Most of us who have learnt Tamil/speak Tamil have heard of SilappadhigAram. If that does not ring a bell, then surely seeing Kannagi’s statue on the Marina Beach would. The story of Kannagi continues our grand narrative of dharma as it is interpreted across centuries of different lands of BhArat varSha. Its outward manifestations might change – The PanTHa(s) (path, sect) might be different, the language employed may be varied – but the inner core symbolizing eternal dharma remains constant.
SilappadhigAram – the poetic rendition of Kannagi’s story – was written by Ilango Adigal approximately in 1st century CE. It was a principal contribution to Tamil literature in the Sangam period. This epic is one among the five classical Tamil literary works.
Kannagi and Kovalan were married and lived in a town called PoombugAr in Tamil Nadu. Kannagi was a devout wife. Kovalan met a court dancer woman called MAdhavi and was very taken into her. Infatuated by her beauty, he squandered away all his money on her, completely neglecting his wife, Kannagi. It was not until after Kovalan lost all his wealth, that he realized the magnitude of his sins. He beseeched Kannagi to forgive him and accept him back. She agreed on the condition that they leave the town of PoombukAr – which made Kovalan sin – and move to the city of Madurai – that was the epitome of Dharma under the rule of the famous pandya king Nedunchezhiyen.
They left for Madurai with the only valuable possession they now owned – a pair of cilambu (anklets) – hence the name of the epic. They wanted to sell one of the anklets for some money to start a fresh life. At the same time, Nedunchezhiyan’s queen had lost one of her anklets – that looked very similar to Kannagi’s anklets except that they were filled with pearls while Kannagi’s were filled with rubies. Kovalan was suspected of stealing the queen’s anklets, when he went to the pawn broker to sell kannagi’s anklet. He was taken to the court and sentenced to immediate death, by the furious king.
When the news of Kovalan’s death reached Kannagi, she was shattered, and so were all her dreams of the new life she was going to lead. Angry, she walked to Nedunchezhiyen’s court, with the other ruby filled anklet and proved her husband’s innocence. She grieved about how the King had failed in his duty to preserve Dharma by killing an innocent man, without conducting proper enquiries. The King was shocked when he realized his mistake and he gave up his life on the throne itself. But Kannagi’s anger did not subside, because, in her eye, the entire city of Madurai had sinned. In all her fury, she invoked Mother Nature to burn this sinful city to ashes and cleanse it. And that happened.
It was believed that Kannagi went to Kodungalloor, in Kerala and stopped at Attukal, in Thiruvananthapuram. The Bhagavathi temple in Attukal was built in honor of this chaste woman. In this temple, only women are allowed inside!!!! Every year millions of women gather here during the Attukal Pongal festival to offer Pongal – sweet rice and dal – to Bhagavathi. This temple is sometimes also referred to as the women’s Sabarimala. This is an entry in the Guiness Book of Records, for the largest exclusive gathering of women every year. Neither should we interpreted this as a female chauvinistic movement, nor should Sabarimalai be considered its male counterpart. This leads us to understand that while Dharma might asign different functions to men and women to perform in the society, it always accords equal importance to both genders.
Moreover, it is interesting to note that as early as 1st century CE, Indian writers and poets were producing works in which the protagonist was a woman – more importantly, a common woman. This helps us understand how free-thinking and liberal, Indians of that era truly were. In other contemporaneous empires of the world, the only subjects of literary interest to people was that of stories about kings, queens and wars. There was no scope provided to foster revolutionary thinking, as much as the great sages of BhArata varSha did.
When we were so advanced then, what we should really be thinking about is, why we are lagging behind today?