Updated: Jun 14, 2021
Silappadhikaram is an epic poem in Tamil literature comprising 5730 lines, written by Ilango Adigal sometime between the 4th and 6th century AD. Ilango Adigal was said to be the brother of King Senguttuvan, the Chera king. Of the five major poetic works in Tamil, only the text of the Silappadhikaram and two other works have managed to survive the onslaught of time.
The word Silappadhikaram is a combination of two words ‘silambu’ (anklet), and adhikaram (the story about), or a story about an anklet. Silappadhikaram captures the journey of a brave woman, Kannagi, who takes on the Pandya King in Madurai to seek justice for her husband Kovalan, who was wrongfully put to death following the King’s orders. The Silappadhikaram has all three famous kingdoms i.e., those of the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Cheras as its backdrops, as Kannagi moves from Puhar to Madurai and then to Chera country.
This epic poem begins in the bustling city of Puhar in the Chola kingdom, where the marriage of two ordinary citizens, Kannagi and Kovalan, is arranged by their parents. As Kannagi and Kovalan settle into their married life, Kannagi learns about her various duties as a wife and a homemaker, and works towards building a harmonious married life. After a few years of marriage, Kovalan gets besotted with Madhavi, a dancer, and starts living with her and also has a child with her.
Kovalan also manages to fritter away all his wealth during this time, and completely neglects Kannagi, who bears this unbearable pain and solitude with grace and dignity. After a few years, Kovalan, disillusioned by Madhavi, comes back to Kannagi and seeks her forgiveness for his betrayal. Being a loving wife, Kannagi accepts Kovalan; and to help overcome their financial constraints gives her silambu or anklet (those given to her by her parents during her wedding), to Kovalan for him to sell and procure money. The couple also decide to start a new life, and hence move to the city of Madurai in the Pandya kingdom. The renunciate Kavundi accompanies them on this long journey.
In Madurai, Kavundi leaves the couple under the care of Madari, an animal herder. Kovalan goes to the smith to sell one of Kannagi’s anklets or silambu. However, the smith believes it to be the queen’s stolen anklet, and promptly reports this matter to the King. King Nedunchezhiyan issues an order for the anklet to be brought to the queen’s chambers and for the thief be put to death immediately, and thus Kovalan is killed. Kannagi is shocked when she hears about the unfair treatment meted out to Kovalan. She seeks the Sun God’s help, who assures her that the city of Madurai, which accused her husband thus, would be destroyed by fire.
Kannagi goes straight to King Nedunchezhiyan and proves to him that her anklets had rubies within them, while the queen’s anklets had pearls in them, and thus redeems Kovalan’s honour by proving his innocence. Kannagi orders the Sun God to burn down the city of Madurai. Only the goddess of the Royal Pandya house, Bharatan, is spared.
The epic then moves to the Chera kingdom, where King Senguttuvan learns about the story of Kannagi, and how she was carried from the Chera kingdom by the gods, and was finally united with her husband Kovalan. Senguttuvan pays a tribute to Kannagi by labeling her as the 'Goddess of Steadfastness' and commemorates her by creating a statue in her likeness.
Kannagi shines as a beacon light, as she gracefully accepts her plight when Kovalan leaves her for another woman, and is ready to forgive him and accepts him when he comes back to her. Kannagi takes on the mighty King himself, when she seeks justice for the wrong that was done to her husband, and clears his name and thus upholds his honour. Thus, Kannagi represents the ideal woman of her times, and is revered to this very day.
While the Silappadhigaram is a gripping tale, it also gives us insights into the diverse settings, religions and rituals that serve as the backdrop for this epic, across the three mighty kingdoms of the Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras. The epic also focuses on the themes of karma, relationships, duty, justice, and right and wrong. Silappadhikaram is a timeless classic, whose messages continue to resonate with readers from around the world even today.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Silappathikaram.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 18 Nov. 2015, www.britannica.com/topic/Silappathikaram.
Arni, Samhita. “Kannagi, Echo of a Real Character?” The Hindu, The Hindu, 22 May 2017, www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/was-the-tale-of-kannagi-based-on-the-plight-of-a-real-woman/article17844343.ece.