There are five great epics in ancient Tamil literature which are collectively called Aymperumkaapiyam (ஐம்பெரரும் காப்பியம்) meaning five great epics. They are Chilapathikaram (சிலப்பதிகாரம்), Manimekalai (மணிமேகலை), Chivagacinthamaniந்(சீவக சிந்தாமணி), Valaiapathi (வளையாபதி), and Kundalakesi (குண்டலகேசி). It is interesting to note that each title of the epics is different jewelry worn by Tamil women, implying they are beautifying mother Tamil. Chilambu 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 recluse.
The story is that of Kannaki a chaste woman, daughter of a wealthy businessman, marries Kovalan and leads a peaceful life in Poompuhar, then a coastal capital of Chola kingdom. Her life goes astray by the association of Kovalan with dancer Madhavi. Finally, Kovalan realizes his folly and returns to Kannaki both wanting to resurrect their life in Madurai, the capitol of Pandiyan dynasty. Having lost all his wealth, Kovalan decides to sell one of the two anklets of Kannaki to start a business. While he was at the market attempting to sell the anklet, he was wrongfully accused of stealing the queen’s anklet and subsequently beheaded. Outraged Kannaki, otherwise a quiet housewife, went to the emperor’s court and proved her husband’s innocence by producing the left over of the pair of anklets. On realizing his error of judgement, the emperor and the queen both fell dead on the throne in front of their court. 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 story implies.
The widowed Kannaki’s wreath made her curse the entire City of Madurai by her chastity and was reduced to ashes completely. Later Kannaki leaves the city wailing,” I entered this city by the eastern gate with my husband, and now leaving it by the western gate alone’. As the tradition of that time Kannaki resolves to face north starving and die.
The Chera royal son, who had accepted the life of a recluse, adopting Jain religion and took the hermitage name of Illango Adikal, heard about Kannaki’s heroic act of faith. He resolved to make a monument of words, writing the great Chilapathikaaram. His elder brother, the Chera crown prince took it to his task to go north all the way to Himalayas, overthrow its king and brought stone to the South to build a monumental temple for Kannaki.
On mentioning the incidence of his brother going to the Himalayas, the author states:
“கயலெழுதிய இமைய நெற்றியின் அயலெழுதிய புலியும் வில்லும்“
Kayaleluthiya imaya netryin Ayaleluthia puliyum villum
Meaning, adjoining to the imprint of carp is engraved are the tiger and bow. The carp fish is the logo of Pandya dynasty, and the tiger and the bow are the logos of Chola and Chera dynasties respectively. This implies all three royalty of Tamil dynasties had traveled two thousand miles and extended their authority up to the Himalayan region.
An interesting clue is found in this epic is about Tamilian number system. In those times they must have referred to number 9 as thondu. This could be inferred from the poet referring to 11,991 as twelve thousand, less a 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 (90) in Tamil is thonnooru (தொண்நூறு), and nine hundred (900) is tholayiram ‘தொளாயிரம்’ and so on, in numerical names.
The author has extensively discussed about music in Chilappathikaaram. He uses the word paani ‘பாணி’ for the rhythm made by clapping the palm, and the same rhythm by slapping at the thigh as thaalam ‘தாளம்’. The word thaal (தாழ்) in Tamil means leg. Thus, the difference between the two types of beats. He goes on to give instruction to the future musicians regarding the accompanying music artists. He says the accompanying music must be like kite bird (பருந்து) and its shadow. Like the shadow that rises and lowers behind the bird the accompanying artists music must rise and lower according to the singer.
Chilappathikaaram , is the one that used the word Tamil-Nadu first. He says, தென் தமிழ் நாட்டுத் தீதுதீர் மதுரை’ (Then Thamil naadduth theethu theer mathurai), meaning, ’Ill dispelling southern Tamil Nadu’. Illango Adikal had coined the word around two thousand years before the modern name was given to it.
As in any story plots, Chilapathikaram too has a turning point. Kovalan visits Indra Vizha, the annual fair celebrated at the city of Poombuhaar (பூம்புஹார்) which was situated at the shore where River Cauveri confluence with the Indian ocean, with his lover. He watched the way river Cauveri which had made whole of Chola kingdom futile and merged with the ocean. Realizing the emperor had travelled far north up to Ganges conquering many countries, without becoming mad at him she had spread in his kingdom and protecting his citizenry.
He contemplates about his loving wife Kannaki and his concubine Madhavi. He compares Madhavi to Ganga and Kannaki to Kaveri. He feels the magnanimity of her not being angry with him, and feels sad and angry with himself realizing his fault. 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 of the above Tamil verse is as follows: 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 Cauveri. Carpe like eyed Cauveri! I realize your magnanimity while he involved with Ganga was, 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, and she sang a song, as if she too was thinking of another man. By her haste, they parted ways. It was the turning point in the epic. Kovalan returns to his wife to start his life again, where he was wrongfully accused and given death sentence in Madurai.
There is a tendency for the scholars who came down from the north India to some way or other try to prove, all Tamil literature originated from Sanskrit. They had gone to the extent to say 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 to destroy in flame they suggest that name was given. But it was the name given to her by parents on 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 frequently a beautiful rounded eye is 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. It is a pure Tamil word Kanazhaki became Kannaki.
The Jain hermit Illango Aadikal though a recluse, had left a great treasure for the Tamils to enjoy. There were three women in the epic. First of course is Kannaki who fought to restore the husband’s innocence and finally took away her life seated facing north to be reunited with her husband. Madhavi a dancer by profession who lived with Kovalan as a mistress, on his abandoning her, as she was already pregnant continued living as a Buddhist nun bringing up her daughter Manimekalai as a Buddhist nun too. The story of which is narrated in the epic Manimekalai another great epic of Tamil. Thirdly the Pandya empress too died when her husband died out of guilt and lost honor. 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 Gajabahu, attended the installation of her 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 Vaazhvangu vaazhbavan vaanuraiyum
(This article was originally published in Monsoon Journal. The content is republished here with the consent of the author, with few changes)