‘Silappadhikaram’, the epic of anklet (silambu in Tamil) is one of the five great epics of Sangam Tamil Literature. Its author is Saint Elango known as Elango Adikal. He was a prince brother of Cheran senguttuvan but renunciated worldly life and took to Jain Sainthood to give way for his brother to occupy the throne, thereby falsifying a sooth saying that the younger brother would supersede the elder in occupying the throne. They were from the harbour capital Vanchi and the epic was written by the poet from Chera kingdom.(Now a part of Modern Kerala).
The story line of Silappadhikaram is nothing less than a modern suspense thriller. This was the first of its kind to portray common citizens as hero and heroine as against other epics having only Gods and kings as main characters. Its main female character Kannagi is celebrated as Goddess Durga all over India and a temple is there known as Kannagi temple in Kerala. The story explains in detail the three kingdoms prevailing in South India namely Chola, Pandiya and Chera kingdoms occupying the then South India, their rulers, life and practices of people living in those times. Emphasise is given to the high moral values of people and the excellent sense of justice among the kings. No doubt, this is considered as one of the masterpieces in world literature.
The story in brief:
Though the author Elango belonged to Chera kingdom, the main characters belonged to Chola kingdom. Kannagi, the female lead of the story was the daughter of a flourishing businessman from Poompuhar, the coastal headquarters of Chola kingdom.. She was married to Kovalan, son of another equally wealthy businessman. Their married life was very happy and peaceful till Kovalan met Madhavi, a beautiful dancer in a dance concert. Kovalan got infatuated with Madhavi and started living with her, abandoning Kannagi. Both of them had a very happy living together till the day of ‘Indira festival. That day, along the Poompuhar beach, dance, music and merriment used to take place. During the merriment, Madhavi sang a poem indirectly implying that all men were womanisers (including Kovalan of course). Infuriated by this, Kovalan left her and again returned to Kannagi. (Madhavi gave birth to a pretty girl child Manimekalai, whose life was described in another epic Manimekalai. The two epics Silappadhikaram and Manimekalai are known as twin epics of Tamil)
By this time,as it is usual with those who live with concubines, Kovalan had lost all the wealth and Kannagi was in possession of only two very valuable anklets. They did not wish to go back to their parents, instead decided to leave Chola kingdom, reach Madurai, the then capital of Pandya kingdom.
They get a female co-passenger with the name Kavundhi adikal, a Buddhist Saint who guided them to Madurai.
Once they reached Madurai, Kannagi gave one anklet to Kovalan to be sold in market and he went in search of a prospective buyer. Unfortunately only the previous day, the Pandiya queen Kopperum Devi lost her anklet and spies were looking for the thief. The prospective buyer took him to The Royal goldsmith for verification. Unfortunately, the goldsmith was the real culprit, who locked him in a cell and reported the king that he caught hold of the thief.
The king without giving a hearing, ordered that he should be beheaded immediately and his order was carried out meticulously.
What followed was the essence of the epic. On hearing the news, his wife Kannagi stormed into the king’s court with the remaining anklet in her hand. She powerfully questioned the wisdom behind the judgement without enquiry and giving a chance to the accused to defend. Both the king Pandiyan Nedncheziyan and Kopperundvi were speechless. Finally, in a weak defence the king asked, “Where is the proof that your husband was innocent?” Kannagi vehemently quipped “It could have been better had you asked this question before beheading my husband” and also advocated her case by asking “What were the contents of queen’s anklet?” The queen replied that her anklets contained Pearl beads. Kannagi demanded the anklet recovered from Kovalan and she powerfully threw it on the ground. To everybody’s utter disbelief, it contained Ruby beads in it. Not fully satisfied with the proof, Kannagi broke her remaining anklet also.
Lo! That also contained Ruby beads proving beyond doubt that the anklets of Kannagi were totally different from that of the queen. The one with Kovalan was not that of the queen and an innocent person was brutally killed by the wrong judgement.
Unable to bear the impact, the king cried “Am I a king, I am the thief” (Naano Arasan? naane Kalvan). So saying he fell from the throne and died immediately. The queen also immediately followed her husband by dying instantly.
There was a great commotion in the court. The real thief, the Royal goldsmith was immediately arrested.
But Kannagi was not satisfied. Nobody was able to control the fury of that utterly chaste woman. Because of her fierce look, the entire Madurai city was burnt. Everybody were burnt to death except good people, holy people, women and cattle who were allowed to survive.
Finally, the story ends describing the event of Gods descending from Heaven and taking that Goddess of Virtue to her heavenly abode.
There is a temple for Goddess Kannaki built by Cheran king Senguttuvan, elder brother of Ilango Adikal, the author of Silappadhikaram. An annual festival also is held regularly to pray Goddess Kannaki.
This is the story of Silappadhikaram and the merits are as follows:
The story is woven around the three capitals of erstwhile South India. Accordingly, the entire plot is around three acts namely:
1. Puhar kandam, events in Poompuhar capital of Chola kingdom (Central Tamilnadu)
2. Madurai kandam events in Madurai, capital of Pandiya kingdom (South Tamilnadu)
3. Vanchi kandam: events in Vanchi, capital of Chera kingdom (West Tamilnadu and Kerala)
Thus the cultural and Trade practices prevailing in entire South India from North to South and East to West are well described. Trade contacts with foreign countries were also dealt with in detail.
The wars won by Tamil kings were described well.
The poetic standards are of very high literal value.
Three religions were given importance and their customs were well described which are Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
The chastity of women was given due importance by making Kannaki the central character.
The first moral is “The chaste woman would be highly worshipped by higher people”
The Karma of earlier birth will decide punishments of the present birth. Thus emphasising the existence of various births, Karma and also the concept of fate. The second moral is (” Karma of previous birth will definitely give its judgements”)
The third moral is “if a king errs in judgement, the God of Dharma would give him death without fail”.
One can see these morals are woven in all the episodes
Several great scholars have contributed for the Renaissance of the above classical epic. Among them, two scholars deserve special mention.
Mahamahothpayaya (The great Master) U.V.Swaminatha Iyer, a Tamil professor who searched all the palm leaves and who made the Printing of the book possible and Silampu selvar (Doyen of anklet epic) Shri Ma.Po.Sivagnam, who dedicated his life in writing, publishing and giving lectures on this epic. In fact there are dozens of Tamil scholars who have contributed for the great recognition of the epic.
Let us also have the pleasure of going through the epic in Tamil, English or both