By: Kumar Punithavel
The heroine of the epic Manimekalai is the daughter of Madhavi (மாதவி) and Kovalan (கோவலன்) of Chilapathikaram, another one among the five mega epics of the Tamil literature, collectively called as Aimperumkaappiyam (ஐம்பெரும்காப்பியம்). Others being, Chivagacinthamani (சீவகசிந்தாமணி), Valaiapathi (வளையாபதி), and Kundalakesi (குண்டலகேசி) .
Of these, Manimekalai and Chilapathikaram are referred to as twin epics as the characters of these stories are interwoven. Manimekalai was authored by Seethalai Sathanar (சீதலைச் சாத்தனார்), a great poet of that time, whereas Chilapathikaram was authored by Illangovadikal (இளங்கோவடிகள்). Both of them led
monastic lives. While Seethalai Sathanar followed the Buddhist tradition, Illangovadikal chose to be Jain monk.
Madhavi, the protagonist of Manimekalai, hailing from dancing clan, fell in love with Kovalan, a character from Chilappathikaaram, and lived together in Madurai. They had a beautiful daughter who was named Manimekalai. When Kovalan ended their affair, Mahdavi decides to live alone to take care of her daughter Manimekalai. Mahdavi brought her daughter to be a chaste woman and both, bearing the scars of abandoning by Kovalan, chose to adhere to a monastic life.
Mahdavi continued living her life without any carnal desires. She had a close female-friend named Sutamathi. Both had a common desire to become Buddhist nuns.
The crown prince Uthayakumaran was deeply attracted by Manimekalai’s enchanting beauty and wanted to marry her. Unable to thwart the attempts by the prince, Manimekalai sought solace from Manimekalai-the-goddess, and the gardian deity. The goddess charms her to deep sleep, and takes her to Manipallavam, a far away island, where she could take the path of spirituality. Following this, the goddess appears in Sutamathi’s, dream and told her what had happened to Manimekalai, so that she could inform Manimekalai’s mother Mahdavi.
Left alone, the confused Manimekalai, starts roaming the island where she comes across a foot print on a rock called Pathapangaja Malai (பாதபங்கஜ மலை), loosely translated ‘lotus foot mountain’ which is believed by Tamils, is in present day Sri Lanka, called Sivanolipaatha malai’ (சிவனொளிபாத மலை). The Buddhists claim the foot print was that of Buddha. There is a legend which claims that Buddha came down to Sri Lanka to settle a feud between two Naga princes as to who should inherit the gem-set throne of their ancestors.
It is worthy of note that Buddha’s visit to Nagadeepa, an islet off the North of Sri Lanka and presently called Nainativu, where he preached the sermon of reconciliation to the inhabitants, as mentioned in the Bali chronicle Mahavamsa. In Maravanpulavu, a village in the Jaffna peninsula, there are many Naga deity images, and also some folk lore that Buddha came and settled the quarrel between the two Naga royal brothers. The word Maravanpulavu in Tamil means warriors’ land.
In the same chronicle Mahavamsa, the visit of Gajabahu to Chera kingdom, for the conscription of the Image of Kannaki by the Chera emperor Chenkootuvan
too is mentioned.
On circumambulating the holy seat, and prostrating herself before it,brought herself miraculously the memories of her past life. She also got three boons from Goddess Manimekalai. She got the power to change her identity, dispel hunger and travel in the sky. It saved Manimekalai from harm on many occasions.
While in Manipallavam, Manimekalai was provided with an enchanted bowl called Amuthasurabi (அமுத சுரபி) which had the ability to replenish food it contained in an unending manner so that she could feed the poor endlessly. The bowl was provided to her by the Goddess with one condition, that it should only be used to feed the hungry.
Upon her return home Manimekalai told her experiences to her mother and her friend Sutamathi. While at home, she starts using Amuthasurabi to feed the hungry and starving people. Hearing her return, the prince Uthayakumaran once again made attempts to woe her. In order to escape from the prince this time around, she used her magical powers to transform herself to the form of Kayasandikai (காயசண்டிகை), the wife of Vidyadhara (வித்தியாதரர்) and escapes the prince’s pursuits.
Manimekalai continues to live in that form and carries on with her charity and feeding the poor with the help of her enchanted bowl. She finally reaches the prison where she not only did preach but also persuaded the king to convert the prison into a monastery. While pursuing her desire of charity, the crown prince finds out the truth that Kayasandikai is none other than Manimekalai. While the prince confronting Manimekalai, with the twist of fate, Vidyadhara the husband of real Kayasandikai too, comes down searching for his wife finds her in the presense of the prince. However, Manimekalai, in the assumed form of Kayasandikai, couldn’t recognize Vidyadhara, frowns and refuses to acknowledge his gestures. While this was going on, she was able to recognize the prince.
When Manimekalai relaized that she was outed, she smiles at the prince, Watching his ‘wife’ smiling at the prince, Vidyadhara, with uncontrollable anger, pulls out his sword and hacks the prince who dies at the scene instantly. Following this, Manimekalai was arrested and put in prison.
Finding out the truth form Madhavi, the mother of Manimekalai, and from the good deeds that Manimekalai has been doing in the prison, the queen finally releases her. Manimekalai continues with her religious pursuit and charity and ends up at Chola city of Thanjai (தஞ்சை), which was the hub of Buddhist studies at that time.
There were many other details about rebirth, reincarnation etc. which is not included in this brief of the epic. The author of the epic was a Buddhist monk, and much
about Buddha’s teachings are expressed in this epic too.
One cannot fail to see the resolute of Mahdavi and her daughter Manimekalai, both of whom chose to lead monastic lives, and lived as Bhikkunis (Buddhist-nuns) till the end.
Considering the present day women who are still struggling for equal rights, nearly two thousand years ago, in that male chauvinistic society, Manimekalai the heroine of the epic, fought her life alone which is a herculean task. She was not only a Bhikkuni, who quenched the spiritual thirst and also fed the hungry. She shines like a polar star guiding the world to this day.
While we praise Kannaki, who exonerated her husband from being wrongly accused, who had to burnt the city down by her great virtue of chastity to prove her point. We can’t but venerate Madhavi too. Though born in a clan of dancers, and in those days the women folk of those clan tend to lead a promiscuous life, she out of frustration of her lover’s betrayal on her, continued to pursue celibate life and raised the child as a single mother two thousand years ago. When heard her lover Kovalan was sentenced to death, out of frustration she renounces the world, but not the child she had with her lover, continues to live for the sake of the child, making a righteous woman out of her. One can wonder is it the enslavement of women in the days gone by or the virtuous characters of Madhavi and Manimekalai?
Manimekalai had many unanswered questions in her mind like why a righteous woman like her mother should suffer? Or why she who had done no hurt to any one
should suffer so much? There were thousands of questions in her young mind, and she went around seeking answer from various religious heads in quest to find the truth. Truth being an uncharted path she went to the extent to seek answer from a Bhutavadi (பூதவாதி) (or ulagavādi) which means an agnostic, and he replied;
When asked an agnostic for explanation;
“Jaggery mixed with ‘athi’ flower and other ingredients, will turn into liquor, Likewise, when elements conjoin, they produce senses, When senses perish the elements return to their original form.
When drum beat stops sounds wane away, Likewise, the elements with life, when life extinct Senseless elements too would extinct”.
பூத வாதியைப் புகல்நீ என்னத்
தாதகிப் பூவும் கட்டியும் இட்டு
மற்றும் கூட்ட மதுக்களி பிறந்து
ஆங்கு, உற்றிடும் பூதத்து உணர்வு தோன்றிடும்
அவ்வுணர்வு அவ்வப் பூதத்து அழிவுகளின் வெவ்வேறு பிரியும்
பறை ஓசையில் கெடும்
உயிரொடும் கூட்டிய உணர்வுடைப் பூதமும்
உயிர்இல் லாத உணர்வுஇல் பூதமும்.
(Originally published in the April 2021 Edition of Monsoon Journal, republished here with the author’s consent)