"In the street of the singing girls
where so often the tabor had sounded
with the sweet gentle flute and the tremulous harp.
the dancers, whose halls were destroyed, cried out:
Whence comes this woman! Whose daughter is she?
A single woman, who has lost her husband,
has conquered the evil King with her anklet,
and has destroyed our city with fire!'"
I could hear the loudspeakers when I called home yesternight. For a minute, I thought it was May Day already, then I realised that these were devotional songs I was hearing. Okay, well, devotion to a God who ain't Marx. Attukal Pongala, my mother tells me. Of course. Its March. End term exams and Pongala. Perfect excuse for not studying - its too loud. How could I possibly study? Yeah, I want to come with you for Pongala. No, I don't mind the smoke. Yes, but I can't study anyways na? I know but this is not about God, this is about making you happy. Yes, he might be there but they won't let him in as this is an all-woman thing. So no, this is not about meeting him. I can come too? Cool.
Na, what happens at the Pongala is another post. This one is about Kannagi, to whom the Pongala is offered. This is about the shining beacon of Tamizh karpu(karpu = chastity), the Goddess of marital fidelity, the symbol of feminine courage and a hundred other epithets that only we Tams are capable of making up.
I was introduced to Kannagi pretty much the same way I was introduced to Vandiyathevan – between mouthfuls of sambar and rice. While Ponniyin Selvan was my mother’s favorite, Silappadhikaram was my father’s. Not for him Kalki’s serialized period romance that the masses couldn’t get enough of; my father preferred something more classical and more poetic and though he hates to admit this, something a millennium and half older. And so there was Kannagi and Kovalan in old Poompuhar, (or Kaveripoompattinam) that ancient city that lies under water today, two miles off the coast of current-day Poompuhar.
Poompuhar, the port capital of the first Chola empire [not to be confused with the second Chola empire of a thousand years later, my father never forgot to mention] was a flourishing seaport where on any given day, traders from as far as China and Rome could be seen haggling with the flower sellers. If you were an ambitious young citizen of Chola land in those times, then Poompuhar was the place to be. Kovalan, the son of a rich merchant of Poompuhar is young, handsome and impressionable. He is married off in great aplomb to the beautiful and dutiful Kannagi. After a brief period of marital bliss, Kovalan promptly falls in love with Madhavi, Poompuhar’s prettiest courtesan. Kannagi pines away for wayward husband while Kovalan and Madhavi become the talk of the town. Soon, after squandering all his inheritance, Kovalan realizes the folly of his ways and returns to Kannagi. Kovalan and Kannagi decide to leave Chola land forever and move to Pandya country. After a long, eventful journey, they reach Madurai, the capital of the Pandya empire. There, Kannagi sends Kovalan to the goldsmith to sell one of her anklets. The evil goldsmith who had just stolen the Queen’s anklet accuses our unsuspecting hero of the crime. The Pandya King, without a proper investigation into the matter, judges him guilty. Kovalan is beheaded. Meanwhile, our distraught heroine rushes to the King’s palace and in a dramatic scene that’s been the inspiration for many a Tamil movie, breaks the anklet and proves Kovalan’s innocence. She then proceeds to give a long speech about truth, justice and the Tamilian way. The Pandya King dies when he realizes that a travesty of justice has occurred in his court but Kannagi is not to be calmed. She tears her left breast from her body, throws it on the ground and curses that the city of Madurai be destroyed. The fire God obliges and Meenakshi’s Madurai burns. Then of course, the Goddess of the city placates Kannagi and the curse is withdrawn. Soon after, Kannagi attains salvation.
This is the gist of Illango Adikal's fifth century magnum opus Silappadhikaram(the tale of the anklet). The work is considered to be one of the most important works in Tamil literature. Its written in poetic, classical Tamil which means that there is no hope of me ever reading it in its original form. So I have been reading a translation that I picked up while I was in India. While I do not think the translation does full justice to the original(very subjective, based on listening to my father reading the original and translating it to contemporary Tamil that I can understand), it has been a pleasure to read nevertheless. In an era where most works were about royal families and their power struggles, this is a story about common people from the commercial class. Other than the petty thief, there are no villains in this epic - only ordinary people with ordinary virtues and vices. Kovalan, the confused hero of the story is forever caught between the two women he loves. Madhavi is an extremely talented dancer who is also virtuous in her own right. Kovalan and Madhavi break up because of a misunderstanding and not because Madhavi is "evil" as I originally imagined her to be. The Pandya king is potrayed as being just and when he discovers that he condemned an innocent man to death, he dies. Kannagi is the dutiful wife who unleashes her pent-up fury when scorned. Silappadhikaram not only tells this story well but it also takes us beyond the world of Kannagi and Kovalan - the Jain monk who accompanies them on their way to Madurai explaining to them his worldview is to me one of the most interesting characters in the epic. [Illango Adikal himself was said to be a Jain.] The epic is also a wealth of interesting information about Tamil society and customs in ancient Tamland; no history book that I have read comes close.
In recent times, Kannagi seems to have captured the Tamil imagination like no other woman in Indian mythology. Not for us the helpless Sita who has to wait for her husband to rescue her or the manipulative Draupadi who seeks divine intervention in her hour of need. We have Kannagi who is very much capable of taking care of herself. Kannagi, over the past 50 years, has been hijacked by every side - she is the first Tamil feminist, she is the feminazi who burns Madurai, she is the model wife who waits patiently for her wayward husband to come back to her, she is the woman scorned who is capable of anything. Kannagi temples adorn the land extending even to Kerala where every year, the Pongala event at the Attukal Devi draws hundreds of thousands of devotees. Songs have been sung about her though you are better off not listening to them. [Karthik - Time to do one of your Tam lyrics posts? Here's an idea: songs that mention Kannagi. You can always start with "Kannagi silaidhan ingunddu, seedhaikku thaniyai silai edhu?"] Movies have been made about her - the black and white Poompuhar made way before I was born being my favorite. [Diversion - M. Karunanidhi, for all his faults, has written some excellent screenplays in his time. His screenplay for Poompuhar is one of the best that I have come across in Tamil. Remind me sometime to write about Parasakthi - another of MK's screenplays, this movie shot a young Sivaji Ganesan to instant fame.] Kannagi statues in Madras cause huge, political scrambles. Amma decides to take it down, yeah, she hates Kannagi stealing her limelight; MK erects the statue somewhere else. Every speech, every debate(remember the Khushboo controversy) on culture and politics is never complete without mentioning Kannagi. Its almost as if we don't have any other woman, real or otherwise, to talk about or to draw inspiration from. I like Kannagi as much as the next person, but really, it is very telling that this 13-year old kid who waited for ever for her husband to leave the other woman and then burned down an entire city because he got killed should be our shining beacon of womanhood. Especially since the wonderful epic which gave us Kannagi also gave us another woman that we can celebrate. Talented, intelligent, practical Madhavi. But no, she didn't burn down anything. Scorn is all we have for her.