Shilappadikaram or the Ankle Bracelet is one of the five major epics of Tamil literature. It was composed as a verse romance in Tamil by Ilango Adigal, a Jain prince who lived in the second century ad and was one of the most renowned classical poets of ancient India.
Shilappadikaram is a tale of wonders and misfortunes, of hapless mortals and capricious deities, of magic and heroism in a bright but also cruel world in which the law of karma rules and where ‘actions committed in past lives must always bear fruit’.
Thus the peerless young Kovalan will leave his loyal wife Kannaki for the courtesan Madhavi and though he returns to her, still meets his death because of her ill-omened ankle bracelet.
It has been called an epic and even a novel, but it is also a book of general education.
Ilango packed his story with information: history merging into myth, religious rites, caste customs, military lore, descriptions of city or country life. And four cantos are little anthologies of the poetry of the period (seashore and mountain songs, hunters’ and milkmaids’ songs), thereby giving us a vivid picture of early Indian life in all its aspects.
Silappatikaram is the earliest Jain Tamil epic. It is a poem of 5,730 lines in almost entirely Akaval (Aciriyam) meter. The epic is a tragic love story of an ordinary couple, Kannaki and her husband Kovalan.
Silappathikaram has more ancient roots in the Tamil bardic tradition, as Kannaki and other characters of the story are mentioned or alluded to in the Sangam literature such as in the Naṟṟiṇai and later texts such as the Kovalam Katai.
It is attributed to a prince-turned-monk Iḷaṅkõ Aṭikaḷ, and was probably composed in the 5th or 6th century CE.
Silappatikaram is set in a flourishing seaport city of the early Chola kingdom. Kannaki and Kovalan are a newly married couple, in love, and living in bliss. Over time, Kovalan meets Madhavi – a courtesan. He falls for her, leaves Kannaki and moves in with Matavi. He spends lavishly on her. Kannaki is heartbroken, but as a chaste woman, she waits despite her husband’s unfaithfulness.
During the festival for Indra, the rain god, there is a singing competition. Kovalan sings a poem about a woman who hurt her lover. Matavi then sings a song about a man who betrayed his lover. Each interprets the song as a message to the other. Kovalan feels Matavi is unfaithful to him, and leaves her. Kannaki is still waiting for him. She takes him back.
Kannaki is the central character of the Tamil Cilappatikāram epic. Statues, reliefs and temple iconography of Kannaki are found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Kannagi and Kovalan leave the city and travel to Madurai of the Pandya kingdom to make a living Kovalan is penniless and destitute. He confesses his mistakes to Kannagi. She forgives him and tells him the pain his unfaithfulness caused to her. Then she encourages her husband to rebuild their life together and gives him one of her jeweled anklets to sell to raise starting capital to start a business.
Kovalan sells it to a merchant. But the merchant falsely frames him as having stolen the anklet from the queen. The king arrests Kovalan and then executes him without the due checks and the processes of justice.
When Kovalan does not return home, Kannagi goes searching for him. She learns what has happened. She protests the injustice and then proves Kovalan’s innocence by throwing in the court the other jeweled anklet of the pair. The king accepts his mistake.
Kannagi curses the king and curses the people of Madurai, tearing off her anklet and throwing it at the gathered public. The king dies. The society that had made her suffer, suffers in retribution as the city of Madurai is burnt to the ground because of her curse.
In the third section of the epic, gods and goddesses meet Kannagi and she goes to heaven with god Indra. The royal family of the Chera kingdom learns about her, resolves to build a temple with Kannagi as the featured goddess. They go to the Himalayas, bring a stone, carve her image, call her goddess Pattini, dedicate a temple to worship her, order daily prayers, and perform a royal sacrifice.
Silappathikaram is an ancient literary Jain masterpiece. It is to the Tamil culture what the Iliad is to the Greek culture. It blends the themes, mythologies and theological values found in the Jain, Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions. It is a Tamil story of love and rejection, happiness and pain, good and evil like all classic epics of the world.
Yet unlike other epics that deal with kings and armies caught up with universal questions and existential wars, the Silappathikaram is an epic about an ordinary couple caught up with universal questions and internal, emotional war.
Silappathikaram legend has been a part of the Tamil oral tradition. The palm-leaf manuscripts of the original epic poem, along with those of the Sangam literature, were rediscovered in monasteries in the second half of the 19th century by UV Swaminatha Aiyar – a pandit and Tamil scholar.
After being preserved and copied in temples and monasteries in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts, Aiyar published its first partial edition on paper in 1872, the full edition in 1892. Since then the epic poem has been translated into many languages including English.
The Tamil tradition attributes Silappatikaram to Ilango Adigal (“the venerable ascetic prince”). He is reputed to be a Jain Monk and the brother of Chera king Chenkuttuvan, whose family and rule are described in Patiṟṟuppattu, a poem of the Sangam literature.