Kannaki’s Anklet

Shilappadikaram was written in Tamil sometime in the second Century AD, by a Jain monk, Ilango Adigal. The work was made famous by its literary merit, and more so because it was written in the lingua franca of the times, i.e. Tamil. This could also be one of the reasons why it has not gained prominence outside South India, as prominence and importance was generally given to works that were written in Sanskrit. While many authors have translated the work in English, and quite a few of them are of academic and literary worth and merit, Kannaki’s Anklet is an effort to make the epic readable in an easy prose form.

Shilappadikaram is a masterpiece of the Sangam literature that showcased Tamil life and culture in its full splendour. As mentioned by Professor Basham, Shilappadikaram depicts “….splendour unparallelled elsewhere in Indian Literature.” He continues to say that the work by Adigal depicts the ferocity of the early Tamils and their stern respect for justice. Kannaki, the central character of the epic, stays mum in the face of all personal adversities, but chastises the king for his single act of misdemeanour and injustice. Her anger is not appeased by the king giving up his life, and she goes on to avenge the injustice from the city itself, through what she refers to as an “act of purification”. This goes on to highlight a very strong principle: Transgression by an individual in a personal capacity might be tolerated but that by a public figure, not in the least a king, cannot be tolerated, and such transgressions will have to be paid for with life and more. A very strong statement made in those days, but still hugely relevant.

While many scholars have criticised the characterisation of the central character, Kannaki, who seems to bear the infidelity of a wayward husband, and accepts him on his return, one must bear in mind the author’s viewpoint. This might be scorned at in modern times, but let not this single act of “omission”, if at all, of the central character take away the sheen and brilliance of the work at large. Kannaki’s Anklet is a small attempt to highlight a work, which has gone unnoticed by the mainstream English readers, and to bring it to a wider audience.

In spite of its critical characterisation, the significance of Kannaki cannot be overlooked as her cult has spread far and wide. She is revered as Goddess Kannaki in Tamil Nadu, as Kodungallur Bhagvathy and Attukal Bhagvathi in Kerala, and as Goddess Pattini in the Sri Lankan Buddhists, while the Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus worship her as Kannaki Amman. All over the South and through the route that she took from Puhar in Tamil Nadu (which is supposed to have been submerged during a later Tsunami) to Madurai to Kerala, one can find shrines and temples dedicated to Kannaki. Her fame later spread to Sri Lanka, where too one can find numerous shrines and temples dedicated to her.

It is also interesting to note that Ilango Adigal, who was a Jain monk, has woven a masterpiece of an epic, which does due justice to all the major religions that it portrays—Hinduism, which is practised by the central characters; Jainism, in the form of another character, Kavunti, who is the guiding principle to the central characters; and Buddhism, which was gaining prominence during the times when this epic was written. Besides the three main religions, it also highlights the religious beliefs of the tribes and others, and does justice in bringing to the fore, the salient aspects of certain cults, and the harmonious coexistence of all in those times. All this by a monk is laudable. Besides the religious aspects which have been depicted well, one must also laud the depiction of the lives of commoners and courtesans by a monk who is far removed from such a life. Not once does such depiction impinge on the epic at large. This is the master-craftsmanship of Adigal, a practising Jaina monk!

Adigal also deserves credit for writing an epic which is contrary to all the well known epics of the world. Adigal’s epic is revolutionary in that the central character is neither semi-divine nor male, two very important aspects of any epic. Adigal makes a strong departure from these two givens. Rather, this could be the only epic, which has a female hero at the centre of activities, unlike all others, anywhere in the world! That despite the absence of any heroic and magical acts, or a war, Adigal manages to create endearing human characters, speaks volumes of his creative abilities.

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