Reinventing ‘Cilappadikaram’ for Today

in Overview
Published on: 05 March 2018

Indira Parthasarathy

Indira Parthasarathy is the pen name of R. Parthasarathy a preeminent Tamil novelist, playwright and scholar. Professor Parthasarathy retired as Director of Culture from Pondicherry Central University, a position equivalent to Pro-Chancellor, after teaching Tamil for several years in Delhi University and at the University of Warsaw, Poland. He has published 16 novels, 10 plays and many anthologies of short stories. He lives in Chennai.

‘Cilappadikaram’, which means, ‘the story centering around the anklet’ (an ornament worn by young Tamil girls before they are married, as vouched for by the Sangam poems), is an unusual and unconventional literary work, as it could be aptly described as both a play and an epic.



The title of this great classic is so different, in that it is not named after the protagonist of the epic but after her anklet. This anklet proves to be an agent of destiny for the heroine, the hero, the Pandya king, his wife and also for all the Aryan kings in northern India, who had earlier humiliated the Tamil kings (Chera, Chola and Pandya) from the south.



There are references to the anklet in the ancient Sangam classics like ‘Aingurunuru’, ‘Narrinai’ and ‘Akanaanuru’. ‘Aingurunuru’ mentions a ritual called ‘Cilambu kazhi nonbu’, on the wedding night of the heroine, when her ‘anklets’ would be removed. And, yet, she has to have her anklets with her all the time, not necessarily that she be wearing them always. ‘Cilambu’ perhaps represents her virginity, the period of innocence before her marriage and as such acquires sacredness that later becomes one of the insignia of the ‘Pathni cult’, symbolized by Kannagi, the heroine of ‘Cilappadikaram’.



With all these things in mind, Ilango, to whom the authorship of this work is attributed, gave the title ‘The Anklet Story’ to this epic.



‘Cilappadikaram’ is a unique work in Tamil in the sense that the storyline of this remarkable work is strikingly original and is not imported from Sanskrit, like many of the later literary works in this language are. There could have been earlier an oral tradition of this story, as is often said with reference to many of the world’s classics, Homer’s Iliad, Valmiki’s Ramayana and a host of others in other ancient languages of the world. Here, the poet Ilango converts this oral legacy into a fictionalized literary and dramatic narrative, which is also conveys the sum and substance of the cultural identity of the people inhabiting the Tamil region. As a result of this ambitious venture, this work turns out to be a theatre manual like Bharata’s Natya Sastra, spelling out the diversified theatrical and musical forms of both classical and popular culture that prevailed in ancient Tamil Nadu. It is also a literary and secular masterpiece, unsurpassed in its originality.



There are poems in ‘Purananuru’, a Sangam anthology, composed by Kapilar, Paranar, Aricilkizhar and Perunknrurkizhar referring to a woman  standing in the forest under a tree in great distress and with moist eyes, forsaken as she was by her husband, who was the chieftain of  the Palani hills. Her name was Kannagi and her husband’s name was Pegan, one of the seven illustrious philanthropists of the Sangam era. In fact, Aricilkizhar says emphatically that he had not approached the chieftain seeking wealth for himself but only to prevail upon him his obligation to the woman he had married and once loved. In ‘Narrinai’, Madurai Marudam Ilanaganar refers to a woman who has lost her husband and she is called ‘oru mulai aRuththa thirumAuNNi’  i.e, ‘thirumAuNNi, who has cast away one breast’.


Ilango, perhaps inspired by these poems wrote this epic and that the heroine’s name in 'Cilppadikaram’ is also Kannagi may not be all that coincidental. Also, Ilango’s Kannagi is seen by the hill tribes in the Chera country, as standing under a vengai tree near the hills. ‘Cilappadikaram’ consists of three cantos, each canto named after the three capital cities of the three kingdoms in the Tamil region, as Pukar Kantam, Madurai Kantam and Vanchi Kantam.



Who is Ilangoadigal? Is he the brother of Cheran Senguttuvan, the protagonist of the third canto of the epic? ‘Pathirrupaththu’, one of the earliest Sangam works is about the Chera kings and the fifth decad in this anthology is about ‘katal piRakkOttiya Cenkuttuvan’, who is associated with Cenkuttuvan mentioned in ‘Cilappadikarm’. The author of those ten poems, Paranar, refers to the ‘Kannagi Kottam’ (temple) built by him but does not mention the name of Ilango at all. If such an outstanding poet as Ilango had been Senguttuvan’s brother, Paranar would have referred to him at least with reference to 'Kannagi Kottam’, the presiding deity about whom he has written a remarkable epic.



So it would not be a far-reaching conclusion  if we assume that Ilangoadigal, though of Chera origin and descent, might have succeeded Senguttuvan by a few centuries, perhaps, he belonged to the fifth century CE. By his time, the golden period of Sangam era was over and the cultural scene of Tamil Nadu was in decline. The Chera poet, determined to document the glories of a recent past and to create a political and cultural identity of the Tamils, who lived in the three kingdoms (Chera, Chola, Pandya) wrote this epic-drama. It is not uncommon in the Indian literary context for the author to associate himself with the characters he has created, as we know this from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. This may be the reason why the author of ‘Cilappadikaram’ associates himself with the events that happen in the epic, at only one place, the 30th chapter, ‘Varan tharum kaathai’, where he refers to himself in the first-person singular and mentions that he makes a visit to the Kannagi temple. The myth about his forsaking the kingdom on behalf of his brother is told here.



The story takes place in all the three cities. The first two cantos deal with the story of Kovalan and Kannagi, the former’s liaison with the royal courtesan Madhavi, his subsequent return to his wife and their departure to Madurai, to seek a new beginning in the Pandya capital city. But Kovalan is unjustly killed by a royal order that wrongfully implicates him in a crime that has nothing to do with him. As hell hath no fury like a woman wronged, Kannagi rises in revolt seeking justice for her husband. She proves his innocence and the king dies, overcome by a sense of guilt and accompanying shame. The third canto Vanchi Kantam deals with the deification of the heroine, Kannagi, by the Chera king Senguttuvan, who attacks the north Indian Aryan kings, who have earlier insulted the Tamil kings (the Chera, Chola and Pandyas), defeats them and brings on their heads the sacred stone from the Himalayas to inscribe Kannagi’s icon.



Though the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas fought amongst themselves often, for the first time, we have literary evidence of the Chera king describing all the three of them collectively with fraternal affinity, as the Tamil kings on whose behalf he feels he needs to take vengeance on the Aryan kings. Perhaps, one could see in this the earliest reference to latent shades of Tamil cultural and political solidarity, which, in the modern jargon would be ‘Tamil nationalism’.



Violating the conventions of classical model of epic and drama writing, wherein the hero is supposed to be a man, belonging to the portrait gallery of rich and aristocratic men endowed with all the textbook qualities of virtue and valour, the poet Ilango presents an ordinary man, belonging to a trading community as the hero, and who is given to weaknesses and failings which are but reflections of normal human nature.



And this epic is all about the heroine, Kannagi, which again is a departure from convention.



Though the later Vaishnava scholars have this argument that ‘Ramayana’ is the story of ‘Rama’ (’ரமா’) i.e., Sita, in accordance with the ‘Sritathuva’ concept which they had later developed, it is clear that the Adikavi Valmiki had unambiguously meant ‘Ramayana’ to deal only with the story of Rama, the hero, the best among men.



The  important characters of this epic-drama, ‘Cilappadikaram’ are all women. Madhavi, the courtesan, whom Kovalan seeks after a few years of married life, Kaundhi, the religiously aggressive Jaina nun, who, at the slightest provocation starts lecturing on Jainism, and who acts as a guide for Kovalan and Kannagi to the Pandya capital city, Devandhi, the Brahmin friend of Kannagi, whose husband also has deserted her, but who justifies this in his being no less than a god, Madurapathi deyvam, the guardian angel of Madurai, who explains all that happens to Kovalan and Kannagi in the context of the Jaina doctrine of ‘karma’, Madhari, the elderly and compassionate cowherd woman, who shelters Kannagi and Kovalan in Madurai and finally the Chera queen, who is largely but indirectly responsible for the initiation of the Pattini cult in the Tamil country and Ceylon.



Ilango excels in the characterization of Kannagi, Kovalan and Madhavi, the courtesan, ‘the other woman’ in Kovalan’s life.



The sense of ‘alienation’ that each of the main characters suffers from seems to be the bottom line of the story. Kovalan belongs to the merchant class by birth and instead of devoting himself to accounting, which is his vocation, he is fully engrossed in the pursuit of arts, by involving himself totally to music, dance and all kinds of artistic revelry. This causes his sense of alienation from what he should have been and ultimately leads him to penury and unfortunate death in a foreign kingdom.



Kannagi is a strong and determined woman by inner nature, which asserts itself only after Kovalan’s death. As Kovalan’s wedded wife, she assumes the classical, model role of a gentle, patient and frail woman, as prescribed by our ancient dharmasastras, and she looks at Kovalan more as an institution essential for her being a sumangali than as her husband who needs loving. Her loftiest ambition in married life is to become a star in the horizon like Arundhathi, after her death.



On the wedding night Kovalan, emotionally charged by romantic visions of ecstatic love goes eloquent in poetic imagination to describe Kannagi’s natural beauty and alluring appearance. Kannagi does not respond to him. This, perhaps, comes as a cultural shock to Kovalan, even on the very first night. Kannagi, as one following the scriptural dictates laid down by our tradition, might have felt that any sensuous response would be unbecoming of a kulastree. No wonder, therefore, in the very next chapter, a disappointed Kovalan seeks the company of Madhavi, the most beautiful courtesan in the royal court, after her first maiden dance performance in the king’s presence that was duly rewarded by him. As per the custom, Kovalan buys the garland presented to Madhavi by the king to claim her as his mistress.



Madhavi is not a run-of-the-mill dancing girl to go after a man for his wealth. She is as romantic as Kovalan and unfortunately falls in love with him, which proves to be her tragedy that alienates her from her profession. She loves him intensely, entertains him with her music and dance and at the same time keeps her commitment to the royal decree that stipulates she should give public performances during the religious festivals. Kovalan does not like this one bit because he is possessive by nature and wants Madhavi all for himself. He does not enjoy her being the object of the public gaze.



But Kovalan is not all that faithful to Madhavi, as subtly brought out in a nuanced way by the poet in ‘Indiravizhvooretuththakaathai’. This chapter follows, ’Arangetrukaathai’ in which Madhavi performs her first public dance in the royal presence and is later claimed by Kovalan, as his courtesan. Both these chapters are elaborate portrayals of the cultural and economic affluence of Poompukar, the capital city of the Chola kingdom, but where the story develops only in the last few lines and with significance. In ‘Arangetru kaathai', Kovalan leaves Kannagi and joins Madhavi and in ‘Indiravizhvooretuththakaathai’, there is not only a subtle comment on Kovalan’s moral weaknesses, but also an indication based on good omens, that Kovalan would soon leave Madhavi and go back to Kannagi.



Indra vizha is a festival dedicated to Indra, the god of rains, celebrated in the middle of Chithirai–Vaikasi for 28 days announcing the arrival of the early mild summer season. The poet Ilango uses every opportunity to describe the rural and urban glory of all the three kingdoms with their varied geographical landscapes that dictates the regional culture of the people who inhabit that specific space. Classical music and dance find extensive mention in ‘Pukark katam’, the pastoral dance and music in 'Maduraikatam’, and hilly tribal music and dance in ‘Vanchikatam.’ The narration of these cultural events blends beautifully with the movement of the main story which is what makes the epic a multi-dimensional visual theatre.



A well-defined psychological portrayal of of the characters determines the success of an epic drama. Ilango leaves no stone unturned in this regard. Madhavi is not unaware of Kovalan’s failings, but unlike Kannagi, who suffers his misconduct patiently without reprimanding him, as is expected of a dutiful wife, glorified by the expression ‘KaRpu Mullai’, i.e., ‘when the heroine sticks to chaste conduct, whatever may be the circumstances’, Madhavi shows her disapproval of Kovalan’s waywardness by ‘feigned anger’, which is what makes their companionship sweet and enjoyable.



The situation in which Kovalan leaves Madhavi once and for all, is a beautiful psychological portrayal of Kovalan's character by the poet. Madhavi returns home after a performance and Kovalan is, at this point of his life, not only angry with her for her public show, but also with himself for having thrown away all his inherited fortune. He had already decided to leave her and without knowing the extent of his frustration and self-pity, Madhavi suggests visiting the beach to enjoy a pleasant spring evening,



At the beach, acceding to Madhavi’s genuine desire, Kovalan sings along with the yaazh that he plays on. This is one of the most beautiful scenes in 'Cilappadikaram’, when, as the poet says, it was the destiny in operation in the form of vocal music and accompanied by the instrument yaazh, played by both Kovalan and Madhavi. Madhavi’s mischievous and romantic delight to just tease him by reciprocating appropriately to what he sings earlier, justifying, as he does, man’s liaison with other women, unfortunately misfires. Kovalan, as though waiting for this opportunity, leaves her abruptly, more to convince himself that he is done with her than because of being really angry at the substance of her songs. 



His sense of guilt for neglecting his trade takes him directly from Madhavi’s company to his business house, and he finds, after stock taking, that he is close to a state of bankruptcy. Madhavi sends a beautiful romantic letter to him through her friend Vasanthamalai, requesting him to return, but this letter irritates him more, now that he has lost all he had in his romantic pursuits. He refuses to go back to her, as if only now it dawns on him that Madhavi, after all, is a dancing girl.



Madhavi has an immense respect for Kannagi and also for Kovalan’s parents, as is evident from the remarkable second letter she sends him through a Brahmin. When it is delivered by the Brahmin to him, Kovalan had already left Poompukar and is on the outskirts of the Chola territory and almost nearing Madurai, along with his wife Kannagi and the Jaina nun Kaundhi adigal. This letter is one of the most beautiful letters in the literary history, no less brilliant than the lover Rukmini’s letter to Krishna in Sri Bhagavatan.



I prostrate myself at your feet, my eminent Lord!

Forgive me for my indiscreet words!

Forsaking the duty to your reverend parents, that

You should leave with your wife of noble birth

At the break of dawn, am to blame

For all that had happened! Forgive me and free me from my agony!

O! Blameless Lord!  I worship you!



Before opening the palm-leaf, Kovalan holds it  to his nose and smells it, because the seal of the letter has the perfume used by Madhavi, and it appears that the eternal lover that Kovalan is, he is transported to the sessions of sweet romantic days he spent in Madhavi’s company. After reading the letter, he says that Madhavi is faultless and Destiny is to blame.



He also wants his parents to understand that Madhavi is totally different from all other women belonging to her community. He asks Kosikan, the Brahmin, who brought that letter, to show it to his parents.



Following this, there is a beautiful scene that portrays Kovalan's character. He meets with some wandering musicians and after borrowing their harp, starts singing, feeling relaxed and gradually being relieved of his sense of guilt and depression. Ilango, consummate dramatist he is, builds up the tempo for the ultimate tragedy, when Kovalan dies. It is likely that those who read it as an epic or watch it as a play would dislike Kovalan for his conduct in deserting not only Kannagi, but now Madhavi for flimsy reasons.



In ‘Adaikalakathai’, the chapter to follow, Matalan, the Brahmin friend of Kovalan, spells out all the good things Kovalan has done in his life and yet, why has Destiny been so cruel to him as to drive him away from his native home, seeking exile in Madurai? That Kovalan was prepared to risk his own life to save others may be a shocking revelation to many.



In ‘Kolaikalakathai’, for the first time we see Kannagi and Kovalan in happy wedded life, he partakes of the food she cooks for him, and also for the first time he apologizes to her for all his past misconduct. She does not hesitate to reprimand him for the first time and she does this gently and firmly. When the reader or viewer is hoping they are going to live happily hereafter, Kovalan is unjustifiably killed by the orders of the Pandya king, which comes to us as a rude shock that intensifies the dramatic import of the story.



The evolution of Kannagi from this point, as a most formidable woman who can challenge a mighty emperor for the sake of justice and moral order is total and complete hereafter. We see a totally different Kannagi, all fire and brimstone, like the incarnation of the goddess Kali, to prove the innocence of her husband and wreak vengeance on the king and his capital city in which such a foul thing should have happened.



The court scene in which she appears and argues with the king and makes him feel guilty for the miscarriage of justice is one of the most brilliant presentations in world’s classical theatre. Things happen so fast and furiously, keeping the reader/viewer on edge that with the ultimate death of the queen, following her husband’s demise,  the reader/viewer feels overwhelmed with grief, tinged with a sense of relief.



Kannagi, her righteous indignation still unsuppressed, plucks off her left breast and casts it away at the city after giving instructions to the god of fire, that Brahmins, saints, cows, chaste women, the elderly and children should be spared and the rest should be reduced to ashes.



The third canto, 'Vanji Kantam' deals with the Pathini cult that is initiated by Cheran Senguttuvan for which the genesis can be found in ‘Vanjina Malai’ in ‘Madurai Kantam’, wherein are listed the seven chaste women of Poompukar, all Tamils, of the city to which Kannagi belonged. The Chera king not only added one more to the list but deified her by raising a temple for her.



Tolkappiyam, the earliest grammar in Tamil, classifies literature as ’akam’ and ‘puram’. ‘Akam’ deals with the personal life of a man and woman, love, married life, and all other events related to them. ‘Puram’ deals with a person’s relation to society, war, and all other issues in the context of social life. The third canto ‘Vanji Kantam’ broadly outlines as a literary illustration for what Tolkappiyam has stipulated in the ‘Puram’ division. In fact, when the Chera king declares that he will take on the north Indian kings, for insulting the Tamil rulers, including the Chera, Chola and Pandya kings, he almost summarizes the Tolkappiyam rules in this regard.



The total integration of the Tamil and Sanskritic culture is reflected in 'Vanji Kantam.’ The canto begins with ‘Kunra Kuravai’, a typical Tamil folk dance of the hilly tribes and ends with the deification of Kannagi, a ritualistic ceremony that is an admixture of Vedic and non-Vedic elements. The Chera king, under the advice of Matalan, the Brahmin friend of Kovalan, who is featured in both Madurai and Vanji Kantam, as a kind of narrator or Chorus in the Greek tragedies, to link events for dramatic continuity, performs the Rajasuya yagna. The integration of Vedic and non-Vedic culture has taken place in the dim periods of pre-history and proto-history, so that it is very extremely difficult to identify which is Aryan and which is non-Aryan in Indian culture.



The most significant thing about the epic/play is its religious tolerance. Kovalan is a Jaina, and his father becomes Buddhist after his son’s death. Kannagi was perhaps an Hindu before her wedding, and becomes a Jaina after marrying Kovalan; her father joins the Ajivaka cult after her death. Madhavi, a Hindu, embraces Buddhism after Kovalan’s death. And there are six Brahmin characters, among whom Matalan is the most important. Kaundhi Adigal, who acts as the guide, philosopher and friend of Kovalan and Kannagi, is a Jaina nun. What does this mean? It only means that the basic concept of the play is to portray the glory that was Tamil Nadu in the field of art and culture as visualized by Ilango, and also to introduce a new concept of deifying a brave and glorious woman, who could challenge an empire in the context of social justice.


Photo courtesy: P Jeganathan [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons