasty, and tiger and bow are that of Chola and Chera dynasties, respectively. This implies all three royalty of Tamil dynasties had traveled two thousand miles to the extent of the Himalayas and established their authority there.
The interesting clue that is found in this epic is, the use of Tamilian numbers. In those times they must have referred to nine as thondu. This could be inferred from the poet referring to 11,991 as twelve thousand less thondu. In the epic he says ‘தொண்டு மீண்ட பன்னீராயிரம்’ (Thondu meenda paneerayiram). This makes sense for all the other numbers that comes later like ninety in Tamil is thonooru (தொண்நூறு), and nine hundred is tholayiram ‘தொளாயிரம்’ and so on in numerical names.
Music gets extensive mention in this epic. The author uses the word paani ‘பாணி’ for the rhythm made by clapping the palm, and the same rhythm by taping the thigh as thaalam ‘தாளம்’. The word thaal (தாள்) in Tamil means thigh. Thus, the difference between the two types of beats. This expression is still followed today, to his credit. He says the music lead by this rhythmic gestures must be like kite bird (பருந்து) and its accompanying The accompanying artists in the music troupe must rise and lower as per the gestures of thaaLam and pann like a shadow.
This epic, is the one that used the word Tamil-Nadu first. He says, தென் தமிழ் நாட்டுத் தீதுதீர் மதுரை‘ (Then Thamil naatu thethu theer mathurai), meaning;’Fault dispelling southern Tamil Nadu’. Illango Adikal had coined the word around two thousand years before the modern name was given to it.
In any story there is bound to be a twist. In Chilapathikaram the twist happens at the great annual fair at Poompuhar, called Indra Viza (இந்திர விழா). Kovalan takes his lover Madhavi to the fair. While at the shore of confluence of River Cauveri and the great ocean, he watched how river Cauveri which nourishes the entire Chola kingdom finally finally merges with the ocean. The emperor had traveled as far north as up to the Ganges, conquering many countries on his way up, in order to bring the water to his people, and the river Cauveri, without becoming mad at him, spreads all over the Chola kingdom.
In his mind, Kovalan equates He compares Madhavi to Ganga and Kannaki to Kaveri. He feels the magnanimity of Kannaki, for not being angry with him, and feels sad and angry with himself realizing his guilt; he sings:
திங்கள் மாலை வெண்குடையான், சென்னி செங்கோல் அது ஓச்சிக்
கங்கை தன்னைப் புணர்ந்தாலும் புலவாய் வாழி காவேரி
கங்கை தன்னைப் புணர்ந்தாலும் புலவா தொழிதல், கயற்கண்ணாய்,
மங்கை மாதர் பெருங்கற்பு என்று அறிந்தேன் வாழி காவேரி
Thingal maalai venkudaian, senni senkol athu ochi
Kangai thanaip punarnthalum pulavai vaali Kaaveri
Kankai thanaip punarhalum pulavaa tholithal, kayatkannai
Mangai maathar perunkatpu endru arinthen vaali kaveri
Meaning, the Chola king who has a royal canopy like the famed moon, stretched his scepter to the Ganga stream to merge with her, you never loathed him Kaveri. Carp eyed Kaveri! I realize your magnanimity while I was still involved with Ganga, due to the great celibacy of a young woman’s virtue.
Madhavi, mistook the meaning of the above verse and thought, Kovalan was singing the song having another woman in his mind. She did not realize he was referring to his wife Kannaki who was magnanimous to forgive him. Irritated by all this, in return, she too starts singing as though she has another man in her mind. By her haste, the misunderstanding escalates resulting in both parting their own ways. It was the twist in the epic. In the end, Kovalan returns to his wife to start his life afresh. However, the fate had a different choice form thus ending up at the gallows for being wrongfully accused of stealing the queen’s anklet.
There attempts being made by the scholars of the north (India) that all of these collections of Tamil literature works were originally written in Sanskit. Some of them have gone to the extent to say that the word ‘Kannaki’ is part Tamil and part Sanskrit. Their logic is Kan + Aki = Kannaki. Kan (கண்) is the Tamil word for eye and Aki is the Sanskrit word for fire. As Kannaki caused the Madura engulfed in flames, they suggest that name was given. But it was the name given to her by parents on her birth. Because she had beautiful eyes, her parents named her Kanazhaki, meaning Kan + Azhaki (கண்+அழகி). The sound ‘ZHA’ got dropped, to get the name to be Kannaki. Illango Aadikal when describing Kannaki’s eyes says ‘கயல் நெடுங்கண்ணியனெ (kayal nedunkanniyena) and கயற்கண்ணி (Kayatkanni). The meaning of the word is beautiful long round eyes in the shape of a carp fish. The Goddess of Madurai is called Menakshidevi. Meen (மீன்) in Tamil is fish, and Achi (ஆட்சி) in Tamil is eyes. In Tamil, a beautiful rounded eye is always compared to a well-shaped Carp fish, thus the name. Kannaki is a pure Tamil word Kanazhaki (கண்ணழகி) meaning one with beautiful eyes, became twisted to Kannaki.
Illango Aadikal, had left a great treasure for the Tamils to enjoy. There were three women characters in this epic. First, of course is Kannaki, who fought to preserve her husband’s innocence and finally dies while seated facing north, as the tradition of the times calls. The second, Madhavi, a dancer by profession who lived with Kovalan as his mistress, leaves while being pregnant with his daughter and leads a life of bhikkuni, a buddhist nun. The story of Manimekalai, the daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi takes us to another epic, authored by another great poet of that time. The third woman in this epic to be appreciated was that of the Queen of Pandya king, in Madura who died at the throne by enormous guilt. Chilapathikaram is a great epic with insight of the great Tamilian way of life two thousand years ago.
The King of Ceylon at that time was Gajabahu, who attended the installation of Kannaki’s stone sculpture for worship. To this day the worshiping of Kannaki is done in Ceylon during Esala festival. It reminds the Thirukkural couplet # 50 which says;
He who shares domestic life, by household virtues graced,
Shall, mid the Gods, in heaven who dwell, be placed.
வையத்துள் வாழ்வாங்கு வாழ்பவன் வானுறையும்
Vaiyaththu vaalvangu vaalbavan vaanuraiyum
(This article was originally published in the Monsoon Journal)