Art & LiteratureColumnsPunithavel

Kundalakesi (குண்டலகேசி)

By Kumar Punithavel

Kumar Punithavel

Among the large collections of ancient Tamil literature, there are five great epics referred to as Aimperumkapiyam (ஐம்பெரும் காப்பியம்), meaning five mega epics. Kundalakesi is one of them. This, and Valaayapathy (வளையாபதி), could not survive the wrath of time and a large section of them have been lost. Though it’s believed that the original text of the epic had ninety-nine verses, only nineteen of them have been found to date. We learn about this epic from quotations, citations and references made in other great Tamil texts during its time and later. The name of the author of this epic is Nathakunthanar (நந்தகுந்தனார்).

In this epic, the heroine’s birth name was Bhadra Theesa. At latter stage of her life, she became a Buddhist nun, and shaved her head. When the hair regrew, it grew curly like a round ear ring. Kundalam (குண்டலம்) in Tamil means ear ring. Kesam (கேசம்) is the Tamil word for hair. Thus, the name Kundalakesi, meaning person with hair like ear rings.

The story, as reframed for want of the original text, goes as follows; Bhadra Theesa was born in a wealthy merchant’s family in Puhar (புஹார்), the capital of Chola Kingdom. She lost her mother when she was very young and lived in a sheltered life. In that city, lived a handsome highway robber named Kaalan. He was arrested while committing a highway robbery and was sentenced to death.

One day, while he was being taken along the streets of Puhar to face his punishment, Kundalakesi saw the handsome prisoner through the window of her house, and instantaneously fell in deep love with him. Out of infatuation for Kaalan, she begged her father to save the prisoner. The wealthy father who loved his only daughter very much, appealed to the king to release Kaalan, and offered to pay anything for his release. In the end, the wealthy father paid to the coffers of the king, gold equivalent to the weight of thief Kaalan, in addition to 81 elephants.

Upon his release, Kaalan got married to Kundalakesi, and the couple lived together happily. As mentioned in the famous adage, “tiger never changes its stripes”, Kaalan, this time wanted to rob all the wealth of his wife Kundalakesi, and had hatched a plan.

One day, Kaalan suggested to Kundalakesi very casually, that they both go hiking to the mountain Saar. She too gladly joined her lover husband innocently for the fun climb, which she loved very much for its panoramic view from the summit on that bright sunny day.

However, while climbing half way she felt some evil motive in her husband’s suggestion of hiking. She innocently asked Kaalan what’s his plan is. Realizing she has guessed his sinister plans, he confessed that he had planned to rob her of all the jewelry and push her over the cliff. Realizing how wicked he is, she realized her end is near. But she begged him for one last wish. Saying, still he is her husband, and she would like to circumnavigate him three times, and get his blessing before
dying so that she will go to heaven. He too felt there is no harm for his plans, and thinking if she wants to be stupid so be it, he consented to her wish. Upon reaching the summit, while walking around him with cusped palms and closed eyes praying, she pushed him from his behind over the cliff to his death.

On her return, Kundalakesi was sad and dejected by her lovers’ betrayal. She renounced the worldly life and became a Buddhist nun shaving her head with a palmyra leaf stem blade. In those days of distant past, large portion of Tamils followed Buddhist religion. The hair that sprouted after shaving
grew curly, and thus she got the name Kundalakesi.

The epic Kundalakesi is believed to have been authored by Nathakunthanar. The original text is
believed to be comprised of 99 verses, of which, only 19 is now available. As a sample let’s look at the
second verse, which is the one after the invocation of blessing. The verse starts with mention of medicines. A sick person will not bother about the taste
of the medicine however bitter it may taste.

Sick one cares not about taste of medicine;
நோய்க்குற்ற மாந்தர் மருந்தின்சுவை நோக்க கில்லார்

Next line mentions that a person on a cold wintery day seated next to bonfire, will not be
bothered about the smoke that comes out of the fire from which he gets the warmth.

Warmth seekers care not the smoke of the fire.
தீக்குற்ற காத லுடையார்பகைத் தீமை யோரார்

The poet continues, as one narrates about Buddha who abdicated the throne and renounced
the three faults. The inherent faults of humans being our desire, hate and ignorance as mentioned by
Lord Buddha.

Praising the one who abdicated the three folly’s I recount,
போய்க்குற்றமூன்று மறுத்தான்புகழ் கூறு வேற்கென்

Any mistake I make in my narration should not be considered as a wrong doing, for out of love
and admiration of the great one I make this epic.

It’s not an error even if I make one out of ignorance.
வாய்க்குற்றசொல்லின் வழுவும்வழு வல்ல வன்றே.

Let’s take a look at the whole verse # 2 of Kundalakesi;

Sick one cares not about the taste of the medicine,
Warmth seekers care not the smoke of the fire.
Praising the one who abdicated the three folly’s I recount,
Consider not as error, even if I make out of ignorance.

நோய்க்குற்ற மாந்தர் மருந்தின்சுவை நோக்க கில்லார்
தீக்குற்ற காத லுடையார்பகைத் தீமை யோரார்
போய்க்குற்றமூன்று மறுத்தான்புகழ் கூறு வேற்கென்
வாய்க்குற்றசொல்லின் வழுவும்வழு வல்ல வன்றே.

The Verse # 9 of Kundalakesi talks about the impermanency of life, which is the core thought in Buddhist theology. We go
through various stages in our lives, and as we pass along what ever we passed, will never come back to them again. The poet
quests why not we moan in our old age, for all we will not be coming back to, instead, why not we moan ahead for what we will be facing? The poet seems to imply not to grieve for death since death is not something new. If we are to grieve for death, then we should be crying for our selves too. Here
is the verse and the translation;

Death to the form of fetus, death to the form of childhood,
Death to the form of adolescence, death to the form of youth,
Death repeating is distressing, death comes in old age too,
Death happens in all stages, why don’t we cry for our self too!

பாளையாம் தன்மை செத்தும் பாலனாம் தன்மை செத்தும்
காளையாம் தன்மை செத்தும் காமுறும் இளமை செத்தும்
மீளும்இவ் இயல்பும் இன்னே மேல்வரு மூப்பும் ஆகி
நாளும் நாள் சாகின்றாமால் நமக்கு நாம் அழாதது என்னோ!

It is interesting to note, about two thousand years ago Buddhism was greatly followed by Tamils, though only very few Tamils do follow this religion at present. However, the influence of the teachings of Lord Buddha is greatly lingers on like compassion and vegetarianism, which may be attributed to his
teachings and to that of the influence of St. Thiruvalluvar classic book of ethics called Thirukkural to a great extent.