When it comes to Indian epics, we seldom go beyond Ramayan and Mahabharat. I am not sure if this has to do with the general appeal or the domination of Sanskrit epics over regional ones, but another epic that has gone relatively unnoticed beyond its place of origin is the Tamil epic Cilappatikaram, or ‘the Tale of an Anklet’.
The epic was written around the 5th-6th century AD by Ilango Adigal, or the ‘Prince Ascetic’. It is said that an oracle had predicted that he would be a better king as against his elder brother. To prove the prophesy wrong, he embraced monk-hood and allowed his elder brother to ascend the throne. The epic encompasses three well known regimes of the South, the Cholas, Pandiyas, and the Chera kingdoms. The other significant aspect of this epic (and also the major differentiator from the other epics) is that the epic deals with ordinary mortals and their lives.
This is not only an extremely interesting epic, but is also different from all the epics known, be it the well-known Ramayan and Mahabharat or the Greek Iliad and the Odyssey. First, it was written by a Jain monk, Ilango Adigal, who heard the story from a source (in all probability a well-known folktale) before writing an epic on it. While Ilango was a Jain, he focused on the local times and ensured that all the focus was on prevalent religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Though he was a monk, every aspect of life with all its flavours, be they marital life, arts and music or the sensual facets of life, he covered them all with rich details. A rarity for a monk, to describe them with such awareness and perfection.
But before we get into analysis, let me tell you briefly the story of ‘Cilappatikaram’, which is loosely based on the excellent translation by R. Parthasarathy in his book “The Cilappatikaram – The Tale of the Anklet, by Ilango Adigal”. Needless to add, that a lot of details have been edited for the sake of this article, but the original, which is in three parts, is worth reading for those interested in epics with a difference!
Part 1 - In the city of Puhar, of Chola kingdom, there lived a merchant and his family. The son of the merchant, Kovalan, gets married to a beautiful girl by the name of Kannagi and they lived happily. Kovalan, soon comes across a dancer, Matavi (or Madhavi) and falls in love with her. The two started spending a lot of time together in music and dance and soon they even had a daughter. During all this time, Kannagi took good care of her aged in-laws, who in turn had started despising their son. Kannagi however never complained, even though she knew that Kovalan was wasting away the family fortune on Matavi.
Once during the famous festival of Indra, when Matavi was performing, Kovalan got suspicious about Matavi. He thought that Matavi was having an affair with someone else and the song professing her love, was directed at that person and not him. Kovalan was hurt and realised his mistake and went back home to his wife. While Kannagi was happy at her husband’s return, they soon realise that they had no wealth on them and there was a need to start life afresh. When Matavi realised, that Kovalan had left her, she sent a message to Kovalan pleading him to return, but Kovalan was not willing to heed to her pleas and concluded that he had nothing to do with her as he had seen through her deception.
Kannagi had a pair of anklets given to her by her mother on her wedding, and they decided to sell it and start a new life in the city of Madurai, under the reign of the Pandian King. Kovalan and Kannagi travel to Madurai and on the way, they receive help and encouragement from many locals and Jain nuns. When they reach the outskirts of Madurai, Kovalan leaves his wife under the care of some locals and goes to the city with one of Kannagi’s anklets to sell. Kovalan was impressed with the tall buildings and the affluence of the city and thought that they would be able to rebuild their life once again.
Tomorrow, we will go thru the remaining parts of the epic. Keep reading....