The Epic of Silappatikaram

Silappatikaram,the forgotten ignored epic of Ancient India that was ignored to be gradually forgotten by so called mainstream secular scholars!

Silappatikaram / Silappadhigaram, republished as “The Tale of an Anklet” is one of the Five Great Epics of Tamil literature and written / composed during Sangam Period ( 3rd Century BC – 4th Century AD ).

A Jain poet-prince from Kochi (in modern Kerala) referred to by the pseudonym Ilango Adigal is credited with this work. He is reputed to have been the brother of Vel Kelu Kuttuvan, the Chera dynasty king.


As a literary work, Silappatikaram is held in high regard by the Tamil people. The nature of the book is non-religious, narrative and has a moralistic undertone. It contains three chapters and a total of 5270 lines of poetry. The epic revolves around Kannagi, who having lost her husband to a miscarriage of justice at the court of the Pandyan Dynasty, wreaks her revenge on his kingdom.

Regarded as one of the great achievements of Tamil genius, the Silappatikaram is a poetic rendition with details of Tamil culture; its varied religions; its town plans and city types; the mingling of different people; and the arts of dance and music.

Silappatikaram has been dated to likely belong to the beginning of Common era,although the author might have built upon a pre-existing folklore to spin this tale. The story involves the three Tamil kingdoms of the ancient era, which were ruled by the Chola, Pandyan and Chera dynasties.

Silappatikaram has many references to historical events and personalities, although it has not been accepted as a reliable source of history by many historians because of the inclusion of many exaggerated events and achievements to the ancient Tamil kings.

At the end of the Sangam epoch (second – third centuries CE), the Tamil country was in political confusion. The older order of the three Tamil dynasties was replaced by the invasion of the Kalabhras.

These new kings and others encouraged the religions of Buddhism and Jainism. Ilango Adigal, the author of Silappatikaram, probably lived in this period and was one of the vast numbers of Jain and Buddhist authors in Tamil poetry.

These authors, perhaps influenced by their monastic faiths, wrote books based on moralistic values to illustrate the futility of secular pleasures. Silappatikaram used akaval meter (monologue), a style adopted from Sangam literature.

Silappatikaram does not use the convention of regarding the land divisions becoming part of description of life among various communities of hero and heroine.

The epic mentions the evenings and spring season in particular as time and season that aggravates the feelings in those who are separated.

These patterns are found only in the later works of Sanskrit by Kalidasa (4th century CE).

These authors went beyond the nature of Sangam poems, which contain descriptions of human emotions and feelings in an abstract fashion, and employed fictional characters in a well-conceived narrative incorporating personal and social ramifications thus inventing Tamil Epics.

Meenakshi Temple3

Silappatikaram, The story

Kovalan, the son of a wealthy merchant in Kavirippattinam, married Kannagi, the lovely daughter of another merchant. They lived together happily, until, at a festival at the royal court, Kovalan met the dancer Madhavi and fell in love with her.

In his infatuation he forgot Kannagi and gradually spent all his wealth on the dancer. At last he was penniless, and returned repentantly to his uncomplaining wife. Their only fortune was a precious pair of anklets (cilambu— hence the name of the epic), filled with pearls, which she gave to him willingly.

With these as their capital they went to the great city of Madurai, where Kovalan hoped to recoup his fortunes by trade.

On their arrival at Madurai they found shelter in a cottage, and Kovalan went to the market to sell one of Kannagi’s anklets. But the queen of Nedunjeliyan (king of Pandyas), had just been robbed of a similar anklet by a wicked court jeweler.

The jeweler happened to see Kovalan with Kannagi’s anklet, and immediately seized it and informed the King. Guards were sent to apprehend Kovalan, who was then killed on the King’s orders.

When the news was brought to Kannagi, she went to the king, her eyes ablaze with anger. She asked him what the queen’s anklets contained – gemstones, and broke hers to reveal the pearls there, proving her husband’s innocence.

But her anger not abated, she tore out her left breast in her strong emotion. At this cue, a fire erupted and spread through Madurai and proceeded to destroy the city. Meanwhile, weakened, Kannagi made her way to a hillock outside the city, where she soon died.

Amar Chitra Katha

Silappatikaram teaches three eternal truths:

* A king failing in his duty will be punished by Dharma or justice.
* A chaste woman will be worshipped by all.
* Fate is powerful. One’s past actions will have their repercussions in the next birth.

Prince Ilango Adigal brings a heady sensuality and all-embracing humanity to his tale of a woman’s vengeance. His is an exotic South India of sandalwood breezes and dancers with ropes of pearls around their waists. In this colorful world live Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus. The streets of Puhar teem with priests and smiths and parrot-sellers.

The heroine Kannagi is the last word in dutiful wives. Not only does she forgive her husband Kovalan for spending all their money on a courtesan, she gives Kovalan her anklet to sell when he returns to her.

He tries to sell it to the king’s goldsmith, who coincidentally had stolen the queen’s anklet and decided to frame Kovalan for the theft. Without a trial, without inquiry, the king orders the execution of Kovalan.

Possessed by a semi-divine fury, Kannagi avenges her husband by torching the king’s city of Madurai. The fire only burns the evil and the corrupt.

Along with scenes of erotic dalliance and fiery vengeance, the Silappatikaram celebrates the land where, in the poet’s words, farmers are the children of the river Kauveri.

Meenakshi Temple

Further Reading:

History of Madurai

Sangam Literature

Excavations prove spread of Buddhism in TN: ASI

Buddhism In Tamil Nadu

Jainism in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Jain?



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